As television, it was gripping. As theatre, it was absorbing. As art form, it was innovative. As politics, it was searing.
Thursday night’s extraordinary broadcast hearing on the Jan. 6, 2021 rampage at the Capitol combined polished performance art and high-toned production values. It had violence and heroics. There was pathos and there was bathos. There were cops and conspiracies, rioters and renegades, profanities and profane actions. No chase scene, though.
The evening itself was the chase scene – and the quarry was Donald Trump.
The 45th president was portrayed as mastermind of an effort to overturn the 2020 election and debase democratic procedures and values – clearly the view of the committee, which consists of seven Democrats and two Republicans. He also emerged as a self-absorbed, self-deluded and entirely self-serving autocrat desperate to cling to power that led him to employ a seven-part plan to badger his way to a second term he didn’t earn.
Most Republicans disagree, though not respectfully, which is why they stayed away from the entire effort.
Mr. Trump himself has viewed the committee with contempt, arguing that the storming of the Capitol “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the GOP leader in the House of Representative whose office was violently invaded that day, according to film shown Thursday, dismissed the inquiry as “a scam.”
Some of the details that the lawmakers set out were new. They showed, for example, the extent of the role of far-right groups, especially the Proud Boys, who 13 months ago were characterized as a “terrorist entity” by Ottawa. They revealed Oval Office confrontations with Mr. Trump in which the president was told there was no basis for his claims that he won the election. They described plans to have military personnel seize ballot boxes or to declare martial law. They relayed Mr. Trump’s view that hanging vice-president Mike Pence might be appropriate because he would not overturn the election.
But the general plot was well known.
Indeed, the committee portrayed the effort – “an attempted coup,” in the words of the chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi – as just that: a plot.
They spared no histrionics in describing it, or in characterizing the insurgents as, in the words of Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who has earned Mr. Trump’s enmity, “a violent mob Donald Trump refused to call off.” Then again, an assault on the Capitol is not a means of employing the First Amendment right of the public to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” but instead comprises an insurrection.
The committee, aided by a television executive who once catapulted Good Morning America to the top spot in its time slot, clearly sought to set out a narrative rather than the lengthy interrogatives that are customary in Capitol Hill hearings. They may have interviewed 1,000 witnesses and examined more than 140,000 logs, records and reports, but little of that was apparent, except by reference. Thursday night was about drama, not documents.
“It’s got the makings of a riveting forensic procedural,” said Martin Kaplan, who as director of the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center specializes in the convergence of entertainment, commerce and society. “There was a crime against America, a relentless investigation, and a twist that tosses the ending back into our own hands.”
That twist – that ending in America’s own hands – is the 2022 midterm congressional elections and, more ominous from the point of view of the committee, the 2024 presidential election, when Mr. Trump might attempt a comeback. In that regard, its power as a television program is far less important than its possible effectiveness as an element of political motivation.
And though President Joe Biden, in an appearance with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier Thursday at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, said that “a lot of Americans are going to see for the first time some of the details,” it is not clear that the hearing will do much beyond being a tool of mobilization.
“The hearings are playing to the Democratic base,” said Morris Fiorina, the Stanford University political scientist whose Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate examines contemporary American civic life. “There is no indication that January 6th moves the political needle. The people who will be watching this are going to vote Democratic anyway.”
Possibly. Even probably. But the video appearances, including that of Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka – who said that “I accepted” attorney-general William Barr’s conclusion that it was “complete nonsense” to consider voting machines compromised – were captivating. So, too, was Ms. Cheney’s warning to her GOP colleagues, “There will be a time when Donald Trump is gone. But your dishonour will remain.”
But did this television hearing, as Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland promised six weeks ago, “blow the roof off the House” – or even pierce the consciousness of Americans in their own houses?
“Peppering the broadcast with evidentiary material and having the president’s aides make the case was wise,” said Claire Leavitt, a political scientist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has studied congressional investigations and oversight. “Who knows – maybe this could have an effect after a few news cycles.”
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