What can the January 6 hearings accomplish?

The potential to change minds is minimal. But the process is still vital.

What can the January 6 hearings accomplish?

Edited by Sam Thielman

The January 6th Committee has been hosting public hearings since June 9, teasing out new revelations about the day an angry mob attacked the Capitol in the hope of reversing the basic bureaucratic processes of democracy. The committee is also writing prior knowledge into the public record, codifying things “everyone” knows into sworn testimony. Last week there was a moment I found particularly funny, when they showed a video where Trump administration Attorney General Bill Barr made fun of the Right’s resident faux-historian Dinesh D’Souza, but as I watch these hearings, I still find myself wondering what might be accomplished by them.

The process itself is straightforwardly designed for broadcast. The Committee even hired James Goldston, a former president of ABC News (also a veteran producer with years logged on Dateline, 20/20, and ABC’s flagship morning program, Good Morning America), to help translate its presented findings into a production that could hold a nation’s attention during prime time.

It’s good to hold these hearings as publicly as possible, and high-end production is part of that. Moreover, my personal interactions with the Committee convinced me that the investigators they employ have left few stones unturned. It’s especially satisfying as a journalist to see investigators working for the public and using the House’s power to subpoena and compel information. Their findings will live on forever in the Congressional record. Whatever sick trajectory our nation is following, we will have a larger measure of the truth available to us, if we want it.

A plurality of people believe that Trump and his cronies are responsible for the Capitol riot already, and I doubt the Committee will convince many Trump supporters who spent the last year and a half marinating in outlandish claims about January 6 – ranging from “the media is overblowing it” to “the FBI and Antifa did it” – that they are wrong. Conservative internet outlets and TV networks like Fox News have mostly decided to ignore the hearings, meaning there’s less chance that any material presented there will make its way to conservatives.

But the hearings have a second audience—just one guy, actually: Merrick Garland. Many hope the Committee’s case will result in a recommendation to the Department of Justice that it press criminal charges against Trump and those in his orbit. This would be a historic move: There is a legal authority to charge a president with a crime, but no precedent. Garland would be adding a new stitch to the nation’s fabric, and I imagine that only the most compelling evidence would make him feel confident doing so. Even then, it might not be enough; there’s no indication yet that the DOJ is seriously considering charging Trump, though NBC has reported that the huge implications of doing so have come up for debate within the agency.

Will the liberal fantasy of a handcuffed Trump perp-walked across the National Mall before being whisked away for an eternity at Guantanamo Bay finally come true? Probably not. These hearings are not going to be the skeleton key that unlocks whatever the liberal version of the QAnon prophecies is. It’s more likely that current trends will continue, as they tend to do in this country. The criminal records of the people who set January 6’s chaos into motion will remain unblemished. Several of the willing pawns will be crushed, instead of the players themselves.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that you’ll all dunk on me for the years to come.

The Committee’s case to the public is incredibly important, even if Trump doesn’t get locked up because of it. I hope that we can encourage each other to talk about the findings presented by the Committee and resist succumbing to the bystander effect.

What happened on January 6 was incredibly serious. It’s become a semi-common refrain within the Greater Online Leftist Cinematic Podcasting Universe to mock the Capitol riot, downplaying what happened or sometimes shrugging it off completely. Most of the folks doing this are deeply cynical and it causes them to miss the point entirely.

The Capitol riot has empowered a refreshed wave of anti-democratic politics in the United States, and its proponents are crawling deeper into the woodwork of our nation. Their efforts have engulfed modern conservatism almost entirely; the movement’s largest conference didn’t even pretend to squirm as it slobbered all over the feet of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán this year. Those who saw Biden’s inauguration as a failure of the system to appoint Trump as God Emperor, rather than a somber display of American democracy dodging a bullet, are now weaseling deeper into the system, whether it’s on school boards or in the Florida Governor’s office. When the next wave comes, even more will be greasy and broken.

The way Democracy breaks under that model is not with another storming of Congress, but with a hundred little simultaneous failures across the network of our nation next time we vote. Understanding and confronting this threat is a challenge that requires a disorienting attention to both macro and micro—both a bird’s-eye view and a microscope.

The road ahead is made of dust and gravel, and we find ourselves behind the wheel of a beat-to-shit Pontiac with bald tires. Perhaps these hearings can be a sort of GPS. On its own, a roadmap is useless. But if we develop an understanding of what happened in a clear and compelling way, maybe we can at least find the confidence to step on the gas pedal.

If we allow ourselves to feel distressed enough by the facts the Committee is presenting to participate in preventing the next attack on democracy, maybe they’ll have had real value, and maybe that will help us build a system that can put a criminal president in prison, even if we don’t have one now.

Wake up and see that morning changes all

And everything else will go

As light slips in over your face