Trump’s efforts to subvert the elections laid bare the system’s weaknesses, exposing it to greater exploitation
They promised the January 6 hearings would “blow the roof off the house”, presenting America with the truth about Donald Trump’s attack on democracy culminating in the US Capitol insurrection. In the end, the roof of the House, where the summer season of hearings reached their finale on Thursday night, remained intact, though mightily shaken.
It will take time for historians to assess whether the eight public sessions were comparable to the 1973 Watergate hearings, as Jamie Raskin, a Democratic member of the January 6 committee, predicted. Yet it’s already clear that after 19 hours and 11 minutes of testimony, filmed depositions, documentary evidence and raw footage of the Capitol attack the hearings have generated a mountain of words and images that will linger long in the collective memory.
We know now that on the day that the United States suffered the worst assault on the Capitol since the British ravaged it in 1814, Trump tried to grab the steering wheel from a secret service agent to turn his presidential SUV in the direction of the violent mob so he could join them. We know that when he exhorted his followers to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell” he was aware that many of them were armed with guns and wearing body armor.
We know from Thursday night that when his close aides pleaded with him to call off the attack, he refused, spending 187 minutes watching events unfold on TV in the White House dining room while swatting away increasingly desperate pleas for him to act until it was clear that his hopes of violently overthrowing the election had faded.
To those who track anti-democratic movements there is a chilling familiarity to this rich evocation of a president descending into an abyss of fantasy, fury and possible illegality. “The picture that the hearings depict is of a coup leader,” said the Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky. “This is a guy who was unwilling to accept defeat and was prepared to use virtually any means to try to stay illegally in power.”
Levitsky is co-author of the influential book How Democracies Die which traces the collapse of once-proud democratic nations – in some cases through wrenching upheavals, but more often in modern times through a tip-toeing into authoritarianism. Levitsky is also an authority on Latin America, a region from which he draws a compelling parallel.
Levitsky told the Guardian that the Trump who emerges from the hearings was a coup leader, “but not a very sophisticated one. Not a very experienced one. A petty autocrat. A type of leader more familiar to someone like me, a student of Latin American politics.”
If Trump’s Latin American-style authoritarianism rang out from the hearings for scholars like Levitsky, a more vexed question is whether it similarly pierced the consciences of the wider American people. It is in their hands that the fate of the January 6 committee’s prime objective now rests: ensuring that a head-on assault on US democracy never happens again.
The committee, led by its Democratic chair Bennie Thompson and rebel Republican vice-chair Liz Cheney, went to great lengths to make the hearings as digestible as possible for the TV, streaming and social media era. They employed the British journalist and former president of ABC News, James Goldston, to produce the events as tightly as a Netflix cliffhanger, which seems broadly, like a success.
The opening primetime hearing on 9 June attracted at least 20m viewers, equivalent to the TV audience for a large sporting event. The following daytime sessions dipped to around 10m people, though ratings shot back up to almost 14m on 28 June when the former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson gave explosive testimony.
It is one thing to preach to the millions of Americans who are already horrified by Trump’s efforts to subvert democracy, but what about those who went along with it and internalized his lies about the stolen election?
Here the evidence is less comforting. When you enter the right-wing media bubble, the vision of a South American coup leader suddenly vanishes.
Over on Fox News, the opening hearing was passed over in favor of the channel’s controversial star Tucker Carlson who used his show to ridicule the proceedings as “deranged propaganda” and to shrink the insurrection into “a forgettably minor outbreak”. On Thursday night, Carlson again supplanted live coverage of the closing hearing, going on a rant instead about Biden and Covid.
The further into the right-wing media jungle you venture, the more the narrative becomes distorted. NewsGuard, a non-partisan firm that monitors misinformation, reviewed output during the period of the hearings from Newsmax, the hard-right TV channel that is still carried by most major cable and satellite providers.
The monitors found Newsmax aired at least 40 false and misleading claims about the 2020 election and 6 January. Several of the falsehoods were pumped out even as the live hearings were proceeding.
“If you were watching only Newsmax to get information about the January 6 hearings, you would likely be living in an entirely alternate universe,” said Jack Brewster, NewsGuard’s senior analyst.
The media bubble is not the only barrier standing between the January 6 committee and a major repair of the country’s damaged democratic infrastructure. While the hearings focused heavily on the figure of Trump, Levitsky argues that an arguably even greater threat is now posed by the Republican party which enabled him.
“In a two-party system, if one political party is not committed to democratic rules of the game, democracy is not likely to survive for very long,” Levitsky said. “The party has revealed itself, from top to bottom, to be a majority anti-democratic party.”
Levitsky cites an analysis by the Republican Accountability Project, a group of anti-Trump conservatives, of the public statements made by all 261 Republicans in the US House and Senate in the wake of the 2020 election. It found that 224 of them – a staggering 86% of all Republicans in Congress – cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s win in what amounted to a mass “attack on a cornerstone of our democracy”.
Levitsky warns that the hearings have illuminated two great dangers for America, both relating to Republicans. The first is that the party’s strategists have acquired through Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, a roadmap to the vulnerabilities of the electoral system.
“They discovered that there is a plethora of opportunities for subverting an election, from blocking certification to sending alternate slates of electors to Congress. Armed with that knowledge, they may well do it much better next time.”
The second lesson for Levitsky relates to accountability, or the lack of it. The Republicans who played with fire, openly backing the anti-democratic movement, found that they were largely immune to the consequences.
“They learned that if you try to overturn the election you will not be punished by Republican voters, activists or donors. For the most part, you’ll be rewarded for it. And to me, that is terrifying.”
Even now, at national level, the Republican leadership continues to stoke the flames. The minority leader of the House, Kevin McCarthy, and his top team have relentlessly striven to hinder and belittle the January 6 committee.
But it is at state and local levels that the rot is most advanced. The watchdog States United Democracy Center calculates that at least 33 states are considering 229 bills that would give state legislatures the power to politicize, criminalize or otherwise tamper with elections. The group also notes that disciples of Trump’s stolen election lie are bidding for secretary of state positions in November in 17 states, which would give them, were they to win, control over election administration in a large swathe of the country.
Several have already prevailed in Republican primaries, putting them one step away from being able to wreak havoc over the machinery of democracy. They include Jim Marchant in Nevada and Mark Finchem in Arizona, while in Pennsylvania a Stop the Steal peddler, Doug Mastriano, is vying to become governor which would similarly put him in the electoral driving seat.
Then there is Kristina Karamo from the battleground state of Michigan who won the Republican nomination for secretary of state in April. Karamo has flirted with the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon and has accused singers Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish of putting children “under a satanic delusion”. She continues to be a fervent critic of Biden as an illegitimate president.
Michigan’s current Democratic secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, who nursed the state through the traumatic contested count in 2020, is up for re-election and will go head-to-head with Karamo in the mid-terms. Benson told the Guardian that she sees the race as a test of the future for America, “between those who want to protect and defend democracy and those openly willing to deny it”.
Benson’s plea is all the more urgent given signs that the willingness to embrace violence displayed on January 6 is also worming its way into the political fabric. A mega poll from UC Davis this week found that one in five adults in the US – which extrapolates to about 50 million people – believe that it can be justified to achieve your political aims through violence.
Extremist groups have also stepped up their activities since the insurrection. Last month, the national chairman of the far-right Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, and several other top leaders were charged with seditious conspiracy. Yet the indictments do not appear to have discouraged the group from audaciously moving to infiltrate the Republicans – more than 10 current or former Proud Boys, for instance, now sit on the Republican party’s executive committee in Miami-Dade, Florida.
So what does accountability look like in the wake of the hearings? How do you shore up democracy when even prosecutions appear to wield little power of persuasion?
There was a lot of talk about accountability on Thursday night at the final hearing of this summer season. In his opening remarks Bennie Thompson, speaking by video link from Covid quarantine, said there had to be “stiff consequences for those responsible”.
It required scant translation to see that as a direct invitation to Merrick Garland, the country’s top law enforcement official, to prosecute Trump. To pile pressure on the Department of Justice, Thompson announced that the committee was still receiving new intelligence and that there will be further public hearings in September.
“There’s no doubt that the justice department has followed the hearings really closely,” said Daniel Zelenko, a partner at Crowell & Moring and a former federal prosecutor. “There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny and debate about a prosecution. But if you were ever going to indict a former president, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling fact pattern.”
There is also the accountability of the ballot box. Cheney picked up that theme.
“Donald Trump made a purposeful choice to violate his oath of office,” she said in her closing remarks on Thursday. “Every American must consider this: can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”