Watching the January 6th Committee’s first hearing reinforced a concern I’ve had for some time–a concern that had re-emerged just a few days ago at a fundraising event for our local Indianapolis prosecutor.
American politics has devolved into the battle of the bumper-stickers–an exchange of slogans and sound-bites that ignore the genuine complexities of law and governance–and I am increasingly worried that as a result, we have lost the ability to engage in responsible self-government.
I was reminded of the superficiality of our political discourse by a question and answer at the fundraiser I referenced. It came during a discussion about efforts to combat gun violence. The prosecutor, Ryan Mears (disclosure: I am an enthusiastic supporter) was asked about the efficacy of “Red Flag” laws, and he launched into a detailed explanation of the strengths and significant weaknesses of Indiana’s version–why his office had found that mechanism to be far less useful than we might otherwise think.
Someone then asked him how to deliver that information in a pithy sound-bite.
Of course, it simply isn’t possible to reduce a relatively complicated explanation to a slogan that would fit on a bumper-sticker, but the question perfectly reflected the state of today’s political debate, where vague labels are substituted for information.
That state of affairs is what makes the job of the January 6th Committee so fraught. Give Trump and his extremist (and generally mindless) minions credit for understanding that far too many Americans don’t want to understand the mechanics of governance .(For that matter, it was clear that Trump was profoundly ignorant of–and uninterested in–the work of governing as opposed to the perks of power). Ever since January 6th, with the enthusiastic assistance of propagandists for the Right, they have emulated those zoo monkeys who throw poo at each other, shouting slogans like “Stop the Steal,” despite overwhelming–and easily accessible– evidence that no “steal” had occurred.
Trump is still at it. Thursday, just before the televised hearing, he tweeted on his Truth Social platform that “the Jan. 6 Capitol attack “was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again.” Anyone who saw the newly-released footage of the carnage has to be appalled by his enthusiastic support of a vicious mob bent on spreading death and destruction on his behalf.
The challenge for the Committee is thus formidable: how do you present a year’s worth of complicated fact-finding in a comprehensible way to people accustomed to responding to sound-bites and believing paranoid pronouncements? As one of the numerous “day after” stories noted, the committee had to “weave together thousands of hours of testimony, tens of thousands of documents, more than 1,000 different people they interviewed — and make it all coherent, compelling and as concise as Congress can be.”
That’s a high bar. Thursday night, they met it.
The Committee clearly understands America’s limited attention-span, and lack of patience for discussions of legal intricacies and legislative procedures. The initial hearing–effectively, the “opening statements”– marshaled evidence and testimony into a compelling storyline. No one who watched that initial hearing with a mind even partially open could honestly dispute the basic facts: Trump knew he’d lost the election, because his own people had repeatedly told him so. He lied anyway. Worse, he knowingly plotted to overturn the election results, cheered on the violent extremist groups, and would have done nothing to save the life of the Vice-President who had obediently slobbered at his side for four years, but who found committing treason for him a step too far. (I have despised Mike Pence for years, but credit where credit is– surprisingly–due…This time, he was a hero.)
The remaining Committee hearings will not be televised in prime time, so they may be less compelling and less viewed. The crazies and True Believers of the far Right will continue to tune them out. Even with the clear and convincing road map the Committee has provided, some of our fellow-citizens will find the information more complicated than they are used to, or inconsistent with their biases, or both, and will thus dismiss it.
The presentation of this evidence will not only show us whether proof of an attempted coup is enough to wake previously disconnected Americans to the very real danger of becoming an autocracy. It will also test the ability of citizens to understand realities that cannot be conveyed via bumper-sticker.