Seventeen months ago this week, democracy almost died.
Spurred by white supremacy and the unconstitutional machinations of a bitter loser and his coconspirators, a violent mob attempted to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. On Thursday, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection will make its prime-time television debut. According to Axios, the committee reportedly enlisted James Goldston, a former ABC News president, to bring some polish to at least a half-dozen congressional TV hearings that will attempt to lay out for viewers what its members have learned about who was involved with the planning and execution of the deadly breaching of the US Capitol in 2021.
Since last year, the committee has interviewed more than 1,000 people and analyzed more than 125,000 documents. They are expected to disclose some of those findings on television, where witnesses will also be called to testify under oath.
These hearings should be must-see TV, but this is about more than big ratings. The question is whether the hearings can compel the public to demand accountability and push the Justice Department to prosecute those responsible for one of the greatest attacks against democracy in this nation’s history.
In a Pew Research poll released last month, 70 percent of Americans called inflation this nation’s biggest problem. Of course, that’s not surprising. Other concerns included gun violence, climate change, illegal immigration, racism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Not on the list was the ongoing threat to democracy. (Or, for that matter, voting rights.) Either Americans have extraordinary confidence in the durability of this nation’s founding principles or their attention spans are egregiously shorter than anyone dared imagine.
The unconscionable truth is that many Americans seem to have forgotten about what millions witnessed on Jan. 6. What should have been a routine procedural vote that day to certify Joe Biden’s election victory devolved into members of Congress barricading themselves in their offices as violent mobs overwhelmed police, breached the Capitol, and hunted elected officials and lawmakers, including Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Yet in a Quinnipiac University poll in January, 44 percent said “too much is being made of the storming of the Capitol and it’s time to move on,” up from 38 percent in a previous poll. And a staggering 71 percent of Republicans continue to cling to false claims of voter fraud, a lie that Donald Trump has continued to spew.
Moving on from the insurrection is tantamount to moving on from democracy. That’s what the Jan. 6 committee is up against, and that’s why these hearings are being televised.
When Richard Nixon began his second term, in 1973, he had a 68 percent approval rating. It wouldn’t last. Within months, his numbers tumbled to 48 percent, due in part to a rise in inflation. But there was also this — Watergate, that “third-rate burglary” thwarted at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the nation’s capital. The crime occurred in 1972, but it wasn’t until the televised Watergate hearings began, in May 1973, that Nixon’s popularity really went into a free fall that ended with his resignation little more than a year later.
And Nixon’s considerable misdeeds shrink in comparison to the still-evolving accusations against Trump and his cronies.
“We are not in a situation where former president Trump has expressed any sense of remorse about what happened. We are, in fact, in a situation where he continues to use even more extreme language, frankly, than the language that caused the attack,” Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the Jan. 6 committee’s vice chairwoman, told CBS News. “And so, people must pay attention. People must watch, and they must understand how easily our democratic system can unravel if we don’t defend it.”
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory about the possibility of increased violence this summer “due to factors such as personal grievances, reactions to current events, and adherence to violent extremist ideologies.” Make no mistake, this is the rotten fruit from the seeds planted before, during, and after Jan. 6.
In a nation so deft at normalizing terrible actions, especially when committed by powerful white men, the case will be made on TV that seditious plots not only reached this nation’s highest office when occupied by Trump but were conceived there. And it will amplify that just because the Jan. 6 instigators and perpetrators did not achieve their goal of keeping Trump in the White House, it doesn’t mean that the coup ended or that our democracy is no longer in peril.
This is not partisan political theater. For anyone who cares about our beleaguered nation, it is neither the time to move on nor tune out.