The House select committee investigating the attempt by former President Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election and stay in office despite losing — in other words, to effectively subvert or overthrow the Constitution — is finally ready to present its findings, beginning with a prime-time hearing this Thursday. That will be followed by three daytime hearings next week, one more the following week, and then a final prime-time event on June 23.We don’t know everything the committee will lay out, but what we do know is bad enough. Just Security’s Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix have an excellent outline of what’s been revealed so far— and the questions that still need answering. The first key point: As they say, this isn’t just about the attack on the Capitol, “but instead a much broader and more multifaceted effort to stop the transfer of power.” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein add context by putting the riot (and Watergate) in perspective as threats to the republic. And while Trump is out of office, the attempts by him and his associates to undermine the rule of law has not abated. That includes a great number of Republican elected officials, and more who are candidates this year. So the topic of these hearings is serious indeed.Most people, of course, won’t watch these events. And those most likely to seek them out overwhelmingly already think that Trump is guilty. Nevertheless, if the committee does its job, lots of people who aren’t trying to watch will still wind up seeing clips and highlights and related coverage. And while even a perfect presentation won’t change everything — the Senate Watergate hearings appeared to have had little or no direct effect on Richard Nixon’s popularity; the big changes were driven by events before and afterward — don’t fall for the cynical idea that the committee doesn’t matter at all.This isn’t about the midterms. No matter how effectively the committee does its job, the plain fact is that no one is likely to base their votes on it this November. Most voters are solid partisans who almost always vote for their party, and others have multiple concerns, from inflation to gun safety to abortion to the pandemic. Very few people can be persuaded that their senator or representative is mainly important because of how they would vote on core democratic issues.This is about the Republican Party. We can probably break Republican party actors down into three groups. There’s a small faction led by Liz Cheney that actively opposes Trump and authoritarianism. There’s a larger group, almost certainly less than half the party, that actively supports Trump and the turn against democracy. And then there’s a large middle group, including a lot of business interests, which isn’t thrilled with Trump’s excesses but doesn’t really think he and his allies are a threat to the Constitution; considers what Democrats do to be similar if not worse; and thinks that most of what’s happening is the normal gave-and-take of parties seeking advantage. Many in this group really do think of themselves as strong proponents of democracy; it’s at least possible that they can be convinced to try to turn the party around.It’s also about “neutral” elites, especially in the media. Strong norms within many professions, including at media outlets that are not aligned with either party, call for neutrality between the political parties — but don’t require neutrality about the rule of the law or democracy. Plenty is at stake, then, in convincing journalists at these outlets that accurate coverage requires proponents of Trumpism to be treated as opponents of democracy rather than of the Democratic Party. These journalists are the one big exception to general indifference about the hearings. They’ll pay attention, and collectively add what they learn to their assessment of what being neutral really means.There’s an overlapping norm here too, which is the “mainstream” bias of the neutral media; they treat things very differently depending on whether they consider them in or out of the mainstream, which itself is subject to revisions over time. (So for example the media used to treat lesbians and gays as weirdos or worse, but now tends to treat opponents of sexual minorities as weirdos or worse; their perception of the mainstream changed.) This can apply to basic facts, too. Sometimes party spin achieves the goal of mainstreaming arguments over facts, and sometimes if fails to do so. If the committee does a good job of laying out the evidence, these journalists will be one group that is open to persuasion, and that could make a big difference in their coverage going forward. Among other things? As much as Republican politicians want to be seen as solidly on the party team, at least some of them are wary of appearing to be too far out of the mainstream.I’ve been complaining for months that the committee hasn’t put enough emphasis on its public-education rule, and that these hearings are too little, too late. But political scientist Norm Ornstein argues that “By focusing on a powerful narrative and not just on uncooperative witnesses, limiting the hearings to fit the publics attention span and doing some in prime time, the committee is doing this the right way.”I hope he’s correct.
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