The Jan. 6 Hearings Have Been So Much Better Than I Expected

I felt a nauseating dread as the Jan. 6 hearings approached, fearing that all they would do is demonstrate Donald Trump’s impunity. That the former president attempted a coup has been obvious since his mob descended on the Capitol, if not before. With Trump, however, the question has never been whether he’s committed outrageous misdeeds, but whether those misdeeds can be made to matter. Over and over again, the answer to that question has been no.

It might still be no. But the hearings are having more of an impact than I expected. The decision by the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, to keep pro-Trump Republicans off the Jan. 6 committee has eliminated the back-and-forth bloviating that typically plague congressional inquiries, allowing investigators to present their findings with the narrative cohesion of a good true-crime series. Trump, who understands television, appears to be aware of how bad the hearings are for him; The Washington Post reported that he’s watching all of them and is furious at McCarthy for not putting anyone on the dais to defend him.

There are signs that public opinion is moving, at least a little. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe Trump should be criminally charged for his role in the Jan. 6 riots, compared to 52 percent in late April. Sixty percent think the committee’s investigation has been “fair and impartial.” Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, has been conducting focus groups of Trump voters since Jan. 6. In her last two, none of the participants wanted Trump to run again — something that hadn’t happened before.

Longwell emphasizes that these people aren’t watching the hearings, which they dismiss as partisan. But some of the news emerging from them is still sinking in. The Republicans in her focus groups aren’t mad at Trump, but they seem to be growing weary of him. “It is plausible that part of what the Jan. 6 hearings are doing is just creating more of that reminder that Trump is a lot to have to defend, a lot to deal with,” Longwell said.

For some, the hearings are doing more than that. Dustin Stockton helped organize the pro-Trump bus tour that culminated in the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse in front of the White House. Politico once called him and his fiancée, Jennifer Lawrence, the “Bonnie and Clyde of MAGA world.” On Tuesday, after a hearing that included testimony by Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona House, and the Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, Stockton tweeted, “This has been the most impactful of the January 6th Committee hearings. Embarrassed that I was fooled by the Fulton County ‘suitcases of ballots’ hoax.”

He was referring to the conspiracy theory, pushed by Trump and his allies, that election workers smuggled fraudulent ballots into the State Farm Arena in Atlanta and ran them through the voting machines multiple times. Tuesday, he said, was the first time he realized the tale was a complete fabrication.

This wasn’t a total about-face; as Hunter Walker reported in Rolling Stone, Stockton and Lawrence had already grown disillusioned with Trump. They claim they were appalled by the attack on the Capitol and blamed Trump for propping up what Stockton called “the worst chaos agents” in their milieu. Figuring that they couldn’t afford to fight subpoenas, they were cooperating with the Jan. 6 committee.

Still, Stockton has been publicly skeptical of the congressional investigation, and he remains a hater of Joe Biden and a fan of right-wing trolling. The hearing on Tuesday, however, got to him, especially the testimony from Freeman and Moss about how their lives were upended by the lie Stockton helped spread.

“To see the just absolute turmoil it caused in her life, and the human impact of that accusation, especially, was incredibly jarring,” Stockton said of Freeman.

Very few on the right, of course, are watching these hearings as closely at Stockton, but he said he’s hearing from some people who are following them. “I think the loudest voices are doing their best to divert attention and not focus on it all,” he said. “There are tons of conservatives who private message me, who don’t have large voices, who are paying attention to some degree.” Some of them, he said, are deeply disappointed by what they’re hearing.

Perhaps this makes sense. Elite conservatives mostly understood that Trump’s stories about a stolen election were absurd; as one senior Republican official asked The Washington Post, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” But his rank-and-file devotees weren’t all in on the con. Instead, they were the marks.

“If there are parts of the population that are totally captive to Trump’s propaganda and cannot be reached by facts and truth, that part of the population will begin to shrink over time,” said Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the Jan. 6 committee and an incorrigible optimist. “It’s certainly not going to grow.”

There’s not going to be a big moment when the scales fall from Republican eyes. Too many already see Trump clearly and simply prefer autocrats to Democrats. Even Bowers, who at one hearing described Trump’s acolytes terrorizing his family while his daughter was dying, said he’d vote for Trump again if he’s the nominee. But as the Jan. 6 committee methodically lays out what was, for all its squalor and absurdity, a systematic plan to subvert the 2020 election, it will get marginally harder for Trump to present himself as a defrauded winner rather than the flailing loser he is.

That might, in turn, make the prosecution of Trump and his enablers a tiny bit less politically fraught. Getting the truth out won’t guarantee justice. It’s at least a step toward making justice possible.

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