The Jan. 6 hearings and the spectacle of competence

Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speak to Shaye Moss, a former Georgia election worker, during a June 21 hearing by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

Every day, from the left and the right and all corners of America, there are reminders that the government is broken. Stagnant, inadequate, wasteful, useless. Whether the issues we face are urgent and emotional (school shootings) or slow but existential (climate change), the extreme polarization and contortionate priorities of our political system, especially on the national level, feel practically designed to discourage hope and change.

Then, a reprieve. The televised Jan. 6 hearings – the fifth of which will air Thursday, followed by at least two more sessions next month – have offered a rare glimpse of administrative credibility, a spectacle of civic competence. America doesn’t have to be a post-truth dumpster fire sinking into largely self-inflicted imperial decline, imply the hearings, which are led by Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. The values and attributes we want from our leaders – intelligence and empathy in service of integrity, efficacy and bipartisanship – have been on ample display, modeling a version of Congress we want to see, as well as one that may disappear with this year’s midterms.

The nine-member House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, whose only other GOP member is Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has persuasively contended that former president Donald Trump, despite being surrounded by advisers who told him he’d lost the 2020 election, attempted to stay in power by mobilizing his supporters that day with the “big lie.” What’s most notable about the hearings’ rhetorical style is their prosecutorial orderliness. The committee has an ambitious, multifaceted case to make and has been arguing it boldly and methodically.

In stark contrast to so many congressional hearings over the years – events that politicians have routinely treated as opportunities to unsettle witnesses or grandstand for the cameras – this weeks-long presentation is clearly a cooperative project, with interrogators and respondents working in tandem. Skeptics might point to the collaboration between the politicians and the panelists as a reason to dismiss the proceedings, except that the highest-profile witnesses to date have been Republicans. (The vast majority of the GOP leadership declined to participate.)

As The Washington Post’s television critic, the question I’m supposed to be answering is: Are the Jan. 6 hearings “good TV”? Who cares? What’s vastly more interesting is how the hearings illustrate all that you gain when you eschew the usual elements of politics-as-entertainment as typified by Trump: conflict, chaos, mockery of the institutions legislators are supposed to uphold.

But these sessions certainly haven’t been boring. In fact, they’ve been surprising and poignant, especially in the descriptions from people on the ground of what they’ve endured. The hearings have given us turns of phrase and firsthand accounts that should define the insurrection and the repercussions of the “big lie” on ordinary folk: Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards “slipping in people’s blood” while trying to quell the riots, for example, or mother-daughter election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss forced into reclusive isolation after Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani spread lies about their supposed ballot tampering. One threat sent to Moss, who is Black, read, “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.”

Where there has been tension in the hearings, it’s often been between principles and partisanship. Amid nonstop media focus on the GOP’s rightward tack, which has resulted in a purging of ostensible RINOs (an acronym favored by Trump that means “Republicans in Name Only”), the sessions have stood out for bringing to the foreground a specimen we don’t see covered much anymore: conservatives who care more about the rule of law than loyalty to the party. (Their heyday might have been back in the ’90s, when their fictional counterparts were intoning solemnities on “The West Wing.”) In a memorably acerbic line, Cheney challenged members of her party to think beyond this craven moment: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

The committee has broken down into seven components Trump’s perpetuation of the “big lie” – a defiantly complex stand against our too-often meme-based political discourse. The hearings have encompassed not only Trump’s efforts to thwart the will of the people and his incitement of homicidal violence that narrowly missed his own vice president, but also his attempts to corrupt the Justice Department and state officials in battleground states. In describing the months-long attacks on our democracy in a manner so diametrically opposed to Trump’s proudly impromptu oratory, the committee silently asked its audience: Which America do you prefer, a volatile (if fitfully entertaining) mess, or law and order?

It cannot be denied that, as television, the hearings have been a masterful production that’s taken to heart the entertainment industry’s hard-won lessons. Scheduled during a programming lull in the summer, the presentations have enjoyed robust media coverage, and the spread over multiple weeks has allowed the revelations and stories to propagate and sink in. (Had the sessions spanned only a week, they might’ve been forgotten already, not unlike a season on Netflix binged in a single day and quickly turned into half a memory.) The judiciously edited clips of depositions have been maximized for viral circulation, and the montages of Trump advisers agreeing with each other in quick succession in opposition to the “big lie” make it increasingly clear that the former president has chosen to seclude himself with yes men up for the indignity of sustaining his delusion.

Anyone who’s sat through an inept or awkward corporate presentation at work can attest that the Jan. 6 hearings are not that. If the sessions have been deliberately paced, they’ve been slick, too, with previews and “cliffhangers” bookending the “episodes” and very few noticeable gaps between, say, the end of a sentence and the start of a video. Thus far, there have been two kinds of production hiccups, both outside the committee’s control: the withdrawing of Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien from the witness panel after his wife went into labor and the delay of some hearings. The committee worked around Stepien’s absence seamlessly by using excerpts from previous interviews. As for the delays, they’ve signaled that the members’ main concern is the thoroughness of their case to the American public. “We’ve taken in some additional information that’s going to require additional work,” Thompson said Wednesday. “So rather than present hearings that have not been the quality of the hearings in the past, we made a decision to just move into sometime in July.”

The hearings’ spectacle of competence – of authority and accountability, and the reassertion of truth in a multi-reality country – can’t help but soothe. The people in charge are getting to the bottom of what happened, contextualizing it in the nation’s history and applauding the individuals who held their own against an onslaught of lies, absurdity and unimaginable pressure. (At least for as long as they could: Neither Moss nor Freeman work as election workers anymore, nor do any of their former Fulton County colleagues.)

The committee’s mission isn’t to uplift, but to warn. At the end of the third session, conservative judge Michael Luttig cautioned that “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” not because of what they did, but because of what they say they will do. Where they failed in 2020, he exhorted, they may succeed in 2024.

Near-misses are narratively hard to get invested in. Just look at the dozens of white nationalists caught with riot gear inside a U-Haul less than an eighth of a mile from a Pride event just 10 days ago – and how quickly they vanished from the national consciousness. For all the damage it caused, the coup on Jan. 6 almost happened, which may be why, as dominant as the hearings have been in the headlines, their disclosures are still being ignored by large swaths of the nation, including the third of the country that believes in the “big lie.”

Unfortunately, the hearings’ appealing vision of bipartisanship is a temporary one, as Kinzinger has announced he won’t seek re-election and Cheney has been disavowed by her own state’s party. But the committee members are still doing their meticulous best to convince the public of the scope, intricacy and ethical bottomlessness of Trump’s plot – and in doing so, exemplifying how government should work every day. There’s plenty to admire about the competence on display. But it would be counter to the committee’s aims to be reassured by it.



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