We live in historic times. The hearings of the January 6 committee are Watergate 2.0. Maybe they’ll have an even bigger impact than Watergate 1.0. At any rate, democracy is at death’s door, and if we want to ensure the future of our republic, we need to hold former president Donald Trump responsible for his deplorable behavior. And it doesn’t hurt that the hearings are must-see TV.
So goes the story line that has permeated much of the mainstream and progressive media. But this narrative obscures more than it reveals. Its popularity indicates that there’s something rotten at the heart of contemporary liberalism.
We don’t deny that January 6 was a grotesque moment in US history. The actions of the rioters who stampeded the Capitol, whipped up by the nonsensical lies of the outgoing president and an anonymous online buffoon, were a disturbing instantiation of the decay of the American political system. Trump’s behavior that day was shameful, and in an actually democratic country, his demand that an election official in Georgia “find” him 11,000 votes would have led to his criminal prosecution.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that type of a country; we live in a profoundly undemocratic and unequal one. And it’s for this reason that the hearings are ultimately a distraction. If progressives want to make the US a better place, they shouldn’t pin their hopes on the January 6 committee convincing Attorney General Merrick Garland to bring charges against Trump.
Sadly, liberals don’t seem to have learned much from the failures of James Comey and Robert Mueller to take down Trump. Here’s a small reality check: It’s fantastically unlikely that the former president will spend a day behind bars. Just as no high-level decision-makers were held responsible for the many crimes of the Korean and Vietnam wars, just as Richard Nixon was pardoned for Watergate, just as no official in the George W. Bush administration was prosecuted for torturing detainees during the ignominious War on Terror, and just as Barack Obama was never held to account for murdering an American teenager with a drone strike, nothing of consequence is going to happen to Trump either during or after these hearings.
Even in the court of public opinion, it’s doubtful that the Democrats will achieve anything approaching a significant victory. They’ve been screaming for years that Trump is an erratic, unprincipled, and contemptible person who is manifestly unfit for public office. That was Hillary Clinton’s pitch in the 2016 election, and it was the premise of Mueller’s investigation and both failed impeachments. It didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work now. In fact, the hearings may well increase Trump’s support among his base.
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While it’s true that the percentage of independent voters who blame Trump for the riot has climbed a bit since the hearings started, even that number isn’t dramatically different from what it was a year and a half ago.
And anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Going into the midterm elections, voters will care far more about the price of gas and food.
In an alternate reality, Democrats might have taken a page from their own history. Instead of trying to refocus voters’ attention on a riot from 19 months ago and the shameful but familiar behavior of a man who’s no longer president, they could have held hearings designed to galvanize public opinion on the issues of most concern to voters. In the early 1930s, Democrats did this when the Pecora Commission investigated corrupt financial practices, generating public anger and a wave of new regulations.
But the Democratic Party has decided to focus on the character of a man about whom most Americans long ago made up their minds. Fundamentally, the January 6 hearings are red meat for the liberal base and, perhaps most important for the party as an institution, provide an excuse for the never-ending fundraising appeals for which Democrats have become notorious. As Branko Marcetic put it in Jacobin, the hearings represent a decision to “quadruple down on the white, affluent, college-educated, and already largely Democratic-leaning segment of voters who tend to see January 6 and its vast web of story lines as their biggest concern.”
Simple enough. But this leads us to more interesting questions: Why does this segment of the population care so much? If the hearings are unlikely to have either electoral or legal consequences, why hold them at all? What psychic needs are they fulfilling?
Most obviously, the hearings are entertaining, and Americans love a good trial, whether it’s O.J. Simpson, Johnny Depp, or Trump in the docket. One should never underestimate the importance of a spectacle to the American public—after all, we’re the nation that gave birth to P.T. Barnum and elected a Hollywood actor and then a reality TV host to the presidency.
But at a deeper level, the obsession of a band of college-educated liberals with January 6 reflects the anti-populism that has long defined American liberalism. Where socialists want to empower the working class, liberals hope for a less chaotic form of social progress organized around institutions run by those with “merit.”
Since liberalism became a political force in the 19th century, liberals have instinctively distrusted the uneducated masses. Images of a crowd storming a “sacred” government building horrified them not just because the rioters were motivated by lies about the election, but because liberals are repelled by the desecration of a symbol of establishment power. The idea of Watergate-style hearings somehow leading to the defeat of their populist enemies scratches a deep itch in the liberal psyche. Far better—and easier—to have respectable referees rule in their favor than to admit that the only way to defeat Trumpism is for progressives to do a better job than Trumpists at mobilizing populist anger to win democratic victories. But because this kind of popular agenda would involve the widespread redistribution of wealth, it’s a nonstarter for upper-middle-class liberals who don’t want to give up any of their money.
The hearings also provide liberals with the opportunity to expiate their guilt. They elected Joe Biden on an ameliorative platform, yet conditions remain dismal. This leaves them with two choices: They can either accept that something more radical and risky is necessary, or they can identify enemies so fearful that their existence justifies the status quo. Unsurprisingly, most liberals have chosen the latter. They see themselves as characters in a passion play, confronting enemies so dangerous that to defeat them would extinguish their own culpability for the world as it is.
This is, of course, fanciful. Since there was never any reason to suspect that the military might side with the rioters, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the attack could have “succeeded” in installing Donald Trump as dictator of the United States. But as long as the January 6 hearings are on TV, liberals can continue to do what they did under President Trump and imagine themselves as a noble group fighting off a fascist threat.
The reality is that Republicans aren’t going to overthrow our half-democratic institutions in some 21st-century reenactment of Mussolini’s March on Rome. The threat they pose is that they’ll win elections—or sometimes steal them, as in Bush v. Gore—and impose on the American people their agenda of deregulation, environmental devastation, union-busting, and cruel laws that target marginalized groups.
And whatever liberals might want to believe, that threat isn’t going to be countered by appealing to establishment respectability or by conjuring notions of noble resistance. The only way to defeat reactionary populism is with a better appeal to the populace.