As we contemplate the one-year anniversary of America’s most recent insurrection, how should Democrats imagine moving forward? Let’s start by looking at the past.
January 6 was broadcast on live TV, bringing the performativity of Trump partisans to many Americans who had never experienced their theatrical quality. The costumes, the flags, the signage, and the face-paint compelled and stunned many viewers, as insurrectionists attempted to make their fantasy coup d’etat—installing Donald Trump as president after an election he had lost—a reality.
Democrats, who were now in the majority, charged that Trump was the director and stage manager of this political performance, and within days filed articles of impeachment. But as a legal proceeding, the second impeachment trial of President Trump not only failed to achieve its goal: compared to the insurrection, it was a flop. As a work of political theater, it resembled an off-Broadway show that opens to decent reviews, has a few shining moments (one might point to the video compilation of the insurrection itself), but closes a week later without much notice.
These failures—the failure to mount a convincing prosecution and the drabness of the performance itself—were interrelated. Democrats did their best to mount a credible showing, but they struggled under pressure of a limited production schedule, and an audience that was compelled to attend against their will (some GOP senators were spotted playing games on their phones and napping.) Then there was the fanfare surrounding a bigger show down the street: the newly-installed Biden Administration. Moreover, Republicans had the advantage of claiming that not only was the central actor in the drama—Donald Trump—miscast by the House managers, but that having already vacated his office, he was unavailable to perform, and shouldn’t have been part of the show at all.
Every theatrical producer, and every trial lawyer, knows that a successful performance involves an unspoken compact between actors and audience. By this criteria, Trump’s second impeachment failed as a dramatic performance because this compact was never entirely secured. This had something to do with ambiguity about who the dramatis personae were. This ambiguity surrounded not just the central protagonist (the extent of Trump’s involvement was not yet well-determined), but also those Republican members of Congress who had voiced disbelief in the outcome of the 2020 election. Devoted to Trump and his “big lie,” these Republicans had inserted themselves into the drama of January 6 by helping to rile up partisans at the rally that preceded the insurrection, and by voting against certifying electors in states that Biden won.
Imagination—its power to generate new possibilities on the stage and in the audience—is critical to any successful dramatic performance. The failure to attach Trump’s unprecedented actions to the insurrection itself during the second impeachment was in part a failure of imagination. Jamie Raskin and his fellow House managers did not fail to convince the majority of the public that a previously unthinkable insurrection mounted by Trump loyalists had occurred at the Capitol only a few weeks prior: after all, there was copious video evidence as well as the testimony of injured law-enforcement officers. But they did fail to persuade a sizeable portion of their audience—Senators, ordinary Trump supporters who had not taken part in the insurrection—that there was a symbiotic connection and causal link between the face-painted insurrectionist with a spear and animal pelt and the spray-tanned President with a Twitter account and Brioni suit.
Yet, there is still a chance to mount a credible performance that would convince all Americans, including Republicans who still nominally swear fealty to Trump while maintaining a practical distance from him, that the former President—along with Republicans who have sworn fealty to him—was and is a serious threat to our democracy. That opportunity is the upcoming televised hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol.
American politicians have long recognized the importance of television to making a political argument, and Democratic leaders must give the January 6 committee the dramatic promotion it deserves. They are armed with a beefier script than they were during the second impeachment trial: conspiratorial legal briefs and White House memos are in evidence, as is a large volume of electronic communication from Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows. There is a stronger cast, one that stars scorned Republican Liz Cheney, who—in contrast to the managers who led Trump’s earlier impeachments—possesses the steely-eyed resolve of a political warrior set on vengeance. Supporting actors may include GOP firebrand Jim Jordan, as well as Fox media stars Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
This time, the Democrats have a chance to mount a production that might truly capture the public’s imagination.
Televised hearings will begin soon: early in the new year; ideally, like the Watergate hearings, they should be broadcast live and re-broadcast in full in prime time. Moreover, the Committee could benefit by requiring subpoenaed witnesses who actually show up to testify in public. When Roger Stone, an Iago-like figure within the Republican party whose seven felony counts President Trump commuted, recently pleaded the Fifth to all of the Committee’s questions, he should not have been allowed to do so behind closed doors. Asking this longtime Trump advisor and right-wing celebrity about his own role in the insurrection, including his connections to the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, might have made for morally suasive political theater.
Like the two impeachment trials that preceded it, the January 6 Committee will inevitably be viewed through partisan filters, and this will be amplified on cable news. A prime-time broadcast of the January 6 Committee hearings would not necessarily change this dynamic, but it would evade the filters that 24-hour news, much of which is opinion journalism, promotes.
Getting Fox media personalities before the committee would also compel an audience of Trump supporters who might otherwise ignore the proceedings entirely. Some Democrats will be squeamish about issuing these subpoenas, given their staunch support for an independent press. They should.
But the appearance of these powerful opinion-makers in such a forum could expose them for the professional frauds and hypocrites that they are and ask conservatives to think harder about the news they consume. Having not merely reported on Trump’s efforts to overturn a free and fair election but actively sowed doubts about its legitimacy, these talking heads privately flinched when they saw the result of what they had wrought.
And yet their public coverage of the insurrection ultimately resembled less a first draft of history than a whitewashing of the past. Calling Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, or Tucker Carlson before the January 6 Committee would flip the script, making them the ones answering questions about their allegiances rather than asking them of others.
Some have speculated that the ultimate goal of the January 6 Committee is not just to establish the truth of what happened that day, but also to issue criminal referrals to those who sought to impede the certification of the election by the joint session of Congress, perhaps including members of Congress and Donald Trump. Although it seems highly unlikely that Trump will be charged and convicted by the Department of Justice, the very possibility that the Committee might make such a referral adds to the dramatic tenor of the proceedings.
There may be prosecutions but, as Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, probable impossibilities are preferable to improbable possibilities: securing a criminal conviction against Trump is an improbable possibility. Rather, the denouement of the Committee’s work should be a successful third act that reveals Trumpism for what it is: a fascistic ideology and a flimsy con.
Peter Nohrnberg is a poet and a scholar of literary modernism. His poem “Pantoum After a School Shooting” won second place in the 2020 Morton Marr Poetry Prize competition and appears in Southwest Review.