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Opinion | Best- and Worst-Case Outcomes of the Jan. 6 Public Hearings

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jane coaston

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.

Lawmakers are holding their first public hearings on the January 6 attack at the Capitol starting this week. The public will see live witnesses and pre-taped interviews with Trump family members testifying about how the days and weeks before the insurrection unfolded. The big questions are, how complicit were the White House and elected Republicans in the Capitol riot? And perhaps more importantly, what will it take for voters to pay attention and to care? There’s going to be a lot of news to wade through in the coming weeks, so I wanted to hear from two experts on the Republican Party to help me and you figure out what to pay attention to as the hearings unfold. You probably know Ross Douthat.

ross douthat

I’m your colleague, Jane, at The New York Times. I’m an opinion columnist, and I guess I’m one of the founders of this show. So that, too.

jane coaston

Ross is our occasional optimist about the state of American democracy, as you’ll hear. And Nicole Hemmer.

nicole hemmer

So I am an associate research scholar at Columbia University, and I’m also the author of a book called “Messengers of the Right, Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.”

jane coaston

She isn’t so convinced and thinks there’s a pretty good reason to be worried about where the Republican Party and our democracy is headed.

So this has the potential to be a big moment for a couple of different groups. It is a big moment for Democrats. It is a big moment for, I think, centrist Republicans, if they still exist. A big moment in some senses for the Republican Party, in terms of how it perceives what happened on January 6. And I was thinking back, the only hearings I can think of that would be remotely similar in attempting to figure out what happened on a particular day that had to do with political parties — the closest I could think of is, like, Watergate, except no one will be smoking pipes in the middle of it. The committee could send any evidence to the Department of Justice that could show additional criminal wrongdoing. There could be potential legal consequences for Trump, maybe. But, Nikki, what do you think is at stake here in the following weeks of hearings?

nicole hemmer

The hearings themselves, I think, are less important on that front. The committee has been investigating for nearly a year. It has already been referring prosecutions to the Justice Department. They don’t need the hearings for that.

What they need the hearings for is to present to the American people what they see as a clear narrative of what happened, not only on January 6, but in the weeks and days leading up to January 6, in order to tell a story that’s a bit more robust and a bit more researched than what we heard in the second impeachment trial, but that basically takes the American people through this is what was at risk, these were the plans to overthrow the election, and here is how that day unfolded.

This was not a spontaneous attempt to thwart the certification of the election, but there were all of these things happening in the White House. All of these people trying to figure out ways to stop the certification of the election, to discredit or to turn on Vice President Mike Pence, especially as it became clear that he wasn’t going to do anything to interfere.

So laying out the connections between the White House, the organizers of the protest, and then what happened that day is going to be really important, because part of what they want to do is say this was an attempt from the highest levels of government to undo the 2020 election results. That’s the case, I think, they want to make, and I think that’s the case they’re going to try to lay out to the American people.

jane coaston

Ross, I’m curious what you think of that narrative. And I think moreover, I’m also curious as to whether or not these hearings could change anything for Republicans, and if they will change anything for Republicans.

ross douthat

I mean, the second question is easier to answer, because I think the answer is almost certainly no. I think that the bulk of the energy in the Republican Party that’s interested in not redoing the Donald Trump experience has settled on a strategy, essentially, of moving on and saying, you know, this is not made explicit, but I think it’s the strong implication — the idea that the January 6 committee is obsessing over January 6, and Donald Trump is obsessing over the last election, and we just need to move forward.

I think that politically, that’s basically the only plausible path for anti-Trump Republicans to take. And I think they’re sufficiently committed to it at this point that it would take something really big out of these hearings to sort of dislodge that narrative and force any significant part of the party back into relitigating January 6 itself.

As to what could happen in the hearings — I mean, the curious thing about all this — and this is sort of true throughout the Trump era, right — is that much of what we’re arguing about and discussing happened out in public, right? It wasn’t like Donald Trump totally secretly tried to get Mike Pence to intervene and delay the certification of electors and try and, you know, somehow send things back to the states for a debate about decertification or something. This was not a secret. We knew —

jane coaston

No. This was all very much in public.

ross douthat

Right. We knew what Trump wanted because he kept saying what he wanted.

jane coaston

In some ways, does that actually make it easier on Trump? Because we already — there is not going to be revealed a grand plan.

ross douthat

Right. No, this has been part of Trump’s superpower. It’s the sort of superpower of public shamelessness, right? So what you’re interested in, basically, here is two things. One, how organized was the internal effort to put pressure on Mike Pence, basically? That’s the key point. But then also to put pressure on leaders of State Houses and so on. How organized was that effort?

To what extent was it more than just Trump tweeting and getting a couple lawyers to write up justifications, right? How far did it go? This sort of — John Eastman, the Trump lawyer who basically wrote the most detailed versions of the Pence scenario — he’s become a really important figure in this precisely because he’s someone who seemed to take this idea seriously. He’s not the MyPillow guy, who were the other kind of actors floating in Trump’s orbit.

So you’re trying to find out how many John Eastmans were there? How many people were there who were really into this and weren’t just humoring the boss? And then you’re trying to find out — and this would be the thing, I guess, from my perspective as an observer that would be most shocking to me or surprising — if this were fully revealed, I would say, OK, that is really novel and fascinating and shocking.

To what extent was the riot a planned thing? To what extent was someone in Trump’s inner circle actually talking to the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys and saying, all right, we want to get you guys inside the Capitol so you can grab Mike Pence, right? If you got that to come out at the hearings, that would be a legitimate bombshell.

nicole hemmer

You know, it’s interesting, Jane. You had asked about the Watergate hearings and the parallels there. And I actually think that that is something that the January 6 committee has to navigate, because that’s how people in the U.S. think about political scandal, that there has to be some hidden bombshell — like the one Ross just described — going off in the middle of the hearings, and that’s how you know that it was really bad and really dangerous and really awful.

And so I suspect that a lot of what we’re going to hear is a focus on the things that were happening behind the scenes. The text messages with Mark Meadows, the chief of staff. The fears surrounding Mike Pence and Marc Short, his chief of staff, contacting Secret Service ahead of January 6. This idea that Donald Trump reportedly was OK with the idea that someone might hang Mike Pence.

All of that, I think, is the kind of moment that the committee is going to try to set up, because I think they understand that Americans’ expectations is not just to hear what they had seen in public, but they want to hear the behind-the-scenes stuff that was hidden from them, because that is the signal that this was a conspiracy, that is the signal that this was private wrongdoing now being made public.

ross douthat

But I mean, in defense of that expectation, part of the pattern of the Trump era, of the Trump presidency, really was the president saying all kinds of crazy things, and then people around him humoring him, but not really following through, right?

So I don’t think it’s crazy for Americans looking in this case to say, OK, yeah, once again, we had a lot of crazy rhetoric from the president. This time, it helped inspire a riot. But to what extent was the actual administration, the actual White House operationalizing that rhetoric behind the scenes?

jane coaston

It sounds like we’re saying the premeditation factor is going to be what we’re all looking for in these hearings. I want to zoom out, though, for a second and get into larger questions about the Republican Party and its perceived extremism, which, again, is arguable for a lot of people.

Nikki, you’ve written a ton about the mainstreaming of what I would say are extreme or extremist ideas within the Republican Party. And I’m sure that Republicans would respond by saying, like, the Democratic party has taken on extremist ideas. And I’m like, well, I think that the way that that comes out in the wash looks very different for Republicans.

It seems to me, based on the writing and work that I’ve done, that Republicans have this challenge in which they spent about 30, 40 years believing that they could determine what the base wanted. And then the Trump era was the base saying, no, you can’t. You don’t know what we want. This person knows what we want. We will follow him unto the breach. But I’m curious as to whether you think, as a historian, that this moment that we’re in with the Republican Party feels unique?

nicole hemmer

I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is unique and unexpected. I would say that we’re at the expected point in a decades-long evolution of the party, which is to say, there has been a gradual strengthening of both the base and I think importantly of the conservative media’s influence over the Republican Party. And those things have gone hand-in-hand, at least over the past 30 or so years.

And you see it — let’s just go back a decade. So in 2009, Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, says some unpleasant things about Rush Limbaugh and is forced ultimately to apologize or walk those words back. You had conflict between the base and the second Bush administration over immigration.

But even going back — the Oklahoma City bombing happens in 1995. There were members of Congress who were closely tied with the militias of the early 1990s. The politicians with very close ties to extremist groups — they don’t lose their next elections. They don’t lose any power within the party. So there’s no consequence for extremism.

And then over the course of the next several decades, that becomes a lesson that other politicians learned, that they’re not going to get punished for holding extreme views. In fact, it’s a pretty good ramp to power within the party. You know, why would a politician today in the Republican Party say that the election wasn’t stolen if they are going to both get the hammer of conservative media the instant that they say that and then also face a primary challenge that they could very well lose?

So it’s both a combination of that media environment and then facing voters. And the voters of the Republican Party don’t want you to say that the election wasn’t stolen.

jane coaston

I would like to add in that Michael Steele also said that he was planning an off-the-hook PR campaign for the G.O.P. to bring it to urban suburban hip hop settings. Whenever I think about Michael Steele, that’s what I think of.

But Ross, I think you’re fairly optimistic, comparatively, about the Republican Party. But if you are a Republican, and you say that the election was not stolen, I think that you see — obviously, Brian Kemp was able to win in Georgia. But I think that you also see in Pennsylvania, where you have a candidate, Doug Mastriano, who’s essentially saying like, everyone will have to re-register to vote.

But I’m interested in your optimistic, perhaps, or whatever your reading is of what this moment means for the Republican Party.

ross douthat

Well, I don’t — I’m not an optimist about anything. I’m just an optimist relative to the people I’m usually asked to discuss these issues with on this podcast.

jane coaston

I understand. I understand.

ross douthat

But I mean, so a couple of things. So basically, what you see in Georgia and in Pennsylvania — both states — is that there is a faction within the conservative coalition that believes in the Trump stolen election narrative and is sufficiently motivated to either vote on that specifically or on some larger constellation of conspiratorial, you know, we have to do whatever it takes in politics kind of attitude, right? And that faction in Georgia turned out to be about 30 percent of the party, I would say. In Pennsylvania, I think Mastriano got in the low 40s. But I mean, he basically did what Trump did in 2016, right, which is run as someone with a strong loyal base against a fractured field, where nobody could essentially unify the rest of the party against him.

So what that tells you is sort of — it’s a good news, bad news scenario, right? It is totally possible for Republican officeholders, including not only Brian Kemp, but Brad Raffensperger, who did not say that the election was stolen, who, in fact, was Trump’s number one target during the election battles, and who won through in his primary as Secretary of State in Georgia. You can basically be those kind of Republicans and win if you have what it takes to unify two-thirds of the party against the one third faction. I mean, the really dangerous scenario was a scenario where basically Trump was able to primary everyone who refused to go along with his demand for decertification and new electors. That’s the scenario where the Republican Party is actually just taken over by the election fraud narrative. And that hasn’t happened at all, really. I guess there’s good news for you right there.

I’m a little bit uncertain about what role, Nikki, you think conservative media is playing here. Because part of what I saw happen in the aftermath of 2020 was that conservative media wasn’t really in the driver’s seat. It was sort of this dynamic interaction between Trump himself and online entrepreneurs and movements and so on. When I was arguing with conservatives about voter fraud narratives, they weren’t citing Sean Hannity or Fox News primetime. They weren’t even citing Mark Levin or Talk Radio. They were citing some random thread by a data analyst looking for anomalies in Arizona’s ballot counting, right? So it seems to me we’re in a landscape where there’s this sort of organic internet-driven belief systems on the right that are somewhat independent of the Fox and Limbaugh networks that were sort of built up on the right over decades.

nicole hemmer

First of all, conservative media as an ecosystem has grown tremendously over the past decade, decade and a half. I think you’re right about the digital or social media entrepreneurs. But I think that the more mainstream conservative media outlets, including Talk Radio, including Fox News, do still play a very important role in crafting a more mainstream narrative about things like January 6, that pulls it out of — not even pulls it entirely out of deep conspiracies.

I mean, think about something like Tucker Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” and the narrative that it helped to shape and spread about this idea that the people who were arrested for their involvement in the insurrection were actually political prisoners. I do think that it is part of the mainstreaming of some pretty wild ideas about false flag operations that used to be the purview of Alex Jones and not the purview of the primetime hosts on Fox News.

jane coaston

I mean, I think that gets to the point I was thinking about with base direction, which is sometimes your base is somewhere where a political entity or party is not yet. And sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes that it’s a bad thing.

But I do think that what you see from conservative media is that part of why One America News and Newsmax garnered a lot of viewership in 2020 and 2021 — part of what they appealed to is you want to hear this from Fox News. They won’t give it to you. We will.

ross douthat

Right.

jane coaston

It’s very much, in some ways, just a media story about how it’s like, if an audience wants to hear something, you will find a way to give it to them. I mean, I think that this gets at my overall concern here, which is that a lot of Republican officials and people in charge went along with all of this happening for various reasons. Whether or not you thought that this was all worth it if you got the Supreme Court justices you wanted, or that this is the only way you can get elected as a Republican right now.

I would say that a lot of the people who have said that the election was stolen or something adjacent, I don’t think they really think that. I think that they know that the people they want to vote for them think that. But it is about this idea that like, you just keep going with it.

ross douthat

But isn’t that how — this is actually how politics works. I think even in the case of Watergate, right? Yes, in Watergate, a number of Republicans in the Senate turned on Nixon and demanded that he resign. So something unique happened in Watergate.

But what didn’t happen in Watergate was that every Republican politician all over the country came together and agreed Richard Nixon is terrible and the Democrats were absolutely right to go after him. Instead, Democratic politics continued as it had in the past.

And that’s how the Trump era is likely to re-normalize in the future. Not with some incredibly satisfying moment where every Republican who ever kissed Trump’s ring finally gets theirs, and everyone in the country agrees that this was terrible. No. It ends with things like Brian Kemp. Maybe it ends with Ron DeSantis. Maybe it ends somewhere else, with a Republican politician who re-normalizes the party by doing some things that Trump voters want while avoiding or purging the sort of John Eastman, let’s have constitutional Calvin Ball and let the vice president pick the president stuff.

And again, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Maybe things will just unravel and get crazier. But if they don’t, it will re-normalize in a way that will never — there won’t be some satisfying now we all agree Trump was terrible moment.

nicole hemmer

And I would just push back against the idea of re-normalizing in the sense of, yes, you might lose some of the wilder parts of the Trump administration, but then they’re transformed into a new set of norms, a new set of policies, a new, more suit-and-tie way of rolling back democracy, rather than mobs with pitchforks out on the U.S. Capitol.

I mean, it is probably the case that you are going to see a less Trumpy Republican Party at a certain point in time, but that less Trumpy Republican Party is going to be well to the right of where the Republican Party was during the Tea Party, just like the Tea Party was well to the right of where the Republican Party was in the 1990s. So I think that that continuous —

ross douthat

I totally — no, but it’s not — Donald Trump was well to the left of the Tea Party on a large number of issues that were incredibly important to liberals during the Tea Party era, like the social safety net, Medicare, Medicaid. He was to the left of where the Republican Party was on issues of war and military intervention under George W. Bush.

All I’m saying is that the idea that there is a simple ratchet effect where the Republican Party just moves to the right and moves to the right and moves to the right isn’t correct. Trumpism is procedurally extreme. It’s willing to play wild constitutional tricks to stay in power, right? That’s absolutely the case.

So it would be bad if that ratchet continued. And I’m interested in having it not continue. But each new moment is not a ratchet, it’s a remix is what I’m trying to suggest.

nicole hemmer

It’s a remix, but if you’re — that procedural radicalism is also part of a story that stretches back decades in which the Republican Party has embraced greater and greater radicalism on procedural grounds. And thinking about January 6 is a particular moment of threat to democracy.

It might step back, again, from mobs.

But the kinds of elections that are happening around secretaries of state and the kinds of focus now on making sure that if an election goes the wrong way, if an election goes towards Democrats, that there are new procedures for overturning the election in a way that doesn’t require a mob, that just requires a procedure in a State House somewhere.

I think that that — we don’t have to call it further and further to the right, but we can say that it is more and more extreme and more and more anti-small d democratic and more and more anti-liberal. And I don’t see an incentive structure that pulls the Republican Party, in general, away from procedural extremism or even really at the moment anything that pulls them back to a majoritarian democratic process.

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jane coaston

Hi. I’m interrupting our conversation to tell you about a new Times Opinion podcast, hosted by my colleague, Lulu Garcia-Navarro. It’s called “First Person,” and it’s about the experiences that shape our beliefs.

In each episode, Lulu speaks with people whose lives intersect with the news to help us make sense of our complicated world. Here’s the trailer. And you can subscribe in your podcast app by searching for “First Person.” We’ll get back to the debate after the break.

speaker 1

I would definitely consider myself during that time conservative. And I was — I apologize, Lulu. I don’t know how to — I don’t know how to answer that.

lulu garcia-navarro

It’s hard to explain your life to somebody who’s never heard it before. You know what I mean?

When a lot of us hear the word “opinion,” we think about hot takes, a point of view in reaction to the news. But what about the experiences that shape people’s opinions? I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the host of “First Person,” a new show where I talk to people who are trying to make sense of an extraordinary moment they’re living through.

speaker 2

You know, what if we just stopped showing up? Like, what if we just didn’t come back until they paid us? Go on strike or something. And we all kind of laughed about it. Yeah, we should unionize. And I was like, yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s actually a felony.

speaker 3

That’s the heart of the story, in a lot of ways. How did I find myself pregnant?

speaker 4

I haven’t — I hadn’t held a gun in my life until the 24th of February.

lulu garcia-navarro

Every opinion starts with a story.

speaker 5

I thought I was a strong pastor. I poured my life into becoming the best I could at that role. And this diagnosis was telling me, you can’t be that anymore.

lulu garcia-navarro

Aren’t you setting yourself up as a kind of Sisyphus-like character, always trying to move the party forward on this issue when its nature is to roll backwards?

speaker 6

Well, I never said that I was that smart. I am willing to just keep fighting, sometimes maybe stupidly.

lulu garcia-navarro

“First Person,” launching June 2022 from New York Times Opinion. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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jane coaston

Ross, these hearings, I think, for many people are a hope that we can learn more about what happened to prevent it from happening again. But if we still have many of the same kind of swirling concepts that led to what took place in 2020, even if we don’t have Donald Trump, we will have someone who appeals enough to Donald Trump’s voters to get the 2024 nomination.

I’m curious, what would surprise you? What would need to happen for these hearings to be like a wake-up call for a large group of people?

ross douthat

I mean, I guess I already raised the idea of evidence of direct coordination between the Trump White House and people with a actual plan to do something in the Capitol, as opposed to just marching around and snapping selfies. That would be pretty bad. That would, I think, shift the conversation and certainly would shift my understanding of that day.

I think in practical political terms, assuming that something like that doesn’t happen, you’re looking for, essentially, things that legitimize efforts to do what Congress can do to make this less likely to happen in the future, which is basically some kind of reform of the Electoral Count Act that clarifies the role of senators, the actual role of the vice president, clarifies what you do in the case of competing elector slates, probably tries to offload some authority for that from Congress to the courts.

There’s sort of bipartisan efforts on this. Like many bipartisan efforts, they’ve stalled out for now or they’re happening behind the scenes. But that’s, I think, the more practical goal, if you’re looking for a practical goal.

jane coaston

My concern here is that the voting laws, all of this is directed by a base that believes that the sign that there is voter fraud is that a Democrat won.

nicole hemmer

Right.

jane coaston

And I think that that is deeply concerning to me that that is what the voter fraud is, is that a Democrat won. And I think that that’s why you see voter fraud accusations specifically in cities, even in say, Philadelphia, in which Trump got more votes in 2020 than he got in 2016. But because it’s Philadelphia, there must be voter fraud to explain why a Democrat won in Philadelphia.

nicole hemmer

Right. Philadelphia, wink-wink. No, I think that’s right. And I would say that where I remain a pessimist is this idea that democracy is going to save us from anti-democratic forces. Because all it takes is one election where the Democrats don’t win in Pennsylvania or the Democrats don’t win in — well, they have pretty much lost Florida altogether. But where they don’t win in one of these states that ends up being pivotal for a presidential election.

And then potentially that’s the ballgame. And it’s not that democracies can’t come back from anti-democratic or anti-liberal moments, but democracy is not a sufficient defense against creeping anti-liberalism, creeping authoritarianism or even creeping fascism.

And I would say, Jane, for the hearings, what I would want to see is the case be made about the connection between the spectacle of the mob and the behind-the-scenes machinations, or even the in-front of the camera machinations that were happening in Congress, to protest the certification of the election, to connect all of these different attempts to object to various votes, to drum up lies about voter fraud and about stolen elections, to connect all of that.

Because we often pay attention to the spectacle of the mob and not necessarily to those more procedural acts. And so to be able to connect those two stories and say they’re two sides of the same coin is really important, because right now in the U.S., we don’t have that spectacle of the mob on a daily basis, but we do have these ongoing procedural efforts. And for people to understand that those are part of the same project and they lead to the same end is, to my mind, a really important message that needs to come out of this.

jane coaston

Ross and Nicole, thank you so much, and I really appreciate your time.

nicole hemmer

Thank you so much.

ross douthat

It was a pleasure, Jane.

jane coaston

Ross Douthat is the Times Opinion columnist. Nicole Hemmer is a writer and historian. Her latest book out this summer is “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”

I recommend Nicole Hemmer’s piece in Times Opinion that inspired us to book her, “What Oprah Winfrey Knows About American History that Tucker Carlson Doesn’t,” and listening to Nicole’s conversation with Kathleen Belew on “The Ezra Klein Show,” and reading Ross’s piece, “Why Would John Eastman Want to Overturn an Election for Trump?” published in The New York Times. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes. “The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker and Michelle Harris. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi.

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