In his new book The Right, conservative journalist Matthew Continetti describes the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot as the decisive event in Donald Trump’s presidency: one that transformed it from what he sees as a largely successful enterprise into a disastrous one.
“If Trump had followed the example of his predecessors and conceded power graciously, he would have been remembered as a disruptive but consequential populist leader,” Continetti writes. “Instead, when historians write about the Trump era, they will do so through the lens of January 6.”
If polling data is anything to go by, few Americans share Continetti’s view. Those who disliked Trump before January 6 continued to do so after January 6; those who approved of him beforehand largely still did afterwards. A RealClearPolitics poll average shows that a short-term collapse in his approval rating after the Capitol riot has fully reversed; his net approval rating today, while negative, is still about 1.5 percentage points higher than Joe Biden’s.
Perhaps the January 6 committee’s public hearings this week will bridge the partisan divides on the event; maybe it will convince Americans that the day truly was a national tragedy, and persuade even Republicans who support Trump that his role was truly unforgivable.
Sadly, we have every reason to expect the committee to fail at these tasks.
In the nearly year and a half since the Capitol riot, it has only grown dimmer in the public imagination. Two polls, from Pew and NBC News, found that the percentage of Americans who believe Trump is responsible for the January 6 attack has declined significantly over the course of the year. That number has fallen among both Republicans and Democrats, suggesting it’s the result of people seemingly forgetting the former president’s pivotal role in inciting the riot.
Perhaps the committee’s hearings can reverse this trend among Democrats (and independents), but Republicans are almost certainly a different story.
Trump’s grip on the GOP remains quite strong — certainly strong enough to convince the vast majority of Republicans not to abandon him over an attack in which they sympathize with the attackers. And there’s little evidence to believe that a GOP base that hates both Democrats and the mainstream media will be persuaded by coverage of hearings; they’re more likely to be swayed by the counter-programming that’s sure to come on Fox News and talk radio.
Absent any kind of national consensus on the importance of January 6, it’s hard to imagine the hearings leading to an outcome that might deter those responsible from trying to steal another election.
The January 6 committee may, in the end, be a profoundly depressing exercise: yet another high-profile warning of a looming democratic crisis that our system is structurally incapable of heeding.
Why we should expect even damning revelations to change little
The January 6 Select Committee is an investigative body made up of nine House members, seven Democrats and two Trump-critical Republicans, Reps. Liz Cheney (WY) and Adam Kinzinger (IL). Its stated aim is to “investigate the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol,” with an eye towards issuing a report containing “findings, conclusions, and recommendations for corrective measures” that might prevent such an attack from taking place again.
So far, it seems, the thrust of their work seems to have focused on compiling proof that Trump and his team played a more central role in the day’s events than previously thought.
“There will be, I think, substantial evidence that really demonstrates the coordination and the planning,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) told CNN. “I think the American people are going to learn facts about the planning and execution of this that will be very disturbing.”
Reading between the lines, the committee’s work can be seen as one in a long line of efforts to hold Donald Trump accountable for his misdeeds: to prove that he’s done something wrong and, eventually, help bring about some kind of accountability for it.
But one of the defining features of Donald Trump’s political career has been his ability escape accountability. (His narrow defeat in 2020 is a glaring exception.) Trump always seemed to get away with it — from his sexual assault comments caught on the Access Hollywood tape; to his remarks on the “very fine people on both sides” after white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia; to his suggestion that Americans should inject themselves with bleach to fight the coronavirus.
His ability to escape, often in defiance of pundits predicting his demise, became a dark running joke best encapsulated in a (since-deleted) 2016 tweet:
Everyone who follows American politics, at this point, is aware of this pattern and the reasons behind it. American politics is dominated by the logic of extreme partisanship, in which partisans of both sides see the other as a fundamental (maybe even existential) threat. In such an environment, Republican partisans have proven themselves willing to excuse almost anything that Trump does — no matter how undemocratic — if it helps their side win.
This theory is supported by an impressive body of political science research documenting the powerful warping effect partisanship has on the American population’s judgment. One of the best of these papers, from George Washington University’s Matthew Graham and Yale’s Milan Svolik, polled Americans on whether they would vote against candidates from their party if they engaged in certain anti-democratic behaviors (e.g., “ignores unfavorable court rulings from [opposite party] judges”). Even in such a hypothetical case only a small minority would be willing to do so; their research suggests the numbers would likely be substantially lower in a real-world election.
Graham and Svolik conclude that polarization creates a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows politicians to push the democratic envelope. As long as you’re seen as loyal to your team, then fellow partisans will excuse your misbehavior because they see the other side as a bigger threat.
This logic played out again and again during the Trump presidency. It’s a key reason why his base never revolted, why Fox News stood by his side, and why Republican leaders that clearly knew better enabled him. It’s why both attempts to impeach him failed; in the second trial, 93 percent of congressional Republicans voted to protect him just weeks after his mob had threatened their very lives.
Mere information isn’t enough to overcome this powerful psychological force, as research finds that ideologically convenient false beliefs can be extremely hard to correct once in place. Republican partisans and the right-wing media will find a way to excuse or downplay whatever the committee reveals. We know this because it has already happened, both throughout the Trump presidency and specifically when it comes to the January 6 riot.
The basic damning facts of January 6 — a president whipping up a mob that then attacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election — have been out in the public since Day 1. And yet, the majority of Republicans still describe the events of January 6 as a protest, with many blaming “antifa” provocateurs for the violence that engulfed it. Most of the party faithful still believes, against all evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
“I’m quite skeptical [that hearings will] lead to a concrete shift in public opinion on the attack,” says Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who studies information and political beliefs. “A polarized elite discourse could potentially increase salience and consensus among Democrats but is unlikely to move Republicans. The impeachment hearings (both) are a case in point.”
Indeed, a May FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll found that “political extremism or polarization” was the second-most important issue among Democrats — topped only by inflation. And yet, there’s scant evidence of a mass pro-democracy movement pushing to prevent another Republican attempt to steal an election (either through laws or riots). If the January 6 Capitol attack didn’t kick off such a mass mobilization by Democrats, it’s hard to imagine a post-facto investigation into the riot being more galvanizing.
“I was really struck, in DC a few weeks ago, by how much more present the event seemed to people there,” says Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University. “I think for most people, it seems much more abstract.”
None of this should be seen as undermining the significance of the January 6 committee’s work. The events of that day were one of the most serious attacks on American government, and the truth of how and why it happened should be documented in full. Based on what we already know, Trump’s role in it (and his broader attempt to overturn the election) is one of the worst presidential abuses of power since Watergate — and the committee seems to have evidence that it’s worse than we think.
But Watergate happened in a different America, one far less polarized than the country is now. Back then, the evidence against Nixon ultimately persuaded a critical mass of Republicans to throw him to the wolves. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that happening today.
Correction, 3 pm: A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) as a January 6 committee member.