Since the congressional hearings on the January 6th Capital insurrection kicked off last month with the promise of blockbuster testimony, the public record has indeed swelled with evidence that the assault was planned and coordinated by extremist groups and Trump’s inner circle. But they haven’t done much to shift opinion among an electorate sharply split between those who always assumed this and those who would defend the MAGA movement no matter what.
That the panel might be struggling to maintain narrative momentum amid declining viewership occurred to me when I caught up with the headlines about the July 12th session. I saw that the punk band the Descendents had condemned a former Oath Keeper who showed up to testify in one of their T-shirts. I learned that Trump national security advisor John Bolton blithely admitted to helping plan coups abroad. There was a lot of chatter about how Sidney Powell, the attorney who once represented Trump’s campaign in its doomed effort to prove the 2020 election had been fraudulent, chugged Diet Dr. Pepper throughout her pre-recorded video deposition. And another image came through: A convicted rioter had shaken the hand of a former Capitol police officer, relaying an apology that the recipient, it turned out, was not prepared to accept.
Yes, further reading would lead to more material confirming that Trump inspired and directed a violent mob that he wanted to look spontaneous rather than subordinate to him. But what impact can the breakthrough material — the memes, the tangential soundbites, the surprising pop-culture crossovers — have on the American psyche? We’re never going to put our own war criminals, like Bolton, on trial, so his confession remains a brazen display and little more. The handshake will probably be misrepresented as a moment of reconciliation. The Descendents thing isn’t relevant, and there’s no meaning to be made from a can of soda, any more than there was from the also viral description of Trump staining a West Wing wall with ketchup when he threw his lunch in anger. The abstraction of splatter is an apt metaphor: It’s just a lousy mess.
Last year, I wrote about the habit of saying “damn, that’s crazy” when you’re ready for someone to wrap up a long and not particularly interesting story. As the January 6th committee presses on, nailing down alarming and important specifics of the event, we seem nonetheless disposed to give these and the trivial details equal half-attention, grouping it all under the heading of “some wild shit that happened.” The apathy derives both from the sense that we basically know the story (we did watch it live) and that nobody will be punished. A crucial difference between these proceedings and, say, the Watergate investigation: Nixon was the sitting president, whereas Trump has been out of office for a year and a half and was impeached twice before he left. It is difficult, then, for the committee to make ordinary citizens feel this has any bearing on their lives.
Perhaps you recall this Clickhole headline of 2018, which satirized the bureaucratic intricacies and unwieldy ensemble of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. While that probe ended in the same disappointment that Democrats are bound to feel at the conclusion of the January 6th hearings, in another way, we are having the opposite experience. The story of the Capitol riot is only too simple, and hearing it extended, repeated and dissected over time has a numbing effect. We realize that the telling of it is the most we’re going to get, so we can start to tune it out before it’s over. We have errands to run, bills to pay, places to go and people to see. The horror and outrage can be compartmentalized, as it has been since we went about our routines on January 7, 2021.
Damn, that’s crazy. Now what do you expect us to do about it?