On January 6th, 2021, far-right insurrectionists seeking to overturn Donald Trump’s loss in the presidential election stormed the US Capitol, nearly resulting in a mass assassination of lawmakers. Since last summer, the House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack has diligently investigated this deeply disturbing event. On Thursday, it held the first of six major public hearings. Unfortunately, these hearings are unlikely to have any significant political effects, regardless of what shocking details emerge.
One of the most significant non-legislative powers that Congress possesses is the ability to investigate. Congressional committees can subpoena documents and witnesses to uncover facts; they can publicise their findings in open hearings. The best example of the power of congressional investigation was the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973, which is the model for the January 6th inquiry.
The Watergate commission brought down a president. Over the course of six months, it held 51 hearings examining the Nixon campaign’s 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Commission headquarters. All of the hearings – over 300 hours in total – were televised in full by a major network and over 80 per cent of Americans tuned in to watch some of its dramatic revelations.
One Nixon aide, John Dean, testified to the president’s gross abuse of power: not just his cover-up of Watergate but his “enemies list” of individuals to be harassed by federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service. Another aide, Alexander Bickel, revealed that Nixon secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office. The release of these tapes under congressional subpoena produced the smoking-gun evidence that led to Nixon’s forced resignation in 1974.
Yet the Watergate hearings themselves had already sunk Nixon’s presidency. In early 1973, following a convincing re-election victory, his approval rating stood at 67 per cent. After the hearings, it fell below 30 per cent. In the end, it was Nixon’s loss of popularity – not high principles or the revelation of his crimes in themselves – that led leaders of his party to turn against him.
Compared to the Watergate hearings, the political impact of the January 6th hearings will be minimal. This is despite the fact that it has uncovered damning evidence. The testimony during Thursday’s hearing revealed that Trump’s closest advisers, including his attorney general and his own daughter, told him that his claims about voting fraud were bogus.
The hearing convincingly showed how Trump encouraged his most extreme supporters to attack the Capitol. He did not lift a finger to stop the violence as it unfurled. Most shockingly, when the mob demanded that vice-president Mike Pence be “hanged” for certifying the election results, Trump apparently remarked that perhaps Pence “deserved” it.
If this were 1973, Thursday’s testimony would certainly have ended Trump’s political career, but this is 2022 when a radical right has captured a hyperpartisan Republican Party.
If we’ve learned anything from the Trump years, it’s that no amount of scandalous facts will budge his popularity with his base. In fact, a significant portion of the Republican Party supported the January 6th attacks. Polls suggest that two-thirds of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen and more than half sympathise with the insurrectionists.
Trump himself declared on Thursday that the January 6th attacks “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.” And those Republican voters who did not support the January 6th insurrection remain willing to overlook what happened that day so long as the party pushes their favourite policies such as outlawing abortion, denying climate change, or slashing taxes on the wealthy.
Few Republicans will pay any heed to the congressional hearings into the January 6th attack. Four out of five believe they are a “waste of time.” Fox News, the powerful propaganda arm of the American right, is the only major television network that did not air Thursday’s hearings. Instead, it showed popular commentator Tucker Carlson mocking the hearings in real time, claiming that they are mere “propaganda” and that the commission is “lying”.
Of course, the January 6th hearings are still worthwhile. Establishing for posterity the facts of what happened on that day is reason enough to hold them. With the 2022 midterm elections looming, perhaps the hearings will remind some Americans of the existential threat Trumpism poses to their democracy. The hearings might convince a small number of anti-Trump Republicans to switch their votes and motivate a few more Democrats to turn up at the polls.
That might help stem the bleeding of what looks to be a tough election year for Democrats. Unlike for Nixon, these hearings certainly won’t destroy Trump’s popularity. They are unlikely to prevent the Democrats from losing control of Congress. And we can be certain that if Republicans take control after the election this November, there will be no more investigation into what really happened on January 6th.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American History at Trinity College Dublin.