The January 6 hearings are accomplishing more than you think

You may not see it, if you don’t understand how conservatives change their minds.

After more than two years of Covid, persistent inflation, and a year or so of Democrats failing to either eliminate the Senate filibuster or pass anything significant in spite of it, lots of us have gotten depressed. One result of that widespread depression is that every news story is seen through a lens that is dim to the point of blackness: Nothing good is happening, because nothing good can happen. That’s just how the world is. Even stuff that looks good for a while will ultimately turn out badly.

So it’s no wonder that even the January 6 hearings — which have contained startling new information and dramatic testimony, presented with considerable narrative skill — are often being construed as yet another disappointment, yet another example of America’s endemic hopelessness: Sure, the ratings have been better than expected, but the only people watching are the people who don’t need to watch. They were already convinced Trump was guilty. That’s why they’re watching.

Fox News, on the other hand, is pretending the hearings aren’t happening, and the MAGA cultists are averting their eyes. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are talking about Biden falling off his bicycle or some other trivia. So what’s being accomplished?

Let me suggest a radical reinterpretation of these facts: MAGAworld refusing to engage is a good sign. This is exactly what you should have expected to see if things were going well.

That reframing depends on understanding two things: First, nothing gets watched by everybody, and yet somehow the information gets out. You didn’t have to watch the Super Bowl to learn that the Rams won. People who have never seen Star Wars know who Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are; if you talk about a “flaw in the Death Star”, they’ll get the metaphor. Hit songs you don’t like nonetheless get into your head. Personally, I have done my best not to keep up with the Kardashians, but there seems to be no way to avoid it.

So don’t think Trumpists aren’t learning anything from these hearings.

But the more important thing you need to appreciate is how conservatives change their minds. They do it without ever admitting they were wrong. Typically the process goes like this:

  1. “I believe X, and anybody who denies X hates America.”
  2. Silence.
  3. “I never believed X. The people behind X were never true conservatives.”

Blocking out the hearings is Step 2. They’re looking away because they know they have no answers. If they thought they could take on this argument and win, at least in their own eyes, they’d be all over it. Fox News could be doing nightly counter-programming, tearing apart the committee’s witnesses and letting John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani and Jeff Clark explain their side of the story. Mike Pence and Pat Cipollone could be begging to testify under oath, so they could refute all the other witnesses’ testimony.

It’s not happening. Even the most blinder-wearing Trumpist understands that his side doesn’t dare take the field in this battle. Even if they don’t understand why, it’s got to be undermining their confidence.

Instead, there’s silence. Step 2.

The clearest historical example of the three-step process is White Evangelicals and segregation. During the 50s and 60s when the issue was being decided, White Evangelicals almost unanimously defended Jim Crow. Jerry Falwell, for example, preached in 1958:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision [to desegregate public schools] would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

Today, if you look, you can still find openly white-separatist branches of Christianity. But they’re on the fringes. No big-name preacher of the Religious Right would denounce Brown v Board of Education in the stark terms Falwell used.

But you know what you won’t find? A come-to-Jesus moment when some major preacher announced that he had been wrong about race, begged God’s forgiveness for his errors, and implored his congregation to turn themselves around in a similar way.

It never happened.

Instead, sometime in the 70s most right-wing preachers just stopped talking about the bad old days of Jim Crow. (Falwell’s segregationist sermons quietly disappeared from his church’s web site. Today, the only place you’ll find the quote above is in anti-Falwell articles.) And years later, when they started talking about the Civil Rights movement again, they had always been on the right side of it. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist, right?

Same thing with George W. Bush and the Iraq War. In 2002, nobody was hotter to invade Iraq than conservatives, and after the initial invasion overran the country quickly with few American casualties, right-wingers were arguing about just how high Bush should rank on the list of our greatest presidents. (Probably not in the Washington/Lincoln stratosphere. But maybe in the Reagan/Truman tier.)

Sometime during his second term, though, they started to go silent about Bush’s greatness, and by 2010, the Tea Party was claiming that Bush had never really been a conservative at all. Bush went from the highest presidential approval rating ever recorded — 90% in 2001 — to one of the lowest — 25% in 2008. During that whole time, though, I don’t remember hearing anyone admit that they’d been wrong about him.

There was no I-have-seen-the-light moment about Iraq comparable to Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War. Conservatives just went silent for a while, and when they spoke up again, it was to claim that they had always been on the other side. Donald Trump is a perfect example. At first he was for the invasion. Then he thought it was a good idea that Bush had screwed up. Then he had always been against it.

So if you’re depressed that no MAGA types are facing up to the way that Trump fooled them, don’t be. That was never going to happen. But it doesn’t mean that Trump won’t someday be a friendless pariah.

I feel very confident in predicting that there will never be a we-were-wrong-about-Trump moment, either for the GOP in general or for your cousin who posted all those MAGA memes on social media. But you know what could happen? They might focus their outrage on something else for a while — critical race theory or transgender people or something — and then at some point start saying, “Trump did a lot of good things, and I like his Supreme Court picks, but I never bought all his bullshit.”

That could be happening right now.

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  • Chicago Tom  On June 27, 2022 at 11:00 am

    For example, Trump is conning people(1) out of money now(2) by hiding what he does with it.
    (1) “people” is me, but it’s easier to admit if it’s others
    (2) “now” like before, but It’s easier to accept as a new revelation

  • dmichael  On June 27, 2022 at 11:13 am

    As always, I appreciate your thoughts and writing; however, your headline is “The January 6 hearings are accomplishing more than you think.” Unfortunately, they are not accomplishing anything regarding Trump’s supporters. Even a witness who was a target of Trump’s outbursts and was physically threatened by his supporters, said, remarkably, that he would still vote for him if he was the Republican candidate for president. I don’t need Trump or Trump-adjacent supporters to admit they were wrong. I need them to stop voting for anti-democratic candidates. Or, more realistically, be out-voted in elections.

  • Wade Scholine  On June 27, 2022 at 2:40 pm

    I definitely want to believe this general line of argument. Not least because it suggests that the path described in this item by the Pedant is still open. Tl;dr: ancient republics provide a large data set of polities undergoing the kinds of stresses that we currently are seeing. The ones where the republic recovers involve a kind of reconciliation where the republican side doesn’t get to insist too hard on its version of the past. After the dust settles, there are a few outcasts and/or heads on sticks. Everybody else gets to claim to have been a good republican (note small-r republican throughout, here… it’s the inclination, not the modern Party) all along.

    Something like what you describe as currently happening would be a necessary part of that outcome, for us. I think.

  • philipfinn  On June 27, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    Again, recalling Nixon, the quote that was attributed to him in parodies:
    “I did nothing wrong, and I promise never to do it again…”

  • Arnold Aigen  On June 28, 2022 at 11:28 am

    This is exactly what Hewitt wrote in the Washington Post this week!

  • Rowan  On June 28, 2022 at 10:56 pm

    Bret Stephens in The New York Times wrote this today:
    “I doubt there will be any sort of moment when the Sean Hannitys and Laura Ingrahams of the world will tell the faithful: We were wrong; we made an idol of the wrong man. But there may be a quiet drifting away. In a moment like this, that might be just enough.”

  • Paige  On June 29, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    Thanks, this was a much needed dose of reasonable optimism.


  • By Rule by Judges | The Weekly Sift on June 27, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Three Supreme Court decisions with long-term consequences” and “The January 6 hearings are accomplishing more than you think.“ […]

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