For the past two weeks, millions of Americans have tuned in to an unlikely reality television smash hit: the hearings broadcast by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. After years of feeding former President Donald Trump’s need for constant media attention, the Republican Party could be screwed by the same thing it’s become addicted to: huge television ratings.
More than 20 million viewers tuned in for the committee’s first week of hearings, a huge number for House committee business and nearly 1 million more than tuned in for the “Game of Thrones” series finale. And while ratings have dipped slightly from the blockbuster first session, the committee is still posting numbers that would guarantee renewal for any network television show.
Already there are signs that public opinion is shifting and Democrats have political openings. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans now believe Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 attack.
Thursday’s hearings — featuring a host of officials from Trump’s Department of Justice, including former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen — offered even more alarming insights, including Trump’s demand that DOJ officials “just say [the 2020] election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
Already, American voters have heard shocking details of how Trump, his key advisers and senior White House staff were far more complicit in the attack on the U.S. Capitol than many Americans likely believed. Those hearings, which Jan. 6 committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D.-Miss., now says will stretch into July, have all the makings of a political nightmare for the GOP.
Most importantly, the Republicans are facing down a mountain of physical evidence, including damning text messages and email chains, showing senior White House officials pressuring congressional Republicans to overturn the 2020 election. That’s far more impactful than soundbites describing this activity made by Democrats and Biden administration officials, whose words can be more easily dismissed by skeptics.
Then there’s the direct testimony from respected Republican public officials such as former federal judge J. Michael Luttig, who described Trump as being in a “war” with democracy, or then-Vice President Mike Pence’s White House attorney Greg Jacob, who shared emails detailing the White House’s attempt to blame Pence for the attack.
Even if many Americans remain unmoved by these revelations, the political landscape has now shifted: Voters are once again focusing on the chaotic events of Jan. 6. The GOP is being forced to go on the defensive in front of a massive national audience just as the party was moving past a bruising primary season that saw multiple bitter fights between pro- and anti-Trump GOP factions.
The GOP’s Jan. 6 committee woes are a rare opportunity for Democrats to hammer Republicans on an issue for which they simply have no good answers. If President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats don’t seize this moment to hold Republicans politically accountable for the failed coup, they should pack their bags and save Americans the trouble of handing Congress over to Republican control in November.
Already there are signs that public opinion is shifting and Democrats have political openings. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans now believe Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 attack, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted over the weekend. That’s a big jump from January, when an Economist/YouGov poll found only 41% of Americans believed Trump should be referred for criminal charges.
This shift also comes as significant pockets of Americans are still undecided on the events of Jan. 6 — and by definition persuadable. An Economist/YouGov poll released after the first two weeks of hearings found that over half of Americans believe the Jan. 6 attack was an insurrection, with an additional 18 percent of those surveyed saying they just weren’t sure what to think. In a midterm election cycle where control of Congress rests uncomfortably on a razor-thin margin, those undecided voters represent a political lifeline for Democrats.
These numbers no doubt reflect that Americans are making the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings appointment viewing. ABC News aired the hearings live on its TikTok account, tapping into the de facto public forum for the young and politically engaged. On MSNBC, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone even remarked that headline clips from the hearings dominated social media. That was even true on Facebook, where right-wing content enjoys a stranglehold over the social network’s content promotion algorithm.
Republicans are doing their best to downplay made-for-television moments like the revelation that an allegedly drunken Rudy Giuliani gave Trump the foundation for what would become the “big lie” that the 2020 election was fraudulent (Giuliani denies he’d been drinking). But the GOP’s attempts to minimize the hearings are falling flat, especially when confronting moments like the searing testimony of Georgia poll workers Wandrea “Shay” Moss and Ruby Freeman, who described how Trump’s election lies cost them their jobs, led to death threats and still affects their daily lives.
Moss’ and Freeman’s heartfelt, gut-wrenching testimonies became a media sensation, trending across Twitter and driving headline coverage in mainstream outlets. Republican efforts to portray the hearing as empty theatrics … didn’t. Democrats would be wise to follow the viewing audience’s lead by ensuring that powerful stories like Moss’ and Freeman’s stay in front of voters until November.
The irony is that Republicans are no strangers to using live congressional hearings as major media events. That was certainly their plan in 2015, when then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy bragged about turning the GOP’s Benghazi hearings into a powerful media weapon against then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity in September 2015. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”
After stretching the Benghazi investigation out for two years and over 30 hearings, it ended up producing no new evidence implicating Clinton in wrongdoing. But that hardly mattered: The investigation and hearings loomed over Clinton’s public image throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Now Democrats hold the House majority, and they have something McCarthy and the GOP never did: an actual, provable case of wrongdoing.
The Jan. 6 committee is making a compelling argument that many top Republicans had their hands deep in the events that became the Capitol insurrection. Democrats now have a clear moral and civic responsibility to ensure as many Americans as possible not only see the highlights of these explosive hearings, but fully understand why Republicans cannot be trusted to govern our democracy.