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How the Jan. 6 panel is trying to reach the apathetic and apoplectic

The Jan. 6 committee’s prime-time rollout this week was its first attempt to reach the nearly unreachable: those who have long moved on from the attack.

From the apathetic to the apoplectic, the committee is hoping its investigative findings will resonate not just with those who have tuned out in the almost 17 months since the attack but also with even a sliver of those who are indignant that its investigation has continued.

Its goal is to not just to show former President Trump at the center of an illicit plot to remain in power. It’s to shake the country by the shoulders and demonstrate the fragility of American democracy. 

“Over the next few weeks, we’re going to remind you of the reality of what happened that day. But our work must do much more than just look backwards. The cause of our democracy remains in danger. The conspiracy to thwart the will of the people is not over,” Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said at the top of the Thursday night hearing.

The committee certainly met its goal of reaching a wide audience.

Early numbers from Nielsen indicate some 20 million people tuned in for the hearings, toppling the nearly 12 million who tuned in for the start of the NBA Finals earlier this month.

But its secondary hope is to reach those who may have been exhausted by a whirlwind four years of the Trump administration or even excited by the chaos he brought to a system they see as long in need of an overhaul. 

“If we reach people with an open mind and inform the public of how close we came to losing our democracy and provide a sense of urgency about how we’re not out of the woods, I think we’ll have succeeded,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Hill earlier this week. 

The Democratic caucus has diverse goals for the hearings. Some want to see it as a pathway to prosecution for Trump and his allies.

Others say success lies not in holding Trump to account but whether the average voter begins to rethink the day and see how tenuous the transfer of power was.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), one of the panel’s members, said she won’t be taking cues on the success of the hearing from critics or talking heads.

“The measure of success is not going to be, you know, what’s said on national news or social media but, what do I hear from people in my community?” she said. 

“Is it important to them that the committee was able to lay out a very clear, comprehensive reporting of what led up to Jan. 6, what happened that day, and that they feel like we’ve gotten to the bottom of it?” she added.

But making that case could be difficult.

Fox opted not to preempt its regular programming to cover the hearing, instead airing special coverage of the proceedings on its business network as well as its various other channels and streaming platforms. 

“They’re all upset that Fox isn’t covering it live. We actually do something called, ya know, cater to our audience. Our audience knows what this is. We’ll cover it, we’ll do plenty of coverage,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said Wednesday, calling it “total theater.”

In the hours after the hearing, Fox was running a segment about the Disinformation Governance Board that was so widely panned by conservatives that the Department of Homeland Security shut it down before it ever had a chance to formally meet.

The select committee is also up against some steep attitudinal barriers when it comes to attracting viewers.

A May poll from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found the country is nearly evenly divided between those who say it’s important to learn more about what happened on Jan. 6 (52 percent) and those who say it’s time to “move on” (48 percent). It’s a sentiment that breaks down largely along partisan lines.

“I think it will be a challenge,” Schiff said.

“Those that are only getting their information from right-wing media are probably beyond our reach. We’re hoping to reach everyone else that has an open mind. And hopefully even some viewers of Fox will begin to question what the network is so afraid of and why they don’t want the public to hear the truth about Jan. 6,” he added.  

Digging deeper into the numbers suggests there are some who have not yet developed strong feelings about what the committee may have to lay out.

Another May poll from CBS News had more optimistic numbers for the committee when asking more broadly how important the panel’s findings might be. 

While 46 percent said it was very important to learn more, another 24 percent said it was somewhat important “to find out what happened that day and who was involved.”

“You’re going to have a certain segment of the population that is absolutely resistant to any ounce of information about Jan. 6, and they want it done. But then, you know, there’s a ton of people who are kind of non-political information avoiders. They’re not looking at the news, but they see things posted on Facebook. There’s a lot of people who are kind of in the middle somewhere,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) told The Hill.

“Those are the people I’m looking for. Not the hardcore guys who, you know, if they had their druthers would have been here on Jan. 6. You’re never going to get those guys,” she added.

Slotkin wondered whether some might learn about the events highlighted in the hearing through a sort of osmosis, even if they aren’t actively paying attention — the same way people were familiar with the developments of the Depp-Heard trial or were sprung into action by news that the Supreme Court had drafted an opinion overturning the abortion rights protected under Roe v. Wade. 

“What I’m interested in, in a similar way … is there an absorption by people who would otherwise not be watching the actual hearings?” she said.

Even if the answer is yes, the committee has a long, tough road ahead in the effort to sway public sentiment in any significant measure toward the notion that Trump committed crimes that make him either prosecutable or unfit to hold future public office.

Even 16 months after leaving the White House, Trump remains the single most popular figure in the national Republican Party, and he’s leveraged that acclaim to raise tens of millions of dollars for his campaign coffers while showering endorsements that have proved crucial in a number of GOP primaries around the country.

Additionally, the committee’s claims of having “explosive” new evidence of Trump’s conspiratorial intentions to remain in office ignore the reality that such evidence was revealed months ago, to little effect. 

In January of last year, just days before the Capitol attack, Trump had called Georgia’s secretary of state and urged him to “find 11,780 votes” — just enough to overcome President Biden’s margin of victory — or face the threat of an unnamed “criminal offense.” 

Democrats, and many Republicans, considered the phone call to be the smoking gun to prove Trump’s illegal drive to cling to power. But his allies rallied around him, and the political costs to the then-president were negligible.

The committee will try to confront that apathy head on, with Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) promising to deliver evidence that “Trump oversaw a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election.”

“All Americans should keep this fact in mind: On the morning of Jan. 6, President Trump’s intention was to remain president of the United States despite the lawful outcome of the 2020 election and in violation of his constitutional obligation to relinquish power,” she said.

Tags Adam Schiff Bennie Thompson Bennie Thompson Donald Trump Elaine Luria Jan. 6 attack Jan. 6 panel Laura Ingraham Liz Cheney Trump
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