There have now been nine televised hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The main purpose of these hearings has been to publicly present evidence of former President Donald Trump’s culpability for the January 6 riot.
The mostly Democratic congressional committee, assisted by two of Trump’s fiercest Republican opponents, has made the hearings into a compellingly produced TV spectacle. The hearings drew an average of 13.1 million viewers across multiple networks, which is slightly more than the average viewership of the 2021 Major League Baseball World Series.
Surveys suggest this audience, like the committee itself, is overwhelmingly Democratic. They may have already been convinced of Trump’s responsibility for the January 6 riot, but 64% of Democrats say they have learned new information about the attacks from the hearings.
Some of the evidence presented in the hearings has been spectacular. Multiple video depositions from Trump allies and even family members showed how they tried to convince him the election was lost. This did not stop him from pressuring officials to overturn election results and trying to enact a bizarre and illegal plan to stall the vote count.
When Vice President Mike Pence refused Trump’s demands to halt the vote certification, rioters stormed the Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence”. They apparently believed Trump’s claims that day that Pence had the power to reject electoral college votes but “didn’t have the courage” to do it.
Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified that, when Trump heard the “Hang Mike Pence” chant, he told aides that the vice president “deserves it”. Pence’s secret service staff were so worried by the mob incursion that some of them made goodbye calls to family members.
Is there enough evidence to indict Trump?
Many Democrats argue the evidence against Trump is now so damning that the Justice Department should charge him with obstruction of justice and official proceedings, criminally defrauding the United States, and possibly seditious conspiracy.
While there are reports the Justice Department is investigating Trump, and that Trump’s lawyers are preparing defences against criminal charges, it is far from certain he will be charged. Apart from the difficulty of proving the case to a jury, Attorney-General Merrick Garland may be concerned that prosecuting the de facto leader of the Republican Party would politicise the Justice Department – in the same way Trump himself often did during his presidency.
But even if Trump again escapes legal consequences for his actions, he may still face political consequences. More independent voters than ever now hold him responsible for the January 6 riot. And members of Trump’s own party are weighing his viability.
Apart from the difficulty of proving the case to a jury, Attorney-General Merrick Garland may be concerned that prosecuting the de facto leader of the Republican Party would politicise the Justice Department – in the same way Trump himself often did during his presidency.
Congressional Republicans have mostly boycotted the January 6 hearings and tried to cast doubt on their legitimacy. The majority of Republican voters remain convinced Trump did nothing wrong on January 6. This is bolstered by a widespread belief that Democrats stole the 2020 election, which would mean the January 6 rioters were not insurgents but patriots trying to protect their country.
But there are signs a constant focus on the 2020 election and its aftermath is hurting Trump with Republicans. Two recent polls have suggested about a third of Republicans don’t want Trump to run again in 2024. These are significant increases on previous polls.
A New York Times/Siena College poll of Republicans in July found only 49% would support Trump if the presidential primary were held now. He is still far ahead of his nearest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is on 25%.
But Trump no longer commands the large majorities he used to have in these polls. DeSantis increasingly seems like a viable right-wing alternative to Trump, and two July polls have shown him ahead of Trump in their shared home state of Florida.
Politically, Trump may be a spent force
Trump has not been fading gradually since he left office. His standing with Republicans actually increased throughout 2021, leading many to worry that he would pay no penalty for his attempts to undermine democracy. In 2021, Trump loyalists seized hundreds of offices in state Republican organisations, creating the appearance of an “iron grip” on the party.
But there have been signs in 2022 that grip is not as strong as it looked. While many Republican candidates have sought Trump’s endorsement by declaring he won the 2020 election, Trump-backed candidates have had mixed fortunes in the Republican primaries.
Democrats have been so confident of the unelectability of some of these candidates they have actively supported them against stronger Republican moderates.
Before the January 6 hearings began, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger both won massive Republican primary victories, despite earning Trump’s continuing wrath for refusing to overturn the 2020 election result in their state.
As much as Republicans have derided the January 6 hearings, they are a reminder that nothing can unite and mobilise Democrats like Trump.
Significantly, Trump also seems to be losing some of his most valuable media supporters in the wake of the January 6 hearings. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post and Wall Street Journal both editorialised against Trump after the last televised hearing. The Post declared him “unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again”, and the Journal praised Mike Pence, a likely 2024 rival.
As much as Republicans have derided the January 6 hearings, they are a reminder that nothing can unite and mobilise Democrats like Trump. Democrats and many others detested him as president; his attempts to overturn the 2020 election mean there is no chance they will develop nostalgia or even indifference towards him.
Joe Biden’s approval ratings are currently so low that even large numbers of Democrats are saying he also shouldn’t run again in 2024.
But they would still turn out to vote against Trump, as would a small but significant chunk of Americans who usually vote Republican, because they see him as a threat to democracy itself. This may be a factor in the electoral calculations of many Republicans who continue to appreciate Trump, but would prefer a different candidate.
Trump is not helping his own cause by insisting that Republicans should still be fighting to overturn the 2020 election result. As recently as July, Trump contacted the speaker of Wisconsin’s State Assembly, demanding he “take back” the state’s 2020 electoral votes after a court decision restricting absentee ballot boxes.
In Trump’s mind, this should be a central issue for Republicans, and it is the main subject of most of his speeches. Trump has made his endorsements contingent on it.
In March this year Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, a loyal ally who had spoken alongside Trump at the January 6 rally, told Republicans they should move on from 2020 and look ahead to the 2022 and 2024 elections. Trump responded by accusing Brooks of going “woke” and rescinding his endorsement. Brooks subsequently lost his primary race.
Trump would still be the heavy favourite if Republican primaries were held tomorrow. And he may announce his candidacy far sooner than anyone else, in the belief this will help shelter him from prosecution for his role in the January 6 riots. But the January 6 hearings, and continuing Republican unease about Trump’s endless relitigation of 2020, have increased the chances he will face a genuinely competitive primary race in 2024. His opponents would not be “never-Trump” pariahs, but Trump supporters who believe they can carry his agenda further than he can.