“We will see you all in September,” Liz Cheney said at the end of last Thursday’s prime-time televised hearings by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. “Bring it on,” muttered many of the millions watching on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN and MSNBC.
You will notice that two U.S. outlets are missing from that list. That’s Fox TV, the linear network channel, and cable channel Fox News. Fox TV chose to air MasterChef, Welcome to Flatch and a repeat of Call Me Kat. Over on Fox News, Sean Hannity said of the proceedings his channel declined to air, “It’s really just a cheap, selectively edited political ad.” Oddly enough, Fox News and Hannity featured in the proceedings he chose to simultaneously ignore and demean.
But Fox is making a calculation here. It’s betting that many of its viewers have already tuned out the proceedings. It’s betting on the veracity of what New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman said on CNN on Friday morning. Speaking about the Thursday night event, she said, “Whether this gets through to anyone and changes their minds, I think is an open question.”
There’s the rub. Haberman accurately pointed out that the purpose of Thursday’s hearings was to establish, again, that there is, “An existential threat posed by Donald Trump.” That threat is posed to both the Republican Party and to American democracy.
Many viewers will have got that point. They were only seeing further vindication of their fears, disgust and unease. The committee laid out a case against Donald Trump’s quiescence as the riot was taking place. He sat, watched TV – Fox News, of course – and twiddled his thumbs to make some phone calls, while the riot got more violent and out of control. Slickly presented and with damning testimony from Sarah Matthews, a former Trump deputy press secretary, and Matthew Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser under Trump, who were both witness to, and outraged by, Trump’s quiescence, it was dramatic enough. And yet more unnerving footage was presented.
But, given the decision by two Fox channels to ignore the hearings, a disturbing question arises: What if Trump and Trumpism are now baked into the political atmosphere and cultural climate in the United States?
Societies shift and cultures change. That is a fact on display in many countries that have drifted toward authoritarianism. How it happens and why is not something that’s been figured out with exactitude yet. Maybe Fox News knows something about it, and knows that the laying out, by these hearings, of the failings of Trump, isn’t as important as some people think. Maybe it’s really hard to actually lay a finger on Trump, no matter his deeds or deliberate inaction. Maybe the United States is now one of those countries in a peculiar state of denial, a place with a capacity for what Irish writer Fintan O’Toole called, referring to his own country, “knowing and not knowing at the same time.”
A lot of the evidence presented at last Thursday’s mid-season finale of televised hearings was about hypocrisy. There was great glee in showing Missouri Senator Josh Hawley running like the blazes from the mob he had earlier encouraged with a fist pump. There was ample scorn to be aimed at Trump’s ineptitude in making video statements on Jan. 6 and the following day.
Yet the possibility remains that a portion of American voters are unimpressed by evidence of hypocrisy. Any awareness of that is overridden by scores of grievances they feel that Trump understands.
With great skill and indignation, the Thursday hearing made an essential suggestion about Trump’s inaction on Jan. 6. It’s not exactly novel, mind you, to assert that the authoritarian leader’s playbook includes the trick of inciting violence and then commandeering dictatorial power to apply law and order.
Clearly the United States came within a hair’s breadth of that circumstance. Why, hours of prime-time TV were insistent on that. It matters, though, that while Fox TV and Fox News ignore it all, there isn’t universal understanding or worry. It’s not popular to suggest the hearings are making less headway than assumed, so let’s just see what happens in September.
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