The January 6 Hearings Are Failed Political Theater

The January 6 hearings fail to tackle the most important questions about the incident; they won’t hold anyone accountable; and most Americans have tuned them out. As political theater and a play for the midterms, they’re an opening night bomb.

Far-right protesters in front of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Brett Davis / Flickr)

Not long after the Capitol riot in early 2021, I suggested four possible measures that among others would be practical, effective ways to respond to the incident and help prevent something like it from happening again: a comprehensive inquiry into the baffling law enforcement failure on the day; a nationwide investigation into police around the country and the extremists among them; steps to curb the power of corporate media monopolies, particularly on cable; and taking on the system of legalized bribery that had financed the right-wing figures behind the event and extremist movements more generally. A year later, I noted that nothing had been done about any of this, and in fact, in several cases, what had been done was to make all of these issues worse.

Now, six months after that, as Congress holds yet another series of hearings meant to be the absolute last, damning word on the episode, I’m tempted to write the same piece again.

It would be wrong to say that this latest set of hearings is a waste of time. The parade of Donald Trump lackeys and various Republican officials calling bullshit on the former president’s election fraud claims helps make the lie ever more untenable, though as always, anyone who bought into it in the first place will find a way to keep believing. And behind-the-scenes details about Trump’s behavior while the riot raged — including the alleged statement that protesters chanting “hang Mike Pence” might “have the right idea” — speak to the man’s extraordinary callousness and irresponsibility, not that we needed more evidence of that.

But for the most part so far, if you’ve consumed any of the previous January 6–related content out there, you already know what you’re going to get. The hearings have been little more than a reminder that the Capitol riot happened and that it was bad, only this time with a narrower focus on Trump and his personal role in the incident. A much-hyped compilation of never-before-seen footage of the day offers not a whole lot new from the hours upon hours of footage you would’ve already seen. Probably the most interesting pieces are the bird’s-eye shots, starting around the three-minute mark, that make it abundantly clear how badly unprepared the police were, a handful of officers being the only thing standing between the Capitol and a tidal wave of marchers.

We still don’t have any clue why that security failure happened, by the way, or why the copious warnings about the crowd’s size and plans were ignored. This is despite a Capitol police whistleblower accusing two high-ranking officials of profound failures that enabled what happened and saying that “the truth of the leadership/intelligence failures of the 6th is purposefully not being delivered to the officers and the public,” because the congressional community has “purposefully failed” to provide the truth.

It’s also in spite of knowing that at least one officer was sympathetic to the rioters and the fact that an after-action report the Capitol police produced identified serious intelligence failures, including a discrepancy between what the body’s hazardous response division was told — that there was the chance of violence and that protesters wanted to breach police lines — and what everyone else was told, which did not mention those possibilities. If the police had just prepared the same way they normally do for any other protest, the entire episode would likely have never happened, and yet this fundamental cause continues to go unexplored — deliberately, if you believe the whistleblower.

We also still haven’t gotten a national inquiry into extremism among the police and armed forces, even though 13 percent of those charged over entering the Capitol have backgrounds in one or the other, active duty in some cases. Corporate media, cable news in particular, still hasn’t faced the kind of reckoning for its role in spreading election disinformation that Congress has visited on, for instance, tech companies. And the broken political economy that helped make it all possible, and the role of economic dislocation in fomenting election delusions, is still untouched as a subject.

Even the extremely narrow focus of these particular hearings — holding Trump and his cronies to account — will come to nothing. Representative Bennie Thompson, the chair of the House select committee running these hearings, has explicitly said he won’t be making criminal referrals of anyone to the Justice Department.

That’s because the point of these hearings isn’t to actually solve anything but to serve as political theater that Democrats hope will give voters a reason to back them in this year’s midterms. There’s nothing wrong with political theater, of course. But the question is: is this actually useful political theater?

The ratings for the hearings have been respectable, even without coverage from Fox, but they’re lower than Joe Biden’s State of the Union address and don’t come close to the numbers that tuned into the Watergate hearings. More importantly, apart from Democrats, the US public just doesn’t really care that much. Instead, poll after poll after poll show it’s the economy, above all inflation, that’s most on voters’ minds.

The Democrats’ use of the hearings as an electoral tool shows that they’re well aware of the power of the bully pulpit they hold. Imagine if they had used it on something people cared about: hauling corporate profiteers before Congress and dressing them down over price gouging; calling in Amazon and other companies to testify about their union-busting efforts and worker mistreatment; summoning pharma executives to berate them about the extortionate prices they charge for drugs; or as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently suggested the president should do, “bring the major oil companies in and tell them we’re going to have a windfall profits tax on what they’re doing in order to stop them from ripping off the American people.”

The Democrats have already held hearings like these in the recent past. Imagine if they were given the kind of blockbuster, prime-time attention right now that the January 6 hearings are getting, for which the party hired a TV executive to create the feel of a docuseries.

Instead, the January 6 hearings are the worst of all worlds: they won’t lead to anyone facing any consequences, don’t touch any of the lingering questions and underlying causes of the Capitol riot, and probably won’t make a hell of a lot of difference to the impending midterm bloodbath, since it’s largely only Democratic voters who afford the event this kind of importance. Democrats are correct that American democracy is in peril. But they clearly have no idea how to save it.