jan 6 hearing 061322
CNN  — 

With the powerful case it has assembled against former President Donald Trump, the bipartisan House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection may provide the clearest – and potentially most ominous – measure yet available of how completely red and blue America have separated into divergent information bubbles that no longer share even the most rudimentary agreement on the basic facts of American life.

“This will tell us something that we don’t know right now: How impenetrable is the tribalism? How locked down is the tribalism?” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that has extensively studied the relationship between media consumption and political attitudes.

For months, polls have consistently found large numbers of Republicans expressing agreement with propositions that have no basis in fact, including the beliefs that systemic fraud stole the 2020 election from Trump and the January 6 assault was carried out by leftist agitators and Black protesters, not White supremacist groups and Trump supporters. About half or more of GOP voters have described the invasion of the US Capitol in positive terms, such as patriotism or defending freedom, and only a tiny percentage have said Trump deserves blame for the attack.

Months of drip-by-drip revelations from the committee, court cases against the January 6 rioters and media revelations about the breadth of Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat have failed to meaningfully shake these beliefs; if anything, a national NBC poll just before the panel’s hearings commenced last week found that fewer Americans now blame Trump for the attack than in its immediate aftermath.

By assembling the information about Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 result into one overarching narrative, releasing striking new information from its months of investigation (like the reports that Trump had praised the words of rioters chanting for the hanging of then-Vice President Mike Pence) and focusing national attention through sustained media coverage and surprisingly high ratings for its kickoff prime-time hearing last week, the committee is testing whether any disclosure, no matter how damning, can breach the dome of disinformation that Trump and his allies in conservative media have built around many voters in the GOP coalition.

The intractability of Republican attitudes about Trump, the election and the January 6 attack stands in marked contrast to the last major scandal that Congress devoted hearings of this magnitude to explicating: Watergate. Though many Republican voters continued to support then-President Richard Nixon throughout his ordeal, polling by the Gallup Organization found that his approval rating among GOP voters fell from about 90% at the start of his second term, in 1973, to only 50% by the time he resigned from office in August 1974.

One reason Republican opinions about Nixon shifted so much, many analysts agree, is that nothing existed then like the overtly conservative media of Fox, television networks to its right and talk radio, which are working not only to downplay but also to discredit damaging revelations from the committee.

But another key difference is that during Watergate, Republican leaders respected by rank-and-file GOP voters ultimately validated the criticism from Democrats and courts about Nixon’s behavior.

“In Watergate, there were Republicans … who were very critical of Nixon’s conduct and eventually were willing to call him to resign, including people like [Sen.] Barry Goldwater,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. Apart from the two Republicans serving on the committee, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, “that’s one thing you really don’t have right now,” he adds.

January 6 vs. Watergate

That sharp contrast points toward one critical variable that could determine how much the committee’s investigation ultimately influences opinion inside the Republican coalition: Will GOP leaders publicly express concern about its findings? Republican leaders, Abramowitz notes, often argue that they can’t publicly criticize Trump because he has such a strong hold on the party base. But one reason his hold is so strong, Abramowitz and others point out, is that so few party leaders have challenged even his most egregious behavior. “It’s … a two-way relationship,” Abramowitz says. Republican elected officials, he adds, “are right that the base has remained with Trump up until now, but part of the reason why they have is because the leaders, except during brief moments, have stuck with him.”

The committee seems acutely aware of this challenge, as evidenced by using its first two hearings of the month to highlight testimony from figures inside Trump’s orbit who privately acknowledged that his claims of fraud in 2020 were groundless – a list that includes former Attorney General William Barr, senior campaign advisers and, most strikingly, his daughter and former White House adviser, Ivanka Trump. But most analysts agree that the committee needs reinforcements in the form of other prominent Republican officials validating their findings.

“I do think self-identified Republicans will take their cues from [Senate Republican leader Mitch] McConnell and others if they would stand up and say something clear,” says Jones. “But I think with a silence from the leadership, where does it leave … people to pick up their cues? They are going to pick it up from their trusted media sources.”

And “trusted media sources” for Republicans like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham on Fox are working unstintingly to undermine the committee’s findings for their audiences.

The juxtaposition of the January 6 hearings with the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in in June 1972 has dramatically illuminated the shifting calculations within the party. Congressional Republicans played key roles in unearthing the evidence, and ultimately sanctioning Nixon for his behavior, at each stage in the Watergate investigation, from the initial Senate hearings in 1973 to the House Judiciary Committee’s vote to impeach him in July 1974. As noted in the new CNN documentary series, “Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal,” Nixon resigned in August 1974 just one day after Goldwater, the party’s 1964 presidential nominee, GOP Senate leader Hugh Scott and other senior party officials told him that virtually all Senate Republicans would vote to convict and remove him from office. The slow but steady accretion of Republican criticism also contributed to Nixon’s declining approval rating among GOP partisans during the scandal.

Elected Republicans have displayed much more reluctance to confront Trump, to put it mildly. No House Republicans (other than then-Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who had switched his party identification to independent) voted to impeach Trump over his efforts to extort Ukraine and only GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah joined Democrats in voting to convict him. Trump faced much more open Republican criticism for his role in sparking the January 6 attack on the Capitol. But even then, only 10 House Republicans voted for his impeachment; seven Senate Republicans voted to convict him, an unprecedented number from a president’s own party but well short of the total needed to convict him and/or bar him from seeking office again.

McConnell, after voting against Trump’s conviction, excoriated the former President’s conduct in a blistering floor speech – but has since said he would support Trump if he’s the GOP 2024 nominee. McConnell then led a filibuster that blocked the creation of an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection after the House (with support from 35 Republicans) voted to create one.

Beyond Cheney and Kinzinger, few Republicans have defended the inquiry. The Republican National Committee, the House Republican Conference and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have all issued tweets aimed at discrediting the committee. House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York, who replaced Cheney in the position, condemned the investigation as “illegitimate.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been an especially unrelenting opponent, releasing a flurry of tweets saying Congress should investigate other issues like violence associated with some 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd and describing the hearings to Hannity as “a kangaroo court,” “a circus,” “an infomercial for their political purposes” and “garbage.” Earlier this year, the RNC officially censured Cheney and Kinzinger for participating in the investigation, which it said amounted to “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

Meanwhile, very few elected Republicans have publicly endorsed the committee’s work, or even expressed interest in its findings. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison broadly defended the inquiry over the weekend, saying Trump was “politically, morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol. But if there are congressional Republicans supporting the inquiry, they have mostly revealed their attitudes not by openly defending it – but only by choosing not to publicly join their colleagues condemning it.

The paucity of Republican voices defending the investigation makes it easier for Trump’s defenders, both in Congress and conservative media, to marginalize his critics to GOP voters, notes Daniel Cox, senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. “The collective refusal to speak out en masse against Trump’s behavior during and after the January 6 attacks … means anyone who does speak out is more easily written off, particularly in a political environment where partisan or ideologically based media play a really significant role,” Cox says. “It would be a lot harder to make the argument it’s a partisan affair if you have a dozen Republicans saying, ‘This is serious. We should take this seriously.’”

The role of conservative media

Cox, like many analysts, believes the refusal of almost all Republican elected officials to condemn Trump’s behavior has left a vacuum that increases the leverage of conservative media over GOP attitudes. In Public Religion Research Institute polling last year, about two-fifths of Republicans said the source of television news they trust most is either Fox or networks to its right such as Newsmax.

Those Republicans who lean right in their television consumption are especially likely to second Trump’s discredited claims about 2020: More than four-fifths of the Fox Republicans and a virtually unanimous 97% of Republicans trusting farther-right sources agree the election was stolen from Trump, compared with 44% of those who trust mainstream news sources, the institute found. Only 3% of Republicans who trust Fox and far-right sources said Trump was substantially responsible for the attack, compared with about half of Republicans who trust mainstream sources. About three-fifths of Republicans in the mainstream group blamed White supremacists for the attack, compared with only one-fourth or less of those consuming Fox and the competitors to its right, the polling found. Far more of those Republicans consuming right-leaning media blamed left-wing agitators for the violence. “The numbers are just astonishing,” says Jones.

The institute’s finding that about two-fifths of Republicans place the most trust in right-leaning sources of television news only partially captures the influence of overtly conservative media on the GOP coalition. For one thing, that influence is exercised not only through television consumption, but also talk radio and especially social media.

Just as important, many Republicans who consume significant amounts of mainstream media are viewing it through a prism of skepticism shaped by the conservative sources, notes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a longtime student of political communication who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jamieson says it’s a mistake to assume that even consumers of Fox and other overtly conservative sources are not also exposed to information through more mainstream print sources. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are hearing that information in the same way as those who don’t watch much conservative media. An “echo chamber” doesn’t “mean you lock in and you only watch one ideological view,” she told me. “It is that you watch one ideological view and it creates the frame for everything else you see.”

In their response to the committee’s initial hearings, Jamieson says, Fox and other conservative outlets are deploying key techniques they have honed over the years to discredit information from mainstream sources – claiming they are selectively using evidence to make Republicans look bad and that they are employing a double standard, criticizing the right for behavior they exemplify as well (a point dramatized by the frequent assertion that Democrats are focusing on the January 6 riot but ignoring the violence that accompanied some racial equity protests in summer 2020). Those arguments, she says, amount to a “protective framing that lets [conservative media] discredit anything that comes through the mainstream” to its audience.

Inside the echo chamber

Nothing like this concentrated core of media influence exists on the Democratic side. In polling by the Pew Research Center, the Public Religion Research Institute and others, Democratic partisans express confidence in a broad range of mainstream media outlets. As political analysts and strategists in both parties have come to recognize, that makes it considerably more difficult for Democrats than for Republicans to drive a coherent message to their base voters.

“Democrats tend to trust a lot of different news sources, and even if most journalists at those news outlets have liberal perspectives or whatever, it is much easier to get people to believe what I want them to believe if I can funnel all the information through one outlet,” like Fox, says Cox.

Dan Pfeiffer, who was the White House communications director for Barack Obama, is the author of “Battling the Big Lie,” a book released this month that analyzes that imbalance. He argues that, as the reaction to the January 6 committee demonstrates, Republicans are now

locked in a cycle where the most militant elements of their base are not only receiving, but also shaping, the messages that both elected officials and conservative media deliver. While Roger Ailes, the mastermind of Fox, may have originally envisioned it as a way to shape opinion among conservatives, now the network is “as much being led as they are leading: they have lost control of what they originally created,” Pfeiffer argued in an interview. With alternatives to its right like Newsmax competing for viewers who “feel Fox is not toeing the MAGA line,” he told me, “Trump now runs [Fox] essentially. If they had shown those [first prime-time] hearings and Trump had told his followers to stop watching, people would have stopped watching and that would have hurt their bottom line.”

Yet even amid all these headwinds, almost all of the strategists and analysts I spoke with said it was premature to conclude that the hearings will have no impact on thinking among conservative and Republican voters. Abramowitz notes that polls already show some slackening in the intensity of Republican support for Trump, even if he remains the party’s dominant figure.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some further movement here after all these hearings are over,” Abramowitz says. “It’s pretty damning, and they are presenting it in a pretty dramatic way.”

Likewise, Jones notes the committee is reframing the basic question from whether Trump’s words and tweets immediately sparked the January 6 attack to whether he led a much broader attack on democracy through a months-long effort to subvert the election, which culminated in the insurrection. If the committee can demonstrate “what we had was a president looking for any means necessary to stay in power when he knew he had lost an election, that’s something that has the potential to seep through,” he says.

The committee’s ultimate impact on public opinion could be much greater if its evidence and arguments help persuade Attorney General Merrick Garland to indict Trump for his role in subverting the 2020 election. Still, no matter what the Justice Department eventually does, the determination of GOP elected officials and conservative media to blunt and rebut the evidence against Trump means that any changes in views toward him within the GOP coalition are likely to come on the margins, among moderate Republican-leaning voters who have always been cooler toward him and less likely to second his claims of 2020 fraud.

Yet even relatively small shifts in attitudes could have a big influence on Trump’s future. Convincing evidence of his culpability, not only for the Capitol attack but also the broader effort to undermine the 2020 election, could strengthen his rivals in a GOP 2024 nomination fight and, even more so, complicate his path in another general election if the party does nominate him again.

“We live in a polarized country and elections are a decision on the margins,” says Pfeiffer. “You don’t have to persuade that many people to go from winning to losing.”