The Jan. 6 Hearings Are Unfolding Like a Reality Show
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No one can accuse Tuesday’s episode of D.C.’s favorite show of being an easy watch—or bad television.
There was the story of ketchup splattered on the wall of the West Wing’s private dining room, the presumptive result of yet another rage-hurled meal. The President tries to get behind the wheel of one the most heavily armored cars in the world. An at-best indifference to weapons’ control from the commander in chief, who urged the Secret Service to unplug the magnetometers so that a stream of armed allies could fill in the empty spots for the cameras. It all culminated in a sense of arrogance from Donald Trump. He saw Jan. 6, 2021 as things that could be stage managed and framed to serve his Big Lie of having won the 2020 elections.
But there’s a corollary to that TV mindset: ownership of the control room isn’t permanent, and the next production team can reframe, recast, and reshoot. And that’s precisely what the panel investigating the Jan. 6 crisis did on Tuesday with the shocking testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson. The former senior aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows calmly and credibly described the events unfolding in Trump’s orbit that day and in the days leading up to it. Hutchinson explained that Trump knew that the audience gathered to hear his fantasist speech on election fraud and other anti-democratic ideas was armed. He also stated that Trump wanted to take the group to Capitol Hill and that he didn’t listen to his senior advisors. The audience also now knows that Trump’s allies appear to be completely comfortable tampering with witnesses.
In short, it was the most transparent accounting of Trump’s tolerance of—if not appetite for—violence in his West Wing. Even former President Trump’s apologists were left openly worried about the reported behaviour. The incident also brought home the fact that Trump could have given D.C. some lessons about how to turn an inept government hearing into something more impressive. The Housewives marathon.
Trump is the best example of this. He knows that the camera can quickly take your most thoughtful ideas and turn them into reality. It’s why the most important spot for any reality show is the casting couch—be it for a celebrity competition or a Cabinet. Trump might not have intended for his plot turn into violence at Capitol Hill, but evidence to the contrary suggests that he knew what elements he had hired. When what was billed as a televised rally to “stop the steal” and to pressure Congress not to certify Joe Biden’s win started to spiral, it was clear Trump was no longer in the producer’s chair. He couldn’t even direct his Secret Service detail to ferry him to the next shoot, that one at the Capitol. The production took on a life of its own, and Trump seemed happy—to borrow an old Bravo marketing phrase—to “watch what happens.”
The panel that led the investigation said Tuesday’s episode was just the latest in must-see TV, which is a revision of the way most congressional committees hold hearings. A typical playbook allows both sides to give their members an opportunity to answer multiple questions at once, which can be tedious and boring. Jan. 6, however, selected only one or two people to be responsible for the questions at every hearing. The members stick to their scripts and are usually well-informed. There have not been fishing expeditions unlike other hearings. Because Hutchinson, and others who preceded her, participated in private interviews before appearing in public, the legislators were well-acquainted with the facts. The investigators knew exactly how to pace the narrative and had all the evidence they needed.
The hearings may change few minds about what happened on Jan. 6 and who—if anyone—deserves responsibility. The polling clearly shows that there are clear differences by party. And the audience to the televised hearings is heavily Democratic. Trump’s true believers aren’t going to be swayed by the likes of Hutchinson; they still think Trump should be sitting in the White House and Biden was wrongly installed.
The committee’s public service is only matched by the fact that it can carefully stage an accounting series with historical significance. The teasers and previews used by lawmakers to keep the audience watching have proven successful. At their June 9 public hearing, legislators suggested that Trump’s pardons had been sought by some Republicans. But officials didn’t name them until June 23, when they were still waiting for the announcement. They scheduled a surprise hearing for Tuesday but cryptically didn’t announce Hutchinson’s name to go with it, adding to the who-dunnit tone. And they adopted it by the members of the committee. stay-tunedThey appear as if they are teasing new revelations every day on cable news. They may be laying the groundwork to prosecute Trump, but they aren’t above adopting his ApprenticeUse well-honed techniques to retain your audiences.
Trump rode the wave of reality TV and celebrity to the White House. Trump’s four years as president were a constant affront to breaking news, fake outrage and shock-jock rhetoric. The Reality Show Presidency was it, and it was hard to ignore. The Congressional Budget Office was almost like the Kardashians had orchestrated the strangest of collaborations.
Then voters canceled the Trump show, but not before some savvy members of Congress had come to understand the value of his writers’ room approach to government. That’s why the Jan. 6 committee has been so effective: it’s illuminating and considered in equal measure. Unlike the Trump presidency, this isn’t a vamping exercise or leave-it-to-chance experiment. There’s a narrative arc, characters are brought onto the stage, and the villain is pretty clearly defined—and mostly by Republicans. Trump’s fate and whether he can renew his contract for another season are the only questions. The reboot will premiere in time to air for the sweeps 2024.
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