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How the GOP Plans to Wash Away the Truth about Jan 6th
The Right has a plan to beat the truth and render these essential hearings moot
Congress will gather tonight for the most important set of hearings since Watergate.
The January 6th Committee will present its findings about what happened and who is responsible for the January 6th Insurrection prime time with promises of smoking guns and blockbuster witnesses.
Now of course no one watching Fox News will see the hearings, because the hate for-profit cable network will be airing Tucker Carlson instead
Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat on the Committee, recently stated the evidence presented at the hearing will “will really blow the roof off the House.” But even without any new evidence, based on what we already know, this should be an open-and-shut case. The Republicans are currently on a glide path to taking back power. Theoretically, the findings of the January 6th Committee are an existential threat to their electoral chances. Yet, the Republicans are cocky about their ability to – once again – avoid political accountability. It’s hard to blame them. The GOP occupied this position before including not one, but two, impeachments for Donald Trump -- who walked away unscathed. In each case, the Republicans dominated the messaging wars. And it may happen again. Seven years after Trump started running for President, too many Democrats, pundits and members of the press still do not understand the power of the Right Wing media apparatus (personified by Fox News and powered by Facebook).
The Lessons of the Last Impeachment
Democrats continue to view political communications as a combination of press management and public relations. Republicans correctly understand that messaging in high-intensity information warfare is waged in a digital environment. Most Congressional Democrats continue to operate in a long-extinct media world where facts matter and traditional media sources are the best way to deliver those facts. Look at the first impeachment of Trump as an example. The Democratic approach was simple: make the case, present the evidence in an unbiased manner, communicate through putatively objective sources, and let the public decide. Despite a compelling presentation from Representative Adam Schiff and other members of the Committee, as well as powerful testimony from credible witnesses, Trump’s impeachment turned out to be an abject political failure. According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating went up five points from October 2019 (when the inquiry opened) to December of that year. Over that same period, support for the inquiry dropped six points. Many Democrats – myself included – saw those polls and proceeded to bang our heads against the wall. How is it that possible? Were those Republicans watching the same hearing?
This was the problem. Democrats count on network news, local papers, and cable TV to carry evidence from the hearing room into the public consciousness. A significant part of the American population was living in hermetically sealed information bubbles where Trump was the persecuted hero not the villain who deserved prosecution. These folks lived on and offline in communities where Fox News was the media source of choice and Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino dominated Facebook feeds. After decades of being fed the canard of “Liberal Bias” and “Fake News,” for huge swaths of the electorate, the fact that the New York Times or CNN reported the story was all they needed to know in order to disavow them as sources. As Trump put it (in an Orwellian aside during a 2018 speech): “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”
As the Democrats prepare their arguments and their strategy, they should keep in mind what Steve Bannon, the Roger Ailes of the digital age, said in 2019 while describing how the Right would fight impeachment: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Bannon and his fellow participants in the MAGA Megaphone understand two fundamental truths about modern politics.
First, the public is inherently distrustful of politicians, the press, and the entire process.
Second, it’s nearly impossible for even the most media literate to differentiate news and opinion, and fact from fiction, while scrolling through Facebook and Twitter. If you throw enough shit out there, a confused public will throw up their arms and tune out. The public will decide everyone must be a little crooked. During the impeachment trial, the Republicans began arguing that Trump’s actions were somehow justified because it was the Ukrainians – not the Russians – who interfered in the 2016 election.
This fabrication involved claims of Ukrainian cooperation in the arrest of Trump’s convicted criminal of a campaign manager, Paul Manafort, alleged hacking by a Ukrainian company, and a missing DNC server being absconded to Kiev.
None of it makes any logical (Manafort was already being investigated), technological (ever hear of the Cloud?), or geographic (the supposedly Ukrainian company is based in California with no ties to Ukraine) sense. But it was enough to sow confusion. Because the Republicans said it, Fox and the MAGA media amplified these claims, and the traditional media felt obligated to quote the lies.
Just yesterday, Blake Masters, Trump’s chosen candidate in the Arizona Senate race, claimed that the FBI was responsible for 1/6. According to CNN, he told a group of GOP activists:
Don’t we suspect that like one-third of the people outside of the Capitol complex on January 6 were actual FBI agents hanging out,” Masters asked at the GrassRoots Tea Party Activists of Arizona event. “What did people know and when did they know it? We got to get to the bottom of this.
It’s hard to more dangerous and irresponsible than that.
Getting on a War Footing
The Republicans are planning to re-run the same playbook. According to Axios, the GOP is “plotting to compete with wall-to-wall cable coverage by using their own platforms to argue the Committee is a partisan fishing expedition that lacks legal legitimacy.” The Democrats’ ability to avoid the pitfalls of the first impeachment are admittedly limited. The Right-Wing messaging advantage is the product of decades of development and millions of dollars invested. The gap won’t be narrowed in the near future. There are, however, steps the Democrats can take to maximize the impact of these hearings.
First, going direct to the public is an essential part of a modern communications strategy
Holding the hearings in prime time is evidence that Democrats learned their lesson. Prime time increases the likelihood that people will see them in real-time as opposed to learning about them through partisan actors or distrusted intermediaries.
Second, if the Right is going to “fire up their own channels,” Democrats need to do the same. The progressive media is a fraction of the size and doesn’t benefit from MAGA-friendly Facebook, but it has grown significantly in recent years. Democrats need to utilize outlets that will tell their story on their terms. Some will read this and ask “Isn’t that just preaching to the choir?” Of course it is. And that’s okay. We need to preach to the choir and then send that choir out so sing the message at the top of their lungs.
Lastly, empower that choir. One of Bannon’s insights into modern media is that curating an audience itself is not the end goal. Every reader and viewer can also be an amplifier of the message by sharing it on social media, in group chats, or around the water cooler. Most of the people who watch the hearings already believe that Trump and his allies are guilty. But every one of those people will know many others who haven’t made up their mind. We know millions of Democrats will drop what they are doing to call and text strangers. It’s well past time we start asking them to amplify the message to people they know.
These hearings are important for history, but they are also a dry run of the elections and upcoming political fights. If we don’t better understand this “MAGA Megaphone” and adjust our approach, we will lose the messaging war, the election, and our democracy.