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Detached from reality

Jul 04,2022 - Last updated at Jul 04,2022

Though the January 6th congressional hearings may be important for the historical record, detailing the facts behind the insurrection that attempted to violently overturn the 2020 election, it may also be an exercise in futility.

First, we already know the essentials of what happened that day and former president Trump’s intentions. We saw it unfold in real time and Trump hasn’t stopped talking about it since. 

New details emerging during the hearings, about Oval Office conversations in the days before January 6th, what the former president’s advisors and attorneys told him, and Trump’s state of mind, only add to the fundamental story: The former president sought to incite a violent insurrectionist mob to intimidate his vice president and members of Congress and to discredit the results of an election he lost, to attempt to remain in office. There’s no secret here. Trump telegraphed his intentions in speeches before January 6th and in public remarks since then he continues making his case, describing his attempt, and justifying his behaviour.

What is new are the taped interviews with former White House insiders seeking to absolve themselves of personal responsibility by claiming they told the president he was wrong or tried to push him to change direction before and during the fateful day. But why, if they knew how dangerous the president’s course of action was, did it take them so long to come forward with their damning evidence of wrongdoing?

Before the hearings, there was sufficient grounds to charge Trump with seditious acts,  a case that is stronger now. However, Congress is unlikely to recommend formal charges, nor will the Department of Justice prosecute the twice-impeached former president.

Another reason why the hearings, as riveting as they may be, are futile is rooted in the deep, disturbing divisions in the American electorate. Our polity, once shaped by two parties, each with a distinct political ideology, is today two parties, each with its own reality.

Republicans have for years harnessed the power of traditional and social media to project ideas with no grounding in reality. Recall the Tea Party’s “birther” myths about former president Obama being born in Kenya and a secret Muslim. Despite evidence to the contrary (e.g., his birth certificate and Christian pastor’s testimony), the myths took hold. Even today, polls show that strong majorities of Republicans believe that Obama was born in Africa and is not Christian.

Trump has elevated this ability to project a lie and persuade followers it is true. On his first day in office, for example, he boasted that his inauguration gathering was the largest ever, despite photographic evidence to the contrary; or that the CIA audience he addressed gave him repeated standing ovations, despite the live TV coverage proving that false. Challenged about these repeated falsehoods, Trump’s spokesperson described the president’s statements as “alternative facts”.

Alternative facts regarding crowd size or standing ovations may be relatively harmless. But when that ability, to project a lie and convince millions it’s true, is used to overthrow a democratic election, that is an entirely different matter.

The crisis of January 6th isn’t just about what Trump’s actions. It is also about the 68 per cent of Republicans who believe the election was stolen, one-half of Republicans who believe nothing untoward happened on January 6th, the overwhelming majority of Republican members of Congress, many of whom initially denounced the insurrection, who dismiss it as a “peaceful protest”, and the scores of “election deniers” who have won Republican primary elections. These deeper issues, unfortunately, aren’t within the purview of congressional hearings.

I was struck by former attorney general William Barr’s quote that emerged from the hearings. After meeting with the president and hearing his plans to stay in office, Barr said he walked away saying, “Boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has become detached from reality!" Since “detached from reality” can be said to describe the mental state of millions of Americans and thousands of elected officials, all of whom have come to believe Trump’s claim of a stolen election, it will take more than congressional hearings to address how to move us away from the dangerous delusional path we are on.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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