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Facts are mere weapons in the war over US Capitol riots narrative

The US congressional hearings are a blockbuster but a divided audience hears two different stories.

By Gabriel Gatehouse

If you haven’t watched every minute so far of the box office bonanza that is the congressional hearing into the US Capitol riots of 6 January 2021, here’s the short version: the election wasn’t stolen, there was no systematic fraud, yet the then-president Donald Trump and some of his close associates persisted in making such claims, whipping his supporters into a frenzy that ended in a mob rampaging around the Congress building in Washington DC.

We know this. These hearings aren’t about uncovering new facts that might change anyone’s mind. They’re about putting flesh on bones.

There was grim satisfaction in watching some of the most senior people on Team Trump give inside accounts of those crazy final days when it truly seemed like the wheels of American democracy might be coming off. There was William Barr, Trump’s own attorney general, describing the 45th president as “detached from reality”. He told the hearings how he informed his boss that claims about widespread voter fraud were “bulls**t”. (Why, one couldn’t help wondering, had he not said so publicly at the time?)

Ivanka Trump looked like a schoolchild who had been summoned to see the headteacher and had brought a gaggle of expensive lawyers with her. “I respect Attorney General Barr,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “so I accepted what he was saying.” And with that she appeared to wash her hands of the whole affair, and of her father, who has made the stolen election narrative the centrepiece in his incendiary shtick. The viewer was left imagining the Succession-like scenes around the dinner table at Mar-a-Lago at the next family get-together.

[See also: What the US Capitol riot hearing tell us about the slow decay of political norms]

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The chair of the committee is Bennie Thompson, a Democratic congressman from Mississippi. But the real star of the show is Liz Cheney – the rebel Republican congresswoman from Wyoming who takes on the role of truth-seeking crusader against the “Big Lie”. She does such a convincing job of skewering barefaced mendacity that one almost forgets about the key role her father, the former vice-president Dick Cheney, once played in constructing another grand fiction two decades ago. The “Big Lie” about Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda and his weapons of mass destruction programmes led America into a disastrous war in Iraq and cost hundreds of thousands of lives (while handsomely boosting the profits of Halliburton, a company Mr Cheney once led).

But never mind, memories are short in these fast-paced times. The committee hearings are structured like a blockbuster Netflix series: Friday’s opening session was the hook – two hours of highly produced prime-time TV (the committee has hired a former ABC News executive to help them tell a more compelling tale) watched by 20 million people. The rest of the season will unfold over five subsequent episodes, leading to the inevitable denouement. The fact that the viewer knows how the story ends doesn’t matter. This is compelling viewing.

But there’s a big problem: audience. Those who believe the whole “stolen election” narrative was a cynical attempt to subvert democracy and cling to power will get to the end of these hearings with even more facts in their armoury of belief. But the converse is also true. According to a poll published in January to coincide with the first anniversary of the attack on Capitol Hill, only 55 per cent of Americans believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president of the US. In other words, almost half of all Americans either believe the election was stolen or that the electoral system is so broken that it simply cannot be trusted. Many of them will see in these slick televised hearings yet more evidence of the Deep State at work.

When I was investigating the role of the QAnon conspiracy theory in pushing the “stolen election” narrative, I came across Jack Posobiec, an alt-right social media personality and provocateur who worked to help get out the vote for Trump in 2016. He believed he and his colleagues had harnessed the power of social media to bypass the establishment gatekeepers of information and propel Trump into office. In his book, Citizens for Trump: The Inside Story of the People’s Movement to Take Back America, he wrote, “Instead of a competition between rival campaigns, 2016 became a contest between rival realities.” It was as if the electorate were watching two different movies, Posobiec wrote, with the same characters but different plot lines: “In one movie, Donald Trump was the monstrous villain, and in the other movie Hillary was the evil gorgon-queen.”

This bifurcation of reality has only intensified in the five years since the book was written. The hearings on the Hill are part of a battle for control of the movie theatre. In this battle, facts no longer serve as signposts towards a common truth. Facts are mere weapons in war over the narrative, and the question of what is true has become not empirical, but political. In such an environment, the congressional hearings into what actually happened on 6 January are likely to entrench America’s cultural and political chasm.

[See also: The 6 January attacks never ended]

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