The surprise summer hit series—Survivor in 2000, Stranger Things in 2016—has been a phenomenon ever since television broke away from its old fall-centric schedule. But this year, for the first time, the summer’s most addictive, talked-about limited series is the work of a congressional committee. Even before the shocking, last-minute testimony on Tuesday by Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, the hearings of the House’s Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol have presented sleekly mounted, smartly constructed narratives full of revelations and portent. Hutchinson merely provided the late-season twist to turn the hearings into a bonafide barnburner, politics transformed into prestige cable drama with a cast of indelible characters to debate around the water cooler.
Former ABC News president James Goldston, brought in to help the committee organize a vast amount of material into a coherent presentation, has been credited for much of this success. That said, plenty of the grabbiest techniques used in the hearings come not from news reporting but from scripted fiction. Episode 2 ended with a tantalizing preview, a clip of former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann—the source of much enjoyably salty videotaped testimony—saying “I told him, ‘You’re out of your effing mind!’” without revealing who exactly he said it to. You had to tune in the next week to find out. (It was the disheveled kooky-uncle figure in the story, John Eastman, the main proponent of the theory that Mike Pence could overturn the election on Jan. 6.)
Of course, the major players in this saga—Trump and his loyalists—are largely missing from the stage, even if they do appear in video clips. The dominant Trump wing of the GOP refused to participate in the hearings, presumably so it could denounce them as a partisan “kangaroo court.” This move left the committee able to craft a tight, suspenseful story free of the usual grandstanding and objections typical of proceedings like the two Trump impeachments. In place of the expected bloviating, bickering, time-wasting politicians, citizens see a sober assemblage of grown-ups shaking their heads over the depths to which the Trump administration sunk, along with helpful graphics and shocking footage of unhinged fanatics screaming for Mike Pence’s head on the Capitol steps.
Presiding over it all are the grandfatherly chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-Miss.) and vice-chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who resembles one of those formidably capable moms who never has to shout at her kids because her I’m-so-disappointed-in-you face is the most devastating reproach conceivable. Neither displays any anger publicly—always a tricky proposition for a woman or a Black man—just sadness, dismay, and an immense amount of concern. For Cheney in particular, this is a tough needle to thread at a time when any white woman who seems scoldy gets dismissed as a Karen. She pulls it off masterfully, to the degree that I’ve even seen a few men, otherwise opposed to Cheney’s policy positions, confess online to having developed sheepish crushes on her. Thompson and Cheney have described themselves as “friends” with the kindly Thompson—reassuring Shay Moss not to be nervous about testifying and warmly greeting her mother, Lady Ruby—playing approachable good cop to the sterner Cheney. It’s always Thompson, for example, who makes the committee’s plea to potential witnesses to come forward. Wouldn’t anyone rather confess to him?
Nevertheless, the hearings have no central “stars.” They’re ensemble pieces, full of compelling recurring and cameo roles. Shay Moss and Lady Ruby were the most moving of the latter, ordinary citizens working on behalf of their communities and targeted by a petulant sore loser and his legions of idiot thugs. And while Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers’ belief that the U.S. Constitution is “divinely inspired,” strikes me as fantastical, he is clearly a man of deeply felt principles who suffered for his refusal to commit, at Trump’s urging, deeds “foreign to my very being.” It wasn’t just the nutjobs who harassed his family (including a dying daughter) at home, either. When Bowers read, his voice hitching, from his diary about the pain of having “friends who have been such help to me turn on me with so much rancor,” he illustrated the daunting punishments the Trump cult inflicts on apostates. Even the halting, digressive testimony of retired Judge Michael Luttig—one of the few instances when the brisk pace of the hearings faltered—was redeemed when the judge suddenly announced, with an eloquence that was clearly the product of passion, “I would have laid my body across the road before I’d have let the VP overturn the 2020 election on the basis of that historical precedent.”
Among the hearings’ tragic moments come interludes of highly identifiable workplace intrigue that borders on comic relief. There’s Trump—the world’s worst boss—flinging his dinner at the wall when Attorney General William Barr refused to endorse his baseless claims of election fraud and the relentless drubbing various lawyers in the government inflicted on the hapless toady, Jeffrey Clark. Clark, an attorney working for the Justice Department, was the only person in that department willing to support the president’s allegations, and was therefore almost appointed by Trump as his third attorney general in two weeks. Only the threat of mass resignations by DOJ staff dissuaded the president, but not before Clark, who protested that his experience litigating environmental lawsuits qualified him for the post, was told by acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, “How about you go back to your office and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill?” For his part, Herschmann informed Clark, “the only thing you know about environmental and election challenge law is that they both begin with E, and based on your answers tonight, I’m not even sure you know that.”
The cleverness of the committee’s approach was evident when Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) asked former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, whether Clark, anticipating that Trump was about to replace Rosen with himself, offered Rosen a job as his deputy. (He did.) None of this is material to the investigation, but there isn’t a office worker in the nation who wouldn’t be flabbergasted by Clark’s gall. Clark pleaded the Fifth more than 100 times when the committee deposed him, but it’s hard to imagine how he could have come across worse if he’d talked.
Many of the hearings’ most colorful characters—Clark, Eastman, Meadows—are absent, leaving their co-workers free to sketch unflattering portraits of their personal, professional, and moral failings. The result is officially sanctioned gossip about Meadows’ numbed doomscrolling and Eastman’s blithe disregard for the law. One exception is Mike Pence, who in the episode dedicated to how he was pressured by Trump to invalidate the election and threatened by the mob at Trump’s instigation, gets the kid-gloves treatment. The committee has yet to formally invite Pence to testify, and its depiction of him as a pious Christian who did his duty to his country despite intense pressure from the president has been outright heroic.
This choice is revealing. If the hearings are a sort of prestige cable drama, then who is the main character? Trump, the obvious choice, is really the villain. And those who feel that the whole spectacle is directed at the current attorney general, Merrick Garland, and his prosecutors, are being shortsighted. The real hero of this show—or, rather, its antihero—is on the other side of the screen. It’s the GOP itself.
As Cheney put it, and as members of the committee have repeatedly reiterated, most of the witnesses who have testified have been “conservative Republicans for all of their lives.” If the religiosity of the episode about Pence is off-putting to secular liberals (Rep. Pete Aguilar intoning “He started his day with a prayer and ended it with a Bible verse”), that’s because it’s not intended for us. Religious conservatives are meant to see themselves in Pence and Bowers, targets of Trump’s immoral vindictiveness. Law-and-order conservatives are shown rioting hoodlums but also officials, fellow Republicans, willing to lose their jobs rather than comply with Trump’s illegal demands, while his minions beg for presidential pardons. The focus on Trump’s fundraising from small donors for nonexistent election investigation funds, the talk of sacred duties and sworn oaths, the testimony of Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, who was injured by the rioters—all of these arrows are aimed at the heart of the values Republicans claim to hold dear.
A charged and convicted Trump would gratify every member of the Jan. 6 committee, along with a growing percentage of the American public, but it might not, after all, be its primary goal. Keeping Trump off the ballot is. No doubt Cheney is hoping that the character arc for the hearings’ anti-hero will lead to redemption, that the GOP will repent, see the error of its ways, and return to her version of virtue. But how often does an anti-hero’s story end happily? He usually ends up in some version of a grave that he’s dug for himself.