Television could become the January 6 Committee’s Trojan horse.
Hidden inside the Trojan horse of television is the persona of Donald Trump. Rhetorical scholar Paul Achter says, “Trump is a central character in everyday news discourse in an era in which the distinction between reality TV and news TV seems to have dissolved.”
The January 6 Committee works now in a medium that is Trump’s home court. Television and Trump are a matched pair.
Achter says, “Not since Reagan has a president been so associated with television and so understood in terms of television.” Television is the perfect match for Trump because by nature television helps create unreality. It mixes truth with illusion. It projects as fact what is fiction. It rewards the ludicrous, the extreme, the sensational. Television has an insatiable appetite for always finding someone to present the other side of an event even when there is no discernible, rational “other side.”
Television is a vast ocean of affects, shadows, unreality, mirages, illusions, fictions and humbuggery. The logics and algorithms of television defy the rational deliberations of a congressional committee. The medium of television often distorts, mangles and even destroys the message. There are unknown rhetorical demons hiding in the strange mixture of television, reality and entertainment.
‘I fear television, even when it bears gifts’
There are reasons the January 6 Committee should have someone whisper in their ears, “I fear television, even when it bears gifts.” There are potential traps in televising its hearings and zeroing in on Donald Trump as the main culprit in the unfolding drama. Count the number of times Trump’s name is mentioned in the opening session of the televised hearings. Trump may be the villain, but he also is the hero, the ratings-maker of these hearings. What’s troubling is that his television aptitude and expertise may overwhelm all the facts, testimonies and reality of the January 6 Committee.
“Trump may be the villain, but he also is the hero, the ratings-maker of these hearings.”
The January 6 Committee faces the unenviable attack of reinforcing what people already know about Trump. He is a serial liar. He has a short attention span. He doesn’t read. He can’t be trusted.
The last five years have demonstrated that even if the case against Trump can be proved beyond doubt, it won’t change the loyalty of his supporters. The televised hearings may only serve to increase Trump’s fame, his sense of being the strong man who can take the worst his enemies can throw at him, and still be standing at the end. Trump could be guilty of insurrection, of subverting the Constitution and inciting a riot, but he still will be attractive to audiences.
Trump draws audiences, and television salivates at the ratings Trump produces. In the fantasy world of television, there’s no difference between the January 6 Committee and Breaking Bad. Both made-for-television events are personal, dark, dramatic and full of conflict.
“In the fantasy world of television, there’s no difference between the January 6 Committee and Breaking Bad.”
There’s one interpretation that gives me pause and it is one that suggests a growing attraction for fascism. Perhaps Trump’s followers don’t care if he planned and orchestrated the attempted coup because they like it. If Trump is perceived as capable of attempting to destroy democracy and he’s not finished by it, then he is seen as the true strong man. He is the penultimate television anti-hero — the rule-breaking, character-challenged, profane-talking, impulsive male who shoots form the hip and becomes even more beloved by the audiences.
The double metaphor: Ocean and Leviathan
The story of the ancient Leviathan is the best metaphor I have found for the potential trouble the televised hearings could produce for the January 6 Committee. Two ancient religious writings are important for understanding the power and magnitude of this ancient beast.
The noncanonical 2 Esdras chapter 6 describes the creation of the sea monster: “On the fifth day you commanded the seventh part, where the water had been gathered together, to bring forth living creatures, birds, and fishes, and so it was done. The dumb and lifeless water produced living creatures, as it was commanded, so that therefore the nations might declare your wondrous works. Then you kept in existence two living creatures that you created; the one you called Behemoth and the name of the other Leviathan. And you separated one from the other, for the seventh part where the water had been gathered together could not hold them both.”
Job chapter 41 reveals that the Leviathan lives and plays in the vast ocean. This is my visual picture, my tropological combination: the ocean equals television; the Leviathan equals Trump.
Job doubted if there was any force on earth that could contain and control Leviathan: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down its tongue with a cord? Will it speak soft words to you? Lay hands on it; think of the battle; you will not do it again! Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed; one is overwhelmed even at the sight of it. No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up. Who can stand before it? Who can confront it and be safe? — under the whole heaven, who?”
On television a hearing becomes a drama
Television treats every event, even the news, as a drama. Will this be a comedy or a tragedy? This is not just another made-for-television event.
“Television treats every event, even the news, as a drama.”
Jeffery R. Wilson, in Shakespeare and Trump, notes, “It is a story of self-serving politicians and hypocritical career politicians preserving their power; of the stunning moral compromises a resentful populace is willing to make for the comic relief provided by a charismatic clown; of an amoral Machiavellian, hungry for power, manipulating the people’s anger, fear and hatred of the government; and of the social catastrophe that can unfold when power is centralized in one man who becomes unstable.”
How does one live in such a time of tragedy? Are we in the realm of evil? Let there be no doubt that we are adrift on the huge ocean inhabited by a Leviathan like none we’ve ever encountered before.
The event of Jan. 6 and the committee investigating the event are presented as opposing dramas. Television creates the illusion that the investigative committee, like the Jan. 6 event, is a separate event worthy of criticism. In this reading, what happened on Jan. 6 no longer matters even though the committee will talk of nothing else, will show videos of the events and have eyewitness accounts of what happened. This ironical treatment of the event enables those who wish for a different understanding of that day to focus on the committee’s work as a partisan Democratic attempt to smear the good name of Trump.
To put it bluntly, the televised hearings are the drama du jour and the star of this drama is Donald Trump.
On television the hearing becomes another consumable product
The January 6 Committee hearings are just another television event as consumable by viewers as the celebration of the Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years as monarch and the Stanley Cup playoff series between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Television makes no distinction between what is real and what is unreal.
“The committee has bet everything on the old belief that when enough people know the facts, they will do the right thing.”
The committee has bet everything on the old belief that when enough people know the facts, they will do the right thing.
George Lakoff, in The Political Mind and Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame Them, argues that Democrats still believe all you need to do is give people the facts and they will reach the right conclusion. “Just the facts, mam. Just the facts.”
Lakoff identifies this as the 18th century view of the mind and says if you believe like this, “you will be dead wrong.” The January 6 Committee is attempting to do 21st century politics with an 18th century mindset. It’s like investing the family fortune in cash registers at the beginning of the computer age.
I believe the committee sees itself as upholding the truth, the democracy and the Constitution. I don’t doubt their sincerity. I think they are very serious people. The problem is they are counting on a way of persuasion that doesn’t consider the emotions of our current politics.
This has long been a detrimental way of thinking for Democrats. This doomed Hillary Clinton’s campaign as America elected a man who, as Ta Nehisi Coates, put it, is “an orcish reality TV star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form” rather than a policy manual. Clinton was a policy wonk; Trump a slogan and nickname television savant. Trump won. And Trump and his emotional tropes may well win when the committee finishes its fact-revealing hearings.
On television the hearing becomes a debate
Televising the January 6 Committee proceedings changes it from a congressional hearing to a public debate. Trump, Fox News and a plethora of Trump allies will now offer point-by-point rebuttal, alternative truth claims to every witness, every comment. Words will be parsed. Testimony will be called into question.
For example, in her testimony, Ivanka Trump said Attorney General William Barr’s conclusion that there was no evidence of fraud “affected my perspective. I respect Attorney General Barr. So I accepted what he was saying.” By the morning after the hearing, there already were suggestions Ivanka was not necessarily agreeing with Barr and that her testimony was not as direct as Rep. Liz Cheney took it to be.
Trump himself weighed in on Ivanka’s testimony in a Friday morning post on his social-media platform, Truth Social: “Ivanka Trump was not involved in looking at, or studying, election results. She had long since checked out and was, in my opinion, only trying to be respectful to Bill Barr and his position as attorney general (he sucked!).”
“A debate that plays out on television and social media favors Trump because Trump only has to create or reinforce pre-existing doubts about the election.”
And the endless debate has left the starting gate. Trump supporters already are picking the testimonies apart and insisting the alleged evidence is piecemeal. A debate that plays out on television and social media favors Trump because Trump only has to create or reinforce pre-existing doubts about the election. The bar for his defense doesn’t even require “reasonable doubt.” His supporters will swallow “unreasonable doubt.”
As soon as the first hearing ended Thursday evening, Trump was busy with counterattacks: “So the Unselect Committee of political HACKS refuses to play any of the many positive witnesses and statements, refuses to talk of the Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place on a massive scale, and decided to use a documentary maker from Fake News ABC to spin only negative footage.” Then Trump wrote: “The so-called ‘Rush on the Capitol was not caused by me, it was caused by a Rigged and Stolen Election!” And this: “I NEVER said, or even thought of saying, ‘Hang Mike Pence.’ This is either a made-up story by somebody looking to become a star, or FAKE NEWS.”
The January 6 Committee may learn that in the case of Donald Trump, the old adage that the “medium is the message” holds true. By televising the hearings, the committee has made them an event, a consumable event. It is now a piece of merchandise that will attempt to persuade the American public to buy its product.
The hearings now are in the basement with corporations selling cars, insurance, beer and cruises. They are now seen as flaunting their views in a partisan way.
Ted Koppel offered words in 1987 that can now be heard as prophetic: “Merchants trying to sell their goods, politicians trying to sell their ideas, preachers trying to sell their gospel, or their morality: all these items are efficiently sold on TV. If that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, you’re not paying attention.”
Never mind the appearance of a somber, serious investigation. The investigative committee hearings are now part of the game of illusion; they are part of the mixture of selling fried chicken or Charmin with those charming blue bears with clean bottoms.
Television doesn’t reward critical thinking or embrace complexity. The facts, the truth, the reality all suffer in the shadowy land of television’s fantasy world. Koppel claimed we have convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. The January 6 Committee, having dived into the deep blue ocean of Leviathan, may now discover a truth embedded in a different zoological species: “If you can’t hunt with the big dogs, stay on the porch.”
Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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