The US mid-terms should be about the future, not a conspiratorial past

US politics is still dominated by bitter disputes over a 'stolen' election

Former American president Donald Trump is holding rallies as the US prepares for mid-term elections in November. EPA
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This summer will see a major escalation in the war of narratives ahead of the US mid-term election in November.

Republicans have their moral panic about race and sexuality curriculums in schools, while Democrats are absurdly trying to blame corporate greed for inflation. But the main event will be competing accounts of the 2020, and even 2016, elections.

A potential game changer is televised hearings starting on June 9 by the US House of Representatives' select committee on the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The committee is ready to go public with what it has discovered after a year of investigating the first-ever attempted American coup that culminated in the attack on Congress.

By endlessly complaining about a "stolen election", former president Donald Trump has convinced most Republicans that he was cheated. Yet, this "big lie" doesn't have a central narrative about exactly what happened. It rests, instead, on a hodgepodge of far-fetched and disproven claims.

Few Republican voters who say they believe the election was stolen could explain exactly what they think happened. They have simply heard it so often that the "stolen election" has become an article of faith. That's what the January 6 committee, made up of Democrats and Republican opponents of Mr Trump, most notably Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, will seek to destabilise.

The committee will try to create the first authoritative, fact-based and comprehensive account of what happened between the November 2020 election and January 6. And it will also seek to challenge Mr Trump's claims by outlining a detailed narrative that is so well-founded, coherent and convincing that at least some Republican voters may think again.

The committee will outline how an attorney named John Eastman (who has refused to testify) penned a precise, and potentially plausible, coup d’etat roadmap for Mr Trump to remain in power. It hinged on convincing then vice president Mike Pence to arbitrarily, unconstitutionally and unlawfully overturn Mr Biden's victories in key swing states.

On January 5, Mr Pence explained he had no such authority. According to a The Washington Post report that quoted White House sources, Mr Trump tried to tempt him by asking: "Wouldn't it almost be cool to have that power?" When he said no, Mr Trump reportedly shouted: "You betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing." With the Eastman plot thereby rendered inoperable, the mob attack became Mr Trump's last remaining gambit.

The committee will present this account as a deliberate counter to the Trump camp’s mantras about a "stolen election” that rest on a hodgepodge of bizarre fabrications. The latest is an absurd film entitled 2000 Mules, which purports to demonstrate election fraud based on cell phone tracking data that, naturally, establishes nothing.

The committee may well uncover new evidence from witness testimonies. Many former Trump officials have refused to comply with congressional subpoenas, and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and trade policy adviser Peter Navarro face criminal indictments for refusing to co-operate.

The record, therefore, will inevitably be incomplete. Yet, the committee has already interviewed 500 witnesses, secured 60,000 pages of documents and issued 86 subpoenas. Unlike Mr Trump's associates, it will have a plethora of hard evidence. Disturbing facts continue to emerge, including that Mr Trump expressed enthusiastic agreement with the rioters' chant to "hang Mike Pence" from a makeshift, but real enough, gallows they constructed.

But it's not just 2020 that remains contested. Mr Trump's central narrative about the 2016 election suffered another major blow last week when attorney Michael Sussman was acquitted of charges that he lied to the FBI. That extremely weak case was the only significant prosecution brought, after three long years, by special counsel John Durham.

Mr Durham was appointed by former attorney general William Barr to supposedly uncover evidence that elements within the FBI leadership colluded with the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016 to construct a hoax about the Trump campaign colluding with Russia.

Mr Durham was effectively appointed to counter the investigation of former special counsel Robert Mueller, who established beyond any doubt that Russia had interfered in the election on behalf of Mr Trump, but not irrefutable evidence that his campaign had knowingly colluded with Moscow. Mr Mueller secured numerous criminal indictments, guilty pleas and convictions. But he declined to evaluate whether Mr Trump obstructed justice, while leaving the distinct impression that he probably did.

The case against Mr Sussman was thin, and even if he had been convicted, would not have established much, if anything, to undermine Mr Mueller's conclusions. Mr Durham appears to have wasted vast amounts of time and money on a pointless quest for non-existent facts. Nonetheless, after Mr Durham's only significant prosecution collapsed, Mr Barr was upbeat, insisting that the trial achieved something more important than a conviction, namely to "get the real story out" about the 2016 election. That is obviously not the proper role of Justice Department prosecutions.

Yet, Mr Barr has for years been implying there was improper collusion between Mrs Clinton's campaign and FBI leaders that supposedly counters or mitigates Mr Mueller's findings. Mr Durham's work provided considerable fodder for more right-wing conspiracy theories. And as Mr Barr acknowledges in his statements about getting "the real story out", it was always all a matter of spin and storytelling.

As always relying on stultifying repetition, Mr Trump and his allies have convinced most Republicans that the Mueller report, and the well-documented fact of Russian interference on his behalf in 2016, are a "hoax".

Few Americans have ever heard of John Durham or Michael Sussman, so the Russia "hoax" narrative among Republicans about 2016 is probably secure. However, the upcoming high-profile and possibly dramatic hearings by the January 6 committee may well be a different story.

The committee is hoping that a fact-based explanation of what really happened following the 2020 election will prove more compelling than Mr Trump's slogans propped up by risible conspiracy theories. It is also hoping that more Americans may finally realise that Mr Trump and Mr Eastman really did try to perpetrate the first coup d'etat in US history, which collapsed at the last minute and therefore culminated in a violent attack against Congress.

That ought to help clarify the profound dangers inherent in another Trump presidential term, no matter how much it costs to gas up at the pump.

Published: June 06, 2022, 2:00 PM
Updated: June 06, 2023, 11:50 AM