Why is it so hard for Liz Cheney to convince Americans they're victims of a coup attempt?

For the January 6 committee, what happened in Washington last year couldn't be more obvious

Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming delivers opening remarks for the select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack in Washington. EPA
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The US House of Representatives select committee on the January 6 attack on Congress faces a huge task, and they know it. The hearings they launched last week are the most historically significant since the Watergate hearings in the early 1970s, which led to the resignation of then president Richard Nixon.

The committee is seeking to establish the first comprehensive account of the deadly mob attack that sought to stop the confirmation of President Joe Biden's victory over his predecessor, Donald Trump. More urgently it is, in effect, serving as the third impeachment hearing against Mr Trump, seeking to ensure that enough Americans understand the gravity of his attack on the US constitutional system that he cannot effectively seek the presidency again.

Last week in these pages I described a looming battle of narratives. The committee didn't fail at all to embrace the task.

Its opening salvo was strikingly powerful. The committee eschewed the traditional grandstanding and personal political promotion of all of its members and allowed its two leaders – Democratic chairman Benny Thompson of Mississippi and Republican ranking member Liz Cheney of Wyoming – and, more importantly, the facts to tell the story in genuinely riveting fashion.

Mr Thompson presided with dignity and gravitas, pointedly explaining that he represents a part of the country that was historically a hotbed of slavery, segregation, lynching and anti-democracy abuses. But, wisely, the committee allowed Ms Cheney to serve, in effect, as the lead prosecutor.

In recent decades, Republicans have been much better at telling stories than Democrats, who tend to get bogged down in policy data and prescriptions. Ms Cheney's leadership in the case against Mr Trump reflects that asymmetry. She is a lot better at telling a simple story to the American public than anybody else on the committee.

It is also crucial that she's a Republican. In attempting to convince Americans that the January 6 insurrection was an unprecedented attack on the US constitutional system, the committee is trying to reach several difficult constituencies. Having the tale largely told by a staunchly conservative Republican with impeccable credentials is essential to giving it a fighting chance at reaching them.

Mr Trump's ongoing popularity and apparent political viability demonstrates the size of the parts of the public the committee must shift. It is mainly addressing those who simply do not know or care enough about what happened on and before January 6.

Cheney is a lot better at telling a simple story to the American public than anybody else on the committee

This is, in effect, a two-layered challenge. There are lots of Americans who don't follow what they view as irrelevant "politics". Thus far, it has been alarmingly possible for many of them to dismiss the fallout of the 2020 election, including the January 6 insurrection, as more boring, typical Washington posturing that has nothing to do with their lives.

The committee must break through that barrier of apathy and cynicism, and convince these millions that none of this was “politics as usual“ and that they have a personal stake in the attack on a democratic political system they have come to take for granted.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges the committee faces in the ongoing hearings it plans in the coming weeks is the profound difficulty many Americans have in accepting the fact that, for the first time in the country's history, a sitting president really did attempt to influence the outcome of a free and fair election and remain in power despite the will of the people and in violation of all constitutional laws and norms. That is such an extraordinary breach of over 200 years of uninterrupted tradition that it appears to be incomprehensible to a very large segment of the American public.

Many Americans have heard Mr Trump's endless falsehoods about a stolen election alongside accusations that he tried to stage what amounted to a coup to stay in power and have tuned out both sides. The committee needs to demonstrate that while Mr Trump is lying, they are telling the truth without exaggeration or hyperbole.

So, they are trying to reach those who do not know or do not care, with the simple messages that, this time at least, Americans need to know and need to care if they value their freedom. It is a heavy lift, and the committee constructed a powerful case that highlighted the commitment to duty of brave police officers who were attacked by Mr Trump's mob, magnificently represented by officer Caroline Edwards, the first to suffer severe injuries in the assault and who recalled the "chaos" and "carnage" of the day, including slipping in the blood of her own colleagues.

Beyond the drama, Ms Cheney accused Mr Trump of a seven-phase effort to subvert US democracy. First was his campaign of lies about massive fraud. Second were his attempts to corruptly misuse the Justice Department to promote those lies. Third were his efforts to coerce vice president Mike Pence to refuse to count certified electoral votes from key swing states.

Fourth were his attempts to pressure state officials to change election results. Fifth were attempts to promote fraudulent slates of pro-Trump electors from those states. Sixth was his summoning of the mob to besiege Congress. And seventh was his refusal for several hours to act to stop the violence and call off his rampaging supporters.

It was a dramatic juxtaposition of devotion to duty against dereliction of duty.

On Monday the committee will next seek to establish that Mr Trump was fully aware that he had lost the election, establishing his corrupt intent in this unprecedented and unimaginable malfeasance.

There are, of course, some Americans who fully support and applaud the insurrection and attempted coup. The committee is betting that they can convince enough others that Mr Trump finally went too far for him to remain a viable political figure. Last week, they got off to a spectacularly good start.

If these hearings are the closest thing Mr Trump will ever come to a trial for his subversion, the jury is the American public, including many who remain unpersuaded. The evidence is damning but the verdict remains to be determined.

Published: June 13, 2022, 1:30 PM