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The “Big Lie” Will Persist Unless Trump Is Held Accountable for January 6

The House select committee investigating January 6 voted to subpoena Trump for testimony. 

A video of former President Donald Trump is played during a hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on October 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol presented damning evidence on Thursday that Donald Trump knew he lost the 2020 election but played a primary role in a premeditated and illegal plot to stay in power, including by summoning a massive mob of angry supporters to violently attack the Capitol when all else failed. The bipartisan committee voted unanimously to subpoena Trump for testimony about his actions leading up to and during the deadly chaos.

The select committee went to great lengths in its latest televised hearing to shred Trump’s potential legal defenses should he ultimately face indictment. Top staffers and Justice Department officials testified that they repeatedly told Trump his claims of widespread voter fraud were bogus, but Trump continued to spread lies in the media while pressuring state and federal officials to commit electoral fraud behind closed doors. Plans to falsely declare victory if Joe Biden won the election were in the works long before Election Day, just as his adviser and propagandist Steve Bannon stated in leaked recordings.

Yet millions of people continue to believe Trump’s lies and tune into his cheerleaders across the right-wing media. Advocates say the myth that the 2020 election was “stolen” will persist until Trump and his henchmen are held accountable for the plot to overturn the election and the events leading up to January 6.

“The right-wing media system has followed along with this idea of blind loyalty to Trump, anything that is said negative about him is seen as off limits,” Kristen Doerer, a managing editor at the media watchdog Right Wing Watch, told Truthout.

Any claim that Trump was acting in good faith — that he truly believed the election was stolen and was simply making his case to the courts and the public — should be no match for the mountain of evidence revealed by the House select committee. For example, law enforcement and the Secret Service circulated intelligence memos warning before the riot that extremists were making calls to “occupy federal buildings,” invade the Capitol and intimidate Congress. Trump sent his supporters marching toward the Capitol on January 6 anyway, after allegedly being told that many had arrived with guns and weapons.

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of the watchdog group Public Citizen and co-chair of the Not Above the Law Coalition, which advocates for justice and accountability for January 6, said the bipartisan select committee accomplished a “herculean feat.” However, simply revealing the truth will not stop MAGA politicians from passing voter suppression laws, protect poll workers from ongoing harassment, or keep election deniers up and down the GOP ticket from winning midterm elections. Across the country, Trump-backed candidates won primary races by exploiting the myth of voter fraud, undermining public confidence in elections and fortifying the “Big Lie” in the minds of Republican voters.

“The attack on our country hasn’t been punished: it’s been rewarded, and this has to stop,” Gilbert said in a statement after the hearing Thursday. “Thousands of pieces of evidence and testimony from Trump’s own staffers and foot soldiers have clearly laid out, fact by fact, what only those closest to him knew to be true: Trump engaged in a criminal conspiracy, knowingly made false claims — including claiming victory in the election — and incited a violent attack on the Capitol in order to overturn the 2020 election.”

The committee’s months-long investigation and blockbuster hearings have done little to shift public opinion. Trump’s favorability rating has remained stable at roughly 41 percent for months despite news coverage of the January 6 hearings and other Trumpian scandals. A recent New York Times analysis of polling data found that the percentage of respondents who say Trump has not committed any serious crimes, and was only exercising his right contest election, has remained virtually unchanged at 38 percent since the hearings began in July.

Conservative news outlets have few incentives to cover the January 6 hearings — and plenty of incentives to downplay or ignore them altogether. Fox News was famously punished by viewers for accurately covering election results that angered Trump. That likely caused ratings to dip, Doerer said, pushing the network to indulge Trump’s conspiracy theories for months.

While quickly dismissed in the courts, dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign provided an endless stream of headlines echoing Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. At least two journalists resigned from Fox News in protest of lies about the election aired by far right commentator Tucker Carlson.

“If you are not seeing any of this information, if you are not having your viewpoints challenged with facts — that Trump planned for months to overturn the election and stay in power — then you can hold onto this false idea that the election was stolen from Trump,” Doerer said.

Doerer said Trump’s celebrity status and cult following on the right has made pro-Trump media uniquely profitable, allowing the right-wing media ecosystem to expand during his time in office. However, right-wing publishers are not investing in reporters and fact-checkers. Extreme content attracts readers and viewers, and millions of people get their “news” through the lens of podcasts, livestreams, tweets and talk shows featuring conspiracy theorists and far right pundits.

“The biggest moneymakers on Fox and elsewhere are people like Tucker Carlson, the people who are vehemently defending Trump,” Doerer said. “We see that in all of these different far right and right-wing media sources, and people are simply not getting the facts, they are not being challenged in their beliefs, and what they are seeing are the same messages, the same fearmongering, the same conspiracy theories repeated over and over again.”

Advocates say holding Trump accountable for lying to the public and allegedly breaking laws to stay in power could put a big dent in pro-Trump media narratives on the right. If Trump was compelled to defend himself in court, or simply testify before the House select committee, it would make for much-watch television that could not be ignored. That’s why Trump is expected to challenge the subpoena in court, and cling to his hangers-on in the right-wing media at all costs.

“We cannot let people at the highest levels of power escape consequences for their actions,” Gilbert said.

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