“This will tell us something that we don’t know right now: How impenetrable is the tribalism? How locked down is the tribalism?” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that has extensively studied the relationship between media consumption and political attitudes.
One reason Republican opinions about Nixon shifted so much, many analysts agree, is that nothing existed then like the overtly conservative media of Fox, television networks to its right and talk radio, which are working not only to downplay but also to discredit damaging revelations from the committee.
But another key difference is that during Watergate, Republican leaders respected by rank-and-file GOP voters ultimately validated the criticism from Democrats and courts about Nixon’s behavior.
“In Watergate, there were Republicans … who were very critical of Nixon’s conduct and eventually were willing to call him to resign, including people like [Sen.] Barry Goldwater,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. Apart from the two Republicans serving on the committee, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, “that’s one thing you really don’t have right now,” he adds.
January 6 vs. Watergate
That sharp contrast points toward one critical variable that could determine how much the committee’s investigation ultimately influences opinion inside the Republican coalition: Will GOP leaders publicly express concern about its findings? Republican leaders, Abramowitz notes, often argue that they can’t publicly criticize Trump because he has such a strong hold on the party base. But one reason his hold is so strong, Abramowitz and others point out, is that so few party leaders have challenged even his most egregious behavior. “It’s … a two-way relationship,” Abramowitz says. Republican elected officials, he adds, “are right that the base has remained with Trump up until now, but part of the reason why they have is because the leaders, except during brief moments, have stuck with him.”
“I do think self-identified Republicans will take their cues from [Senate Republican leader Mitch] McConnell and others if they would stand up and say something clear,” says Jones. “But I think with a silence from the leadership, where does it leave … people to pick up their cues? They are going to pick it up from their trusted media sources.”
Meanwhile, very few elected Republicans have publicly endorsed the committee’s work, or even expressed interest in its findings. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison broadly defended the inquiry over the weekend, saying Trump was “politically, morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol. But if there are congressional Republicans supporting the inquiry, they have mostly revealed their attitudes not by openly defending it — but only by choosing not to publicly join their colleagues condemning it.
The paucity of Republican voices defending the investigation makes it easier for Trump’s defenders, both in Congress and conservative media, to marginalize his critics to GOP voters, notes Daniel Cox, senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. “The collective refusal to speak out en masse against Trump’s behavior during and after the January 6 attacks … means anyone who does speak out is more easily written off, particularly in a political environment where partisan or ideologically based media play a really significant role,” Cox says. “It would be a lot harder to make the argument it’s a partisan affair if you have a dozen Republicans saying, ‘This is serious. We should take this seriously.'”
The role of conservative media
Just as important, many Republicans who consume significant amounts of mainstream media are viewing it through a prism of skepticism shaped by the conservative sources, notes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a longtime student of political communication who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jamieson says it’s a mistake to assume that even consumers of Fox and other overtly conservative sources are not also exposed to information through more mainstream print sources. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are hearing that information in the same way as those who don’t watch much conservative media. An “echo chamber” doesn’t “mean you lock in and you only watch one ideological view,” she told me. “It is that you watch one ideological view and it creates the frame for everything else you see.”
In their response to the committee’s initial hearings, Jamieson says, Fox and other conservative outlets are deploying key techniques they have honed over the years to discredit information from mainstream sources — claiming they are selectively using evidence to make Republicans look bad and that they are employing a double standard, criticizing the right for behavior they exemplify as well (a point dramatized by the frequent assertion that Democrats are focusing on the January 6 riot but ignoring the violence that accompanied some racial equity protests in summer 2020). Those arguments, she says, amount to a “protective framing that lets [conservative media] discredit anything that comes through the mainstream” to its audience.
Inside the echo chamber
“Democrats tend to trust a lot of different news sources, and even if most journalists at those news outlets have liberal perspectives or whatever, it is much easier to get people to believe what I want them to believe if I can funnel all the information through one outlet,” like Fox, says Cox.
Dan Pfeiffer, who was the White House communications director for Barack Obama, is the author of “Battling the Big Lie,” a book released this month that analyzes that imbalance. He argues that, as the reaction to the January 6 committee demonstrates, Republicans are now
locked in a cycle where the most militant elements of their base are not only receiving, but also shaping, the messages that both elected officials and conservative media deliver. While Roger Ailes, the mastermind of Fox, may have originally envisioned it as a way to shape opinion among conservatives, now the network is “as much being led as they are leading: they have lost control of what they originally created,” Pfeiffer argued in an interview. With alternatives to its right like Newsmax competing for viewers who “feel Fox is not toeing the MAGA line,” he told me, “Trump now runs [Fox] essentially. If they had shown those [first prime-time] hearings and Trump had told his followers to stop watching, people would have stopped watching and that would have hurt their bottom line.”
Yet even amid all these headwinds, almost all of the strategists and analysts I spoke with said it was premature to conclude that the hearings will have no impact on thinking among conservative and Republican voters. Abramowitz notes that polls already show some slackening in the intensity of Republican support for Trump, even if he remains the party’s dominant figure.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some further movement here after all these hearings are over,” Abramowitz says. “It’s pretty damning, and they are presenting it in a pretty dramatic way.”
Yet even relatively small shifts in attitudes could have a big influence on Trump’s future. Convincing evidence of his culpability, not only for the Capitol attack but also the broader effort to undermine the 2020 election, could strengthen his rivals in a GOP 2024 nomination fight and, even more so, complicate his path in another general election if the party does nominate him again.
“We live in a polarized country and elections are a decision on the margins,” says Pfeiffer. “You don’t have to persuade that many people to go from winning to losing.”