It isn’t often that congressional hearings draw a large viewership, and on the face of it the latest hearings of the Select Committee on Benghazi should have been no exception, containing little that was new or revealing. The last time the committee called Secretary Clinton to account was in January, 2013, nearly three years ago, and once again, in response to the same intensive grilling by Republican committee members, she gave much the same measured testimony, providing a clear and concise narrative of events that led to the deaths of four Americans during Libya’s descent into chaos during the Arab Spring uprising of 2012.
And yet, one could scarcely help noticing a profound difference between the two events, for unlike its predecessor, the rematch presented a case in which the committee itself came under fire rather than the witness.
So what was it that brought about so dramatic a change? In a word–Trump.
There is simply no other way to account for it. In the aftermath of the 2013 hearings, Republicans were on the ascendant. Indeed the hearings themselves helped elevate a new generation of Republican leaders who, riding the wave of the 2014 mid-term elections, went on to form the so-called Freedom Caucus, whose fire-breathing approach to “legislating” would brook no compromise in the quest for partisan advantage.
And let’s be clear about the tactics that led to their success. Here again the initial hearings on Benghazi–a name that has since become synonymous with politically-motivated witch hunts–provides an important model. The essence of this technique is to create in the public mind a steady stream of unsubstantiated, if not outlandish, charges in a context too rapid to be answered fully, thereby inflicting damage on the witness/victim by the sheer weight of allegation.
What goes around, comes around, however; and here is where the rabid right seems in the process of getting Trumped. Picking up on the their signature stratagem, the Donald–who, among other things, happens to be a dedicated student of modern media–launched his own bid for the presidency with a barrage of Benghazi-style attacks against any and all potential foes. And what is more, he has done it as a self-identified Republican, thus blowing a casino-sized hole in the party’s Reagan-inspired reputation for ideological purity and solidarity.
It’s been enough to make a grown Democrat weep… for joy. And it has everything to do with Hillary Clinton’s sudden reversal of fortune. For with Trump’s arrival on the scene the hunters have become the prey, and the GOP itself appears to be in shambles, scarcely able, it seems, to agree on a replacement for Speaker Boehner. At the same time there is little evidence to suggest that Trump, should he win the nomination, would be able to mend fences with the party’s moderates–let alone those minority groups he has gone out of his way to offend–to win in the general.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Clinton’s arrival in front of the recent Benghazi committee occurred on the heels of a command performance at the first Democratic debate. Nor that her testimony in front of it was, once again, presidential.
Meanwhile, the committee itself is similarly in limbo, gut-shot by the confessions of two insiders who claim it was designed to damage Clinton’s candidacy from the first. Though its official purpose remains to discover the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it seems the only version of truth its leadership has been interested in is one that implicates her in wrongdoing, an impression supported by the universally aggressive statements and questioning from its Republican members.
It’s still a long way to next November, of course, but the recent, dramatic change in the political zeitgeist does not bode well for the hard-line conservatives who have driven much of the party’s rhetoric for the past thirty-five years. What the party makes of Donald Trump, or he of it, remains to be seen, but neither one can be happy about an investigation that has provided Hillary Clinton with an entire day of compelling air-time at the outset of her campaign for president.