It worked because of what was missing
When the House managers began proceedings for the second impeachment of former president Donald Trump on February 9th 2021, they began with a video. The video was simple, brutally effective and startlingly different to the well-rehearsed style of political attack-ads.
David Schoen, a key figure in Trump’s legal team, slammed the 14 minute video, telling Sean Hannity:
“It’s very easy to stand up and show spliced and manufactured films. Literally the Democrats, the House managers, hired a large movie company and a large law firm to put together this thing.”
Ignoring for the moment the fact that Schoen presented his own ‘spliced and manufactured’ film — we’ll get to that — it’s worth examining why Schoen stated he was unhappy.
“It’s a matter of tricking the American people, to play as if the rioting was going on in real time with the speech,’ he added. ‘What’s the purpose of that? Why do we want to trick the American people?”
Unfortunately for Schoen, the rioting was going on in real time with the speech. The House managers did a pretty good job with preserving the timeline. Don’t believe me? There are multiple sources that lay out the timeline of January 6th 2021, and it’s clear they do overlap.
Trump begins speaking at around noon and doesn’t finish until 13:11. At least twenty minutes before Trump’s speech ends, the mob is attacking police and pushing through barriers. Sorry, Schoen, it’s all documented.
The brutal simplicity of the video
The House manager’s video was effective because it let the facts speak for themselves. This can be shown by focusing on what the video didn’t include. In contrast to Schoen’s depiction of the video as a slick, misleading, high-production values propaganda piece, in fact it eschews almost every tried and tested technique used to smear political opponents.
There is no doom-laden, gravel voiced narrator. The only commentary given are simple, descriptive interjections giving the sequence of events. The language is kept simple, bare and lacking in any emotive content.
No background audio
Music is central to setting the mood of any film. Yet, despite this, there is no background track to the House manager’s video. There is only the audio of each clip, without anything else to frame what we’re seeing or psychologically guide us to a specific emotional state. This can be contrasted with the video presented by Schoen, which features malevolent backing track.
No visual effects
Grainy off-camber footage? Creepy black and white faux-horror filters? Big scary lettering filling the screen? Visual effects are an easy way to get a message across and manipulate the viewer. The House Manager’s video has nothing of this kind. Just raw, unfiltered footage.
No editing tricks
Schoen accused slammed the video for being “spliced”, but this simply isn’t the case. Editors have a wealth of specialist cutting techniques available to them, all with well understood psychological effects. Yet there are very few fast-cuts, jump-cuts or cutaways. No attempt is made to take the footage out of context. Shots are left to play out at their own pace. Again, compared to the fast-cutting, no-context style of Schoen’s video, the contrast is stark.
Res Ipsa Loquitur
I haven’t commented much on the content of the House manager’s video. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything I could add worth saying. There’s a legal principle often deployed in tort cases, res ipsa loquitur, which states the wrongdoing speaks for itself. In this case, the evidence really does speak for itself.
By letting the footage of January 6th, along with the speech, tweets and words of Donald Trump do the talking, the House Managers put together a damning indictment of both the former president and mob who invaded the Capitol building that day.
What we’re left with is a simple, brutal display of how easily democratic institutions can be brought to the edge. Despite the lack of filters, soundtracks and clever editing, the House managers put together perhaps the scariest horror movie of the year.