Imploring impeachment jurors to convict former President Donald Trump this week, House managers showed senators a searing series of videos revealing just how violent the incited insurrectionists were, and just how close the senators-turned-jurors came to being victims, too.
Unlike Trump's first impeachment, which involved profoundly consequential constitutional issues but was centered around text of a phone call involving arcane Ukrainian diplomacy, this trial has been distinctly different — partly because of the traumatic video footage that was instantly both riveting and revolting, even for senators signaling they won't vote for conviction.
It began with an unblinking, 13-minute account that included footage not seen by Congress or the country, which will serve as an informal jury weighing whether the former president should ever be considered a future one.
But much more was shown in the next two days, including the fortitude of police officers such as Eugene Goodman, whose heroics will be recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal.
In one previously unseen video, Goodman is shown sprinting to turn Sen. Mitt Romney away from the seething MAGA mob, adding to the already widely viewed video of the officer directing rioters in the wrong direction, away from Senate chambers. Other videos showed officers being brutalized, including an excruciating crushing of one and another beaten by an American flag.
Normally loquacious senators turned laconic, stunned by the graphic videos. So too, undoubtedly, were many Americans.
"It was an extraordinary experience for a lot of us watching this," said Scott Libin, a veteran news director who once led WCCO-TV and KSTP-TV. Now teaching at the University of Minnesota's Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Libin said, "To see video of this sort, some of it captured by participants of the attack, some of it captured by surveillance cameras at the Capitol, some of it captured by body cameras, is just sort of overwhelming."
Video, Libin added, "takes us to an event in a certain way. Words are very powerful, and effective writers can take us to transformation itself. But video with what we call natural sound, sound captured at the scene, really takes us there and gives us proximity that is really extraordinary."
And video, even more than still images, stir emotions. "I would speculate that video is an even more powerful stimulus than a picture because it adds dynamic information and helps us construct a narrative," Kathleen M. Galotti, the director of the Cognitive Science Program at Carleton College, wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Galotti, citing video of former Vice President Mike Pence being hustled down a staircase, said, "We can easily imagine the fear and terror that most humans would have in that situation. The video engages us in that narrative in a way that reading a transcript might not."
Which makes this distinctly different from Trump's first, narrative-center impeachment trial.
"The video does something that the testimony can't quite do and in some ways what the Mueller report certainly couldn't do," said Emily Winderman, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Communication Studies.
"That was quite the 'tl;dr'," Winderman said, referring to the "too long; didn't read" status of the well-known, but less-read, report. "It was quite the steamy story if you did read it, right? But nobody read it."
Libin said Trump's previous impeachment trial was "so arcane and esoteric in the implications of what happened and was so easy to argue about the interpretations and implications. It's difficult if you haven't moved in the circles of international diplomacy to understand that. This one transports every viewer to a scene that's hard to process, but not because it's remote or complex or abstract but because it's sensory bombardment — 'I can't believe what I'm seeing.' "
This sensory bombardment can be bonding. "We live our separate lives, and something happens, and we all tune in," Winderman said. "Publics are formed when we share emotions with each other; January 6 and the video and the audio evidence really does that."
The public that's been formed favoring conviction of the president is a majority, albeit not an overwhelming one, according to two polls reporting that 56% of Americans say the Senate should vote for conviction. Those CBS and ABC polls show totals slightly ahead of the 52% in a Gallup poll — about the opposite of Trump's first impeachment trial, when 51% favored conviction.
All three polls were in the field before the videos were played in the Senate chambers and in living rooms, so that impact isn't yet quantified. But even beforehand, in just one example of how some see the Jan. 6 image's impact, about 6 in 10 Americans told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that the Capitol attack will at least temporarily decrease U.S. influence in the world.
"It has shaken confidence in American democracy," Dina Smeltz, senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council, said, adding: "I think the power of the video, and also finding out the details of people like the workers who were affected … gives a much more holistic idea that it was not just the senators who were under attack."
Indeed, police officers, congressional staffers, Capitol workers and elected representatives were imperiled in an insurrection that could have ended even worse.
"Visceral threats are really formed when there is a threat over the perceived boundary violation to a body, both individual and national," Winderman said. "We cohere together by means of intense feelings."
Those emotions are lasting, Libin said. "An accepted tenet of journalism is people remember not what they see, not what they hear, not what they're told, but how they feel. The first two days of this trial has stirred feelings that some people may not have anticipated.
"Many may come away not being able to report verbatim what was said in detail, what was seen, but the impact overall on them, I think, changes the way people feel, and I think the video that we've seen, and the strategic use of it by House managers, is behind that." (On Friday, the president's attorneys charged that some of the video and Twitter evidence was selectively edited.)
Unlike courthouse juries, the congressional one has signaled acquittal.
But it's a "vote of conscience," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said. And the unconscionable violation of cops, the Capitol and the country graphically captured in the videos may make many Americans, and perhaps even some reluctant Republican senators, further question their conscience on the former president's complicity.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.