A supporter holds a sign heralding South Carolina state Rep. Russell Fry during a March rally with former President Donald Trump.
CNN  — 

The House January 6 committee plans Thursday to produce shocking new evidence about Donald Trump’s bid to steal the last presidential election. But he and his loyalists don’t care. They are already positioning to fix the next one, undercutting the panel’s mission of saving American democracy.

All over the country, Republican candidates are running and winning primaries on Trump’s lie that he is the rightful president. No matter that such claims have been dismissed by former members of his administration testifying under oath before the committee as “idiotic” “bullshit” and “crazy.”

The enduring power of Trump’s authoritarian appeal both encapsulates the importance of the House select committee and why it may fail even if it ends its investigation with a historic denunciation of the ex-President.

In its televised hearings, the committee has not just exposed the attempt to deny the will of voters in 2020 and the mob attack on the US Capitol. It has framed its work as a warning that the fundamental principle of American governance remains under threat from Trump and hardline Republicans, who could also be harnessed by another GOP candidate if he opts not to run for the White House in 2024.

“Our work must do much more than just look backwards. The cause of our democracy remains in danger. The conspiracy to thwart the will of the people is not over,” Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said last week.

Just in the latest batch of primaries earlier this week, Trump’s election lies helped his chosen candidate unseat a staunchly conservative congressman in South Carolina, who had dared to vote for Trump’s impeachment last year. And a Nevada advocate of Trump’s bogus claims won the GOP nomination for secretary of state, poised to become the official who will run the 2024 election in the state if he wins in November. Last month, Pennsylvania Republicans nominated for governor a candidate who was spouting such nonsense. A Republican candidate for secretary of state in New Mexico says there was indeed a “coup” – but it was against Trump. Other followers of the ex-President, even those who haven’t received his endorsement, are embracing his election falsehoods and running strong in primaries.

Each of these races is playing out in an environment shaped by Trump’s determination to put his false claims of victory in 2020 at the center of the midterms, and to build a bench of officials who can help finesse the outcome in 2024. And they suggest that far from being deterred by the violence and insurrection after the 2020 election, much of the Republican grassroots has been further radicalized by it.

Pence’s role at center of next hearing

The committee’s next hearing Thursday is expected to detail the intense pressure that Trump placed on then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election in Congress even though he lacked the power to do so.

Yet using the institutions of democratic government to hold the most undemocratic President to account has a checkered record. The transfer of power may have worked, just barely, in 2021 but Trump has long escaped full accountability for his actions.

Any other President would view two impeachments as a mark of shame. For Trump and his supporters, it is proof of his establishment-wrecking credentials. The hazy guardrails of the presidency – more customs observed by chief executives protective of the office than written rules – never constrained him. And so far, partly owing to the legal protections inherent in the presidency, Trump has not faced judgment in a court of law for his transgressions.

This is one reason why there is so much debate over whether the January 6 committee would send a criminal referral of the ex-President to the Justice Department. The question appears to have divided the panel, which has no formal legal jurisdiction, and has upset both its carefully created impression of unity and the televised choreography of the last week of hearings.

In addition, legal scholars remain divided over whether the panel has yet been successful in showing a direct causal link between Trump’s actions and the attack on the US Capitol designed to prevent certification of President Joe Biden’s election win by lawmakers – a prerequisite for any successful prosecution, should the Justice Department recommend one.

Trump remains strong in the heartland

Outside Washington, the impermeability of much of Trump’s appeal – even as he continues to spread falsehoods about what happens – calls into question the lasting impact of even the dramatic committee hearings.

The crush of other crises bearing down on Americans, including raging inflation and record gas prices, is grabbing attention of voters understandably more focused on basic needs than more esoteric questions like democracy. (If such inflationary conditions prevail into 2024, Trump or any other GOP candidate probably won’t have to do anything to steal power due to widespread dismay about Democrats.)

Still, however damning the committee’s final report is about Trump, millions of his supporters have already dismissed it since it doesn’t fit their preferred interpretation of events on January 6, 2021, which have been distilled through conservative media. And more chillingly, the success of many allied candidates suggests that strongman authoritarianism is now an essential ingredient of the GOP creed for many party voters.

Trump’s writ is not prevailing in every primary race. In Georgia, for instance, the former President failed to destroy the careers of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up for the rule of law when Trump tried to overturn Biden’s 2020 win in the state. The Republican presidential primary for 2024, which will fire up after November’s midterm elections, will help decide whether a wider group of GOP base voters want a candidate going into the next presidential election still complaining about the previous one. It’s possible that party voters might turn to a candidate that exemplifies the principles of “America First” conservative populism but who lacks the wild extremes of Trump – one reason why pundits are high on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But the strong performance of many Trump-allied candidates in recent weeks is sending a signal that there may be little future in the party for hopefuls who reject his false dogma about the last election.

Two South Carolina House races this week showed the power of Trump in action. In the 7th Congressional District, Rep. Tom Rice, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection, lost his primary to state Rep. Russell Fry, who was endorsed by the former President.

In the 1st District, freshman Rep. Nancy Mace won renomination. While she did not vote to impeach Trump, she didn’t join the ex-President’s top supporters in objecting to Biden’s victory in Congress – a potential source of weakness in a GOP primary. But Mace demonstrated Trump’s sway anyway, traveling to Trump Tower in New York and recording a video pledging fervent loyalty to him. Thus, Trump can be a winner in two ways in GOP primaries: He can bully heretics like Rice out of office or force former critics like Mace to publicly profess their loyalty to him.

Across the country in Nevada, the ex-President’s power survived another test. Republicans picked as their nominee for secretary of state businessman Jim Marchant, who is yet another election denier, as CNN’s Fredreka Schouten reported.

Marchant has said that if he is elected, one of his top priorities will be the “overhaul of the fraudulent election system” in Nevada, a tightly contested state that figures to be a critical piece on the electoral map of both parties in 2024.

The January 6 committee was never likely to convince voters who backed candidates like Marchant. It could sway more moderate Republicans and independent voters.

But as it seeks to expose the threat that Trump posed to democracy in 2020, the intent and capacity of the former President and his followers to curtail it in future elections is only growing.