Jan. 6 should have been the point of no return, the pivot point at which even the most blinkered sugarcoaters of Trumpism recoiled in disgust from what they had wrought.
For everyone who had convinced themselves that, whatever Trump’s flaws, the true threat to the American way of life lay on the left and only on the left, Jan. 6 was a blaring klaxon. Yes, he was a buffoon and incompetent and unfamiliar with the levers of power — and yet this clown nearly brought a 244-year-old democracy to its knees.
The most threatening aspect of Jan. 6 was not the ferocious attack on the Capitol but the response of Republican officeholders thereafter. Even after the unleashing of medieval mob violence, 147 Republican members of Congress voted not to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the presidency. The transformation of the GOP from a political party into an authoritarian personality cult became official that day.
In the year since, most Republicans (with some extremely honorable exceptions) have descended further into cultishness. They blocked the creation of an independent Jan. 6 commission, attempted to pack the congressional Jan. 6 committee with Trump Dobermans like Rep. Jim Jordan, and engaged in flagrant gaslighting about the events of that day. Now, with the arrival of the first anniversary of the most shameful day in recent history, Republicans and right-wing opinion leaders have returned to their comfort zone: blame the media.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who showed uncharacteristic independence that day, has retreated to media bashing. “I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January,” he told Fox News.
Radio host Erick Erickson tweeted that “there is a genuine obsession in the press about it. It was a bad day, but it doesn’t outweigh crime, inflation, COVID, school closures, etc. for voters.” Erickson was at pains to emphasize that he isn’t now minimizing what happened at the Capitol, but merely responding to a “press corps obsessed with it as the worst thing ever.”
This is not to say that there’s no such thing as press overreaction or hysteria, but the right has been engaging in evasion for years with the “but the media” trope. In the wake of Jan. 6, it looks not just dishonest but absurd. Jan. 6 is not an “issue” like crime or COVID-19 or inflation. It’s the heart of our system. Without bipartisan allegiance to the verdict of voters and the willingness to cede power to those you oppose, no other “issues” can ever be addressed.
Encounter Books editor Roger Kimball mocked the gravity of Jan. 6. “Was it an effort to overthrow the government? Hardly.” The trouble, of course, is the media: “To listen to the establishment media and our political masters, the January 6 protest was a dire threat to the very fabric of our nation.”
In fact, Kimball claims, the media narrative amounts to a “January 6 insurrection hoax” to pair with the “Russia collusion hoax.”
Unlike some of those cited above, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is not an apologist for Trumpism. He doesn’t blame the media, but he doubts that Trump has the wherewithal to subvert our system. Yes, Trump did try to steal the election, Douthat writes, but the courts and state legislatures failed to do his bidding.
That’s a comforting thought, but it fails to grapple with two things. One is the GOP’s systematic purging of officials who did the right thing in the 2020 election. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been removed from the board overseeing election certification and is being primaried, as is Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Across the country, Republican officials who stood in the breach when it counted and did the right thing are being hounded from office. Members who voted to impeach are resigning or close to resigning.
It’s true that Trump didn’t quite know where the pressure points were last time, but he’s learning. He has supported secretary of state candidates who deny the validity of the 2020 result in four swing states. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures in a number of states have passed laws withdrawing power over election certification from local election administrators and handing it to legislatures.
But the most profound reason to fear a repeat of something like Jan. 6 is that Trump has corrupted the minds of a substantial percentage of Republican party members.
The polls consistently show that about two-thirds of Republicans believe the Big Lie that the election was stolen. Nearly a third believe that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Among rank-and-file Republicans, Jan. 6 is not even viewed as regrettable. One poll found that 52% identified those who entered the Capitol as “protecting democracy.”
Institutions are not self-sustaining. They are composed of people, and if people have lost faith in them or have given themselves permission to break the rules, they will crumble.
A people deluded and propagandized cannot be trusted to uphold the pillars of the democratic process. Trump failed at his improvised coup, but he succeeded in warping enough of the electorate to make another attempt — and even success — all too possible.