The anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol was marked with solemnity, but it wasn’t exactly bipartisan. Both President Biden and Vice-President Harris addressed the nation from Statuary Hall. The Democratic House convened a special session to pay tribute to those who died in the aftermath of the attack, and Democratic senator after senator addressed the chamber to reflect on what transpired one year ago. The only Republicans present were Liz Cheney, a political pariah within her own party, and her father, Dick Cheney, an octogenarian who has not appeared on a ballot in nearly two decades.
The rest of the Republican Party was almost totally absent from marking the day when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and attempted to disrupt the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Even Trump himself withdrew from the spotlight: He abruptly canceled his press conference planned for the day and instead sent out a barrage of statements in which he offered familiar and false attacks on the legitimacy of the election.
So into the void stepped Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene to deliver “a Republican response” for the anniversary, which ended up serving as a de facto official one. They are not in the mainstream of the party — at least not yet — but they were able to fill the vacuum left by more senior and more conventional figures.
“We did not want the Republican voice to go unheard and have today’s historical narrative be hijacked by those who were the true insurrectionists,” Gaetz proclaimed during a press conference inside the Capitol, inside a tiny, stuffy room where their aides scoffed at requests from photographers to don masks.
The two Republican members of Congress used footage of several participants in the attack to insinuate that the people were federal agents who had lured naïve Trump supporters into the Capitol. “I do not believe that there would have been the same level of criminal acuity on January 6 of last year but for the involvement of the federal government,” Gaetz told reporters. “This was not an insurrection,” he said, but “it may been a fedsurrection.”
Gatez was coy about why federal law enforcement would undertake such a conspiracy. “The motive of the federal government may not have been to disrupt the debate [to overturn the election] but to ensnare, target, and trash a political movement we saw during the civil-rights era.” In other words, the attack on the Capitol was simply the logical and direct extension of J. Edgar Hoover tapping Martin Luther King’s phones in the 1960s.
The argument laid out by the two is a perverse mirror image of the actual events. January 6 did represent the culmination of an effort to overturn a presidential election and install the losing candidate by government actors. But in their view, the losing candidate was Joe Biden, not Trump. It wasn’t a failed autogolpe by an increasingly desperate losing candidate advised by figures ranging from a television pillow salesman to Rudy Giuliani. Instead, it was a sophisticated deep-state effort that marked the culmination of a four-year effort to undermine the Trump administration. In fact, Greene even mourned that the attack prevented her from making the case in the joint session that day that Michigan’s electoral votes should be tossed out. “I was very upset,” she said.
This was the only narrative of January 6 presented in person at the Capitol by Republican elected officials on Thursday.
This is not to say that mainstream Republicans were silent. Instead, the attack’s anniversary was treated gingerly, with every potential response presenting its own political pitfalls. After all, Ted Cruz, a leader of the effort to overturn the election results, had come under fire from the MAGA right in recent days simply for referring to January 6 as “a terrorist attack.” Gaetz suggested that Cruz was “bending over” to appeal to the “Establishment” and the media with that comment.
While a number of Republican senators attended the funeral of a former colleague in Georgia, many prominent GOP elected officials retreated to the safest citadel in politics: Whataboutism. House Republican whip Steve Scalise compared the attack on the Capitol to the riots linked with Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. Florida governor Ron DeSantis said the anniversary was simply being used by the corporate media to manufacture consent for their narratives. Senator Lindsey Graham’s immediate thought in the aftermath of President Biden’s remarks condemning the riot was about the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Fox News, there were criticisms of Kamala Harris comparing the attack to Pearl Harbor or September 11. After all, the casualty list on January 6, 2021 was far lower than those days, the pundits said.
But these were all statements, tweets, and punditry. It left Greene and Gaetz as the Republicans to rebut Biden. They may not be the leaders of their party but, on the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, they were the party’s spokespeople.