January 6, 2021, was “a dark day for Congress and our country,” says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The key word here is day. The Republican line is that January 6 was awful, terrible, inexcusable, just bad, bad, bad — however, the badness it represents has passed, and now the real danger is Democratic proposals to safeguard voting rights.
“A year ago today, the Senate did not bend or break. We stuck together, stood strong, gaveled back in, and did our job,” McConnell continues. “Senators should not be trying to exploit this anniversary to damage the Senate in a different way from within.” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “Jan. 6 was a riot, not an insurrection, and U.S. institutions held.” National Review condemns the dark day before pivoting to an equal condemnation of “January 6 opportunists on the left” who “want to respond by enacting centralizing changes to the American system.” Ben Shapiro dismisses the “riot which did not prevent the certification of the 2020 election” that is “now being exploited by the political class to dramatically revise republican institutions including federalism and the filibuster.” National Review’s Kyle Smith condensed the party line into its pithiest encapsulation: “The events of January 6 constituted a temporary crisis that was swiftly put down.”
This would be an accurate description of a world in which the following conditions held: After the insurrection was defeated, a chastened Donald Trump renounced his claim to the presidency or at least slunk away into quiet obscurity. The Republican Party shoved his loudest allies to the margins and elevated into power those Republicans who attacked his election lies. And the party institutionally recommitted itself to respecting the outcome of democratic elections win or lose.
This is the outcome that, in the immediate aftermath of January 6, party Establishmentarians like McConnell hoped and believed would pertain.
What happened instead is essentially the opposite of this.
Trump won the argument within the party over his efforts to nullify the election results. McConnell and his allies abandoned their plan to impeach Trump over January 6, then fell back on supporting a commission to investigate it, then abandoned that as well.
Some 70 percent of Republicans consider Trump the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, a number so daunting Republicans no longer dare to question it. Trump routinely paints the insurrectionists as martyrs and denounces their prosecution as a witch hunt. He is the presumptive 2024 presidential nominee, and the leading alternative candidates have preemptively endorsed him. His critics have been stripped of their authority within the party and hunted to extinction.
Now the most fervent supporters of Trump’s effort to undo the election are taking over the party from the bottom up. As the Washington Post reports, “At least 163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false claims are running for statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections.”
This is not the Republican Party that McConnell, the Journal editorial page, or National Review wanted. But it’s the party they allowed to form, either out of helplessness or complicity. Their response has been to carry on as if their aborted steps to marginalize Trump had succeeded.
You can see this delusion at work when they find events to compare January 6 to. Many of them liken the riot to the arson and looting that broke out during some Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Ron DeSantis compares January 6 to the 2017 shooting at a Congressional Republican baseball practice. “That was like a one-day, two-day story,” he complains, unable to understand why the media treats January 6 as something categorically different.
The difference, of course, is neither the anarchists and looters who took advantage of racial-justice protests nor the maniac who tried to gun down Republicans enjoyed the support of any major political leaders. Joe Biden condemned the violence accompanying racial-justice protests; Congressional Democrats uniformly condemned the baseball shooting.
January 6 could have been an event that retrospectively took on the same cast. Instead, the man who inspired the rampage through the Capitol and refused to take any steps to halt it has continued to glorify the perpetrators. The riot was quelled and then overruled by Congress because the violence lacked partywide support. But the very condition that allowed it to happen is what has so rapidly changed.
In a polarized country, the ability of an idea to gain the support of one of the two major parties has overwhelming strategic importance. The Republican Party is led by the man who inspired the attack on the Capitol and whose authoritarian ambitions have not retreated in the slightest. Anybody working to enhance the power of the party is therefore empowering authoritarians.
If the Republicans had followed through on their brief determination to break irrevocably with Trump, January 6 would have been merely a dark day. Instead, it is the portent of a dark era.