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January 6, 2021, may be the most contentious date in American history. To Democrats and the surviving remnant of anti-Trump Republicans, the event was a spasm of right-wing political violence aimed at terminating the republican experiment. To most Republicans, it was something ranging from a noble uprising to a prank gone somewhat awry to, at worst, a minor lapse in judgment. We do not yet have a common language to describe this event: Its critics call it an “insurrection,” its defenders and minimizers a “protest.”
In defense of the conservative point of view, the mob invasion of the Capitol — for all the deadly-earnest intentions of its participants — never stood any real chance of victory. It was never going to be a storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace. It was, instead, an act of political theater, yet that hardly diminishes its significance. Theater draws its power from the audience’s interpretation. What really mattered about January 6 was not the events of the day but what the Republican Party made of them.
For the Republican Party to be ripe for Trump’s takeover in 2016 required decades of degeneration. That degeneration accelerated under Trump. And in the past year, the pace has accelerated yet again: The party has changed more dramatically since he unwillingly left office than in the four years he held it. It is a party reborn, of a distinctly new and more dangerous cast, and January 6 was its true founding.
Before January 6, Trump’s party was naïve about his true nature. On November 7, 2020, former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney wrote an op-ed headlined “If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully.” As Trump began laying the groundwork to cancel the election result, Mitch McConnell waved it off, saying, “A few legal inquiries from the president do not exactly spell the end of the Republic.” A cynic might protest that Trump’s allies understood perfectly well where he planned to take his campaign to discredit the election. But their shock and horror suggest they truly had convinced themselves it was just an act. As mayhem spread through the Capitol, sycophants as devoted as Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump Jr., and Sean Hannity sent frantic texts begging Trump to halt the violence.
In the days that followed January 6, the Republican Establishment broke with him abruptly. McConnell told associates that Trump had committed impeachable offenses and opined that impeachment would make it easier to purge him from the party. Kevin McCarthy had a screaming match with Trump and mused privately about supporting impeachment. Numerous pundits in the Murdoch media empire publicly called for Trump to resign before his term expired. Major corporations announced they would withhold donations from any members of Congress who refused to endorse the legitimacy of the election.
Within a week, this conviction began to falter. On January 13, Axios reported that McConnell was more likely than not to vote for impeachment but that top Republicans were “divided whether to do it with one quick kill via impeachment, or let him slowly fade away.” The very way they had constructed the choice revealed their answer. If Trump were bound to fade away, why bother to exert themselves?
In February, McConnell and most Republicans in office, while maintaining that Trump was morally culpable, voted against impeachment on the narrow grounds that it was improper to convict a president who had already left office. Instead, they proposed a different mechanism to hold Trump accountable. “We need a 9/11 Commission to find out what happened,” Lindsey Graham announced on Fox News. Within a few months, Republican support for such a commission had melted away. Two weeks after voting against impeachment, McConnell assured Fox News that if Trump were to win the 2024 nomination, he would “absolutely” support him. The notion that Trump had morally disqualified himself fell by the wayside. In April, Senate Republicans, concerned that Trump might hold their previous statements against them, presented the former president with a “Champion of Freedom” trophy, which they had created especially for the occasion. Trump’s attempt to violently seize power had progressed from impeachable to worthy of investigation to deserving of honor.
By the spring, Trump was sensing weakness in his erstwhile critics and seized the offensive. He began incorporating into his public diatribes a revisionist story of January 6 in which the protesters had been peaceful tourists victimized by savage cops. And he threw himself into purging his remaining Republican critics. His allies removed Liz Cheney from her leadership position for continuing to challenge Trump’s claims that the election had been stolen. Her demotion struck most Republicans as commonsensical. “If you had a member of the Democratic leadership and said they didn’t believe in climate change anymore, do you think they would still remain in Democrat leadership?” explained one Republican member of Congress. Cheney’s position on the election and January 6 had briefly been the predominant one in her party. But now, having maintained the stance while her colleagues backed away from it, she was an apostate.
Since the spring, the Republican Party has been operating under an informal understanding: Trump, amplified by his supporters in the conservative media, is free to spread his narrative that the “real insurrection” took place on November 3, while his Republican critics must keep their doubts to themselves. With Trump given a free hand by party leadership, his purge of his critics has intensified. In Georgia, David Perdue announced a primary challenge to sitting governor Brian Kemp based solely on the latter’s refusal to cooperate with Trump’s demand to discard the election results in his state. In other states across the country, pro-Trump legislatures have voted to place power over elections in the hands of fellow Republicans, and pro-Trump candidates have run for positions overseeing the casting and tabulation of votes.
Just as the Kremlin’s position could be discerned from Pravda, the comings and goings on Fox News have reflected the party-line shift back to Trump. The day before Trump left office, several of the reporters involved in the network’s election call of Arizona for Joe Biden quietly departed. Later, in the fall, Jonah Goldberg, Stephen Hayes, and Chris Wallace, who had challenged Trump’s lies, all left too. In November, the corporate boycott of donations to members of Congress who deny the election outcome ended. The objective of isolating supporters of the Big Lie had failed, and there was business to be done.
Of course, Republicans have been doing business with Trump, sometimes while holding their noses, all along. So what’s different now? It is easier to comprehend if you consider the situation from the standpoint of its insiders. The Republican elite have always seen Trump as a clown, not a menace. Crucially, they assumed he would lose reelection, and if he tried anything truly dangerous, they felt confident that responsible Republicans would stand up to him. The future would belong to those Republicans who made it to 2021 without being covered in the Trump stench. For them, the 2020 election arrived as a positive shock — Trump came within a hair of winning reelection, demonstrating that four years of miserable polling results had reflected a distorted reality. Maintaining a distance from Trump no longer appeared smart. And they discovered that things they had once regarded as intolerable could in fact be tolerated. A year ago, most Republicans would have drawn a bright-red line at overturning an election result through physical menace. Now, nearly all of them have stood with the leader who stomped over the line and is prepared to do so again.
After the 2016 election, Republicans were stunned to find that control of government had fallen into their lap. Now, they confidently anticipate the chance to seize it. And when they do, they will not be as confused, divided, or gentle as last time.
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