The morning of Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters gathered around the ellipse on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to enact a revolution. Trump told them that an “egregious assault on our democracy” had taken place in the 2020 election. He recounted his lies about fraud in the election and said he would march on the U.S. Capitol alongside his supporters just as the electoral vote count took place.
Trump promised his supporters their very own founding, but they only achieved failure. What the day would ultimately mean was unclear as the events took place, and at first looked perhaps like an unmitigated disaster for Trump’s personal political fortunes as well as for the broader GOP. Trump faced immediate pushback from everyone: from his son Donald Trump, Jr., his daughter Ivanka Trump, his chief of staff Mark Meadows, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, among others — all urged to call off his supporters and fretted about the fallout.
Trump instead chose to ignore them for hours, as he sucked in the insurrection from his White House television. (He never marched with his supporters.) And for this, he was rewarded. Trump’s symbiosis with his supporters meant that he followed them as much as they followed him, and he ultimately chose their cause.
This became especially clear as the one-year anniversary approached.
“I reverse it — the insurrection took place on Nov. 3, that was Election Day, and before and after,” Trump said nearly one year later on Dec. 1, 2021. “That was to me, the insurrection. And January 6th was a protest.”
Trump’s inversion of the insurrection is now a key narrative giving meaning to the Republican voter base. And that means the next effort to overturn an election will be far more serious.
Republican views of the insurrection softened since immediately following the insurrection, according to a CBS News Poll. More than half of Republicans now say that the insurrectionists were “defending freedom,” while 47% said they were exhibiting “patriotism,” according to the CBS poll. Less than half of Republicans accept the result of the 2020 election, according to a NPR/Ipsos poll. Meanwhile, 61% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said that they consider their belief that Trump won the 2020 election central to their identity as Republicans, according to a CNN/SSRS poll. Republicans who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent are also more likely to vote in 2022 than Republicans who do not, the CNN/SRSS poll found.
Most important, perhaps, are poll findings that show Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to “strongly agree” that “America is in crisis and at risk of failing” now than it was a year ago. Forty-seven percent of Republicans “strongly agree” with this statement compared to just 29% of Democrats, according to the NPR/Ipsos poll.
For those Republicans, the failure to overturn the 2020 election appears to be the crisis of the republic. Failure means simply allowing anyone other than Trump to hold the presidency.
This is the exact sentiment provided by intellectual Trumpists as they sought to give meaning to the Jan. 6 events and their aftermath. In a speech titled “The January 6th Insurrection Hoax,” given at Hillsdale College — whose professors and administrators helped write Trump’s “1776 Project” — Roger Kimball, the conservative editor of The New Criterion, decried the response to the insurrection as an extension of “cancel culture.” Those who believe that Jan. 6 was an insurrection are not only trying to cancel the insurrectionists, Kimball argued, but the American nation itself.
“Many people have been quoting Benjamin Franklin’s famous response when asked what sort of government they had come up with at the Constitutional Convention of 1787,” Kimball said. “‘A republic,’ Franklin said, ‘if you can keep it.’ Right now, it looks like we can’t. It looks as if the American constitutional republic has given way, as least temporarily, to an American oligarchy.”
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson finds a similar meaning of Jan. 6, where the true Americans are at risk of losing their country to a subversive force, in his documentary “Patriot Purge.” “Patriot Purge” does not argue that the reaction to Jan. 6 is a hoax, but rather that it is an orchestrated intelligence operation to turn the instruments of the War on Terror on “legacy Americans,” a new phrase used to denote Americans of European descent, in order “to change the racial mix of the country.”
The interpretations of the events all bring the meaning of Jan. 6 into understandable terrain for Trump-loving Republicans. In the MAGA mind, true Americans must “take back our country,” from the “left-wing cultural revolution … designed to overthrow the American Revolution,” as Trump said in a July 4, 2020, speech.
Insurrectionists are “political prisoners of war” or, in the case of Ashlii Babbitt, the lone person killed by Capitol Police on Jan. 6, a martyr of the failed revolt. The present order must be overturned to create a glorious return.
While Trump told his supporters they are “all victims,” he urges them to turn their perceived victimization into action. When an event provides meaning through a narrative to a social group, it does so in pursuit of action. The Jan. 6 insurrection and the election fraud lies that led to it have pushed Republicans further down the path of anti-democratic and minoritarian governance. It’s not as though this path is new for a party that has sought entrenched power in the courts and only won the popular election presidential vote once in the past 30 years. But Trump openly embraced any mechanism to hold on to power, including by directing a mob at the Capitol. By embracing the failed revolt and lies that inspired it, Trump promotes political action that will make it easier for his plots to seize power succeed the next time.
And the plots are already well underway. Republican-run states rushed in 2021 to pass laws limiting voter access on the grounds of enhancing “election integrity,” despite no evidence of widespread election fraud or abuse of any form of voting, be it in-person, mail or early. Republicans in the state of Georgia went further, enabling the Republican-run state legislature to purge local election boards of Democrats in order to reduce voting opportunities in heavily Democratic counties. These purges and the closure of polling locations are already happening.
There are no reasonable Republicans who will ride to the rescue anytime soon — in fact, it’s the opposite. Over the past decade, Republican primary elections have been roiled by a series of further and further right-wing challengers. There is a new crop of challengers in 2022, but instead of betting their candidacies on issues of economics or cultural issues like immigration, they are basing them on their fealty to Trump and his lies. A not insignificant number of them were involved in the events of Jan. 6 themselves.
Almost every congressional Republican who sought to punish Trump for Jan. 6 now faces a primary challenger endorsed by the former president or has chosen not to run again. Trump even conditioned his endorsement of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on the governor not backing incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted to remove Trump from office after the insurrection. Kelly Tshibaka, Murkowski’s Trump-endorsed challenger, is a frequent guest on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast, where she says that she would have voted to overturn the election.
Similarly, Republicans at the state level who refused to “find” votes for Trump or otherwise help him overturn the election now face Trump-endorsed primary challengers or have retired from public life. As do those Republicans in state legislatures who did not produce post-election audits that claimed to find fraud, as in Michigan. One Florida Republican state representative is even facing ostracism for simply stating that he would support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over Trump in a 2024 primary campaign.
Former Georgia Sen. David Perdue, who is running against incumbent Gov. Brain Kemp, with Trump’s endorsement, said that he would not have certified the state’s election results if he were governor in 2020.
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who tweeted on Jan. 6, “This is our 1776 moment” and voted to overturn the election results of his own state, is running against incumbent Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with Trump’s endorsement. Raffensperger famously refused Trump’s entreaty that he “find” enough votes to overturn the state’s results. Hice’s bid for office is solely rooted in his support for overturning elections.
The same is true of the Secretary of State candidacies of Trump-endorsees Mark Finchem in Arizona and Kristina Karamo in Michigan. Finchem, an Arizona state representative, attended the Jan. 6 rally and was outside the Capitol during the insurrection. Karamo, a community college professor and pro-Trump podcaster, claimed to have witnessed fraud as a poll watcher and since spread Trump’s election fraud lies while also alleging that the insurrection was carried out by “antifa” and Black Lives Matter.
It’s not as though these primary challengers are only being boosted by Trump. The Alaska Republican Party endorsed Tshibaka over Murkowski. The chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party endorsed a primary challenger to Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) after he refused to vote to overturn the election. States and local parties have further censured or otherwise punished Republicans like Kemp, Raffensperger and the House and Senate lawmakers who voted to impeach and convict Trump for his Jan. 6 actions.
If these candidates win, they would have the power to help a repeat of Jan. 6 to greater success by affirming Trump’s claims of fraud, refusing to certify election results, submitting an alternative slate of electors, voting to reject a state’s electoral votes or voting to affirm a fraudulent alternative slate. This is the action that flows from the meaning given to Jan. 6 by Trump and others.
Trump and conservative media remain set on embracing the Republican Party’s minority status while turning every anti-democratic lever of the constitution to give it power without winning a majority of votes. Trump’s effort to overturn his 2020 loss was comical and doomed from the start, but incredibly dangerous. As Trump prepares for his third presidential campaign in a row, he takes greater inspiration from his most deluded followers than ever before. The people who marched into the Capitol that day are now leading the GOP parade.