While he was president of the United States, Donald Trump tried to overthrow the election of 2020, first by fraud, then by violence. His efforts were defeated in great part because of the integrity and courage of state-level Republican officials.
Half a year has now passed since supporters of the president stormed Congress in an effort to coerce Vice President Mike Pence to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election. In that time, honest and brave state Republican officials have been reviled, condemned, and punished by their own party.
The president was impeached, but most Republicans in the House voted against the impeachment, and most in the Senate voted to acquit. Trump has otherwise to date escaped all consequences for his attempted destruction of the Constitution. He remains the Republican Party’s best fundraiser, and the clear front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Where they hold majorities in state legislatures, Republicans are rewriting election laws to impose new difficulties on Black Americans and others whose voting they wish to discourage. And just in case that is not enough to deliver the outcomes they want, they are concentrating new powers in party-controlled branches of state governments.
Meanwhile, many in the conservative world are celebrating the January 6 attackers as victims of political persecution, if not as outright heroes. The woman killed at the head of the charge to find and abduct Pence has been elevated as a martyr.
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Put like that, it all sounds pretty bad.
That’s why a great deal of effort is being invested in never “putting it like that”—in finding some formula of euphemism and excuse that normalizes Trump’s attempt to keep power despite electoral defeat.
This campaign derides Trump’s failed putsch as a shambles and a farce, an “altercation,” a protest gone wrong, a coup that was no coup. It amiably suggests that nobody need worry about the events of January 6 overmuch.
To support this project, one must isolate the attack on Congress from the rest of the story of the 2019–20 presidential election. Trump was impeached in 2020 for extorting Ukraine to deliver disinformation to help him against Joe Biden. He was impeached in 2021 for inciting an attack on Congress to stop Biden from taking office. Those were two separate crimes, but they emanated from the same scheme.
And that scheme was not some solo lunacy of Trump alone. It’s not Trump who is systematically ending the political careers of every Republican who has stood up for democracy over the past year. That’s a broad effort almost universally supported in Trump’s party.
Nor is it Trump alone who is rewriting election laws, Trump alone who is exonerating and celebrating the January 6 attackers, Trump alone who is shutting down any investigation of questions about that day, such as “Who paid for the January 6 attackers to come to Washington in the first place?” Those too are broad efforts almost universally supported in Trump’s party.
Failed coups often look ludicrous in the aftermath. In 1961, elements of the French military tried to overthrow President Charles de Gaulle and the then-new Fifth Republic. De Gaulle mocked the coup-makers as “un quarteron de généraux en retraite”—“a handful of retired generals.” The phrase is even more dismissive in French than in English. But De Gaulle was talking after the fact, after he knew the outcome. During the attempted seizure of power, he took it seriously enough.
And so should we take January 6. The January 6 minimizers will argue that this was not the first violent protest on the Capitol grounds. Puerto Rican terrorists opened fire on Congress in 1954, wounding five House members. The Weather Underground planted a bomb in a washroom beneath the Senate chamber in 1971, doing serious damage to the building. A Communist group detonated a bomb in the Senate in 1983 to protest the U.S. invasion of Grenada. That one did less damage. But unlike all those other incidents—and unlike the antifa attacks on the Portland courthouse or any of the other “what abouts” favored by the Trumpists—the January 6 attack was unique in American history in one fateful and terrible way: It came from the inside.
That attack was not the work of avowed adversaries of the American government, of clandestine dissidents, of radicals outside the system. The January 6 attack was incited by the head of the American government, the man who had sworn to protect and defend that government. It was the thing most feared by the authors of the U.S. Constitution: a betrayal of the highest office by the holder of that office.
It’s no mystery why pro-Trump partisans would excuse January 6. Trump incited the putsch; he continues to justify it. Of course those loyal to Trump would condone this latest outrage as they have previously condoned so many others. You sign with the Mafia, you don’t get squeamish about the crimes.
It’s more interesting to consider why so many non-Trumpy Republican partisans and conservative intellectuals are willing to expend so much effort minimizing and contextualizing January 6. You might expect them to welcome the opportunity to draw a clean break, a sharp dividing line. Here, at last, is the toad too ugly to swallow; here is the long-awaited chance to shove Trump into the past and redirect their party to the post-Trump future.
I think I can see four reasons why this is not happening.
The first is the familiar human instinct to save face. You invest five years dismissing Trump as a vulgar but ultimately harmless buffoon. Then comes the definitive proof that you were wrong. Are you going to admit it? Of course not. You will use the mighty brain God gave you to explain why you were actually right all along, only in a slightly more complicated way than you were right before.
A second reason is that non-Trumpy conservatives share with Trump conservatives an intense preoccupation with the hypocrisies and double standards of their political opponents. If anything, non-Trumpy conservatives feel even more anger against those opponents than Trump conservatives do. Affirmatively pro-Trump conservatives feel right at home in the Trump coalition. For non-Trump conservatives, their situation is much less comfortable. Disregarding Trump himself as unimportant and irrelevant—while focusing all their attention on irksome things done by anybody other than Trump—becomes an indispensable psychological coping mechanism that leads them to reinterpret January 6 not as a story about Trump but as a story about why liberals did not say more in 2020 about urban disorders or some other irritant of the moment.
Reason three: Non-Trump conservatives have begun to absorb that Trump is not in fact receding into the past. Trump’s grip on the Republican Party remains tight. Unless he’s dead or otherwise unable by then, he’s the likeliest 2024 nominee. And even if he somehow is debarred from running, noisy loyalty to Trump will be a precondition for anyone who wants to succeed him. Non-Trump conservatives can privately allow that January 6 was a blemish on Trump’s record, but a defense of the record itself is the one and only meaningful test of loyalty in today’s GOP, more meaningful than being anti–abortion rights or pro-guns, to say nothing of the economic or fiscal principles that the party junked long ago.
Finally, while non-Trump conservatives may disapprove of the crude and excessive violence deployed on January 6, they do not disapprove of the post-democratic path being explored by the modern right. The yearning for a Caesar to repress the woke mob is expressed more and more explicitly, hence the appeal to even the highest-toned of today’s conservative intellectuals of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Law and Justice party, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Some even have favorable words for some of the fascists of the 1930s, such as Portugal’s António Salazar.
The post-Trump right has a style as distinctive as its authoritarian substance: trolling, ironic, evasive. It expresses itself in rhetorical questions, in false alternatives, in sleights of phrase, in mocking deflections. It does not openly declare its intentions, in part because it does not dare to—and in part because it itself does not yet fully know. Those of us who have walked away from this betrayal of our earlier beliefs can discern the resemblance to the fascism of the last century. But those heading toward the new destination do not see so clearly, distracted as they are by the wisecracks that they are tweeting as they trudge.
But some things cannot be wisecracked away. January 6 was the last exit. If you can shrug it off as no big deal, just another incident of Trump talking too much, then you have already signed up for the next incident—and the one after that. You are then offering a no-risk pair of options for the enemies of democracy: Try to overthrow democracy and win, then you win; try and lose—hey, you were only kidding.