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The GOP’s January 6 lies have reached a fever pitch

The RNC censured two members of Congress for refusing to play along.

Former President Donald Trump, wearing a red Make America Great Again hat, gestures from behind a microphone on stage at a rally in Florence, Arizona, on January 15, 2022.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Florence, Arizona, on January 15, 2022.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Friday, the Republican National Committee officially stated that the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, which left at least five dead and about 140 injured, was “legitimate political discourse.”

In a two-page censure resolution condemning Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their participation in the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack, the RNC wrote that “Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger are participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse, and they are both utilizing their past professed political affiliation to mask Democrat abuse of prosecutorial power for partisan purposes.”

In a subsequent tweet, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel expanded on the language of the censure to clarify that it referred to “ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.”

The original text of the resolution, however — which, the New York Times notes, was “carefully negotiated in private among party members” before publication — is a fitting cap to a week that saw the GOP, led by former President Donald Trump, draw closer than ever to explicitly supporting the attack on the Capitol and its goal of overturning the 2020 election.

In addition to the censure, Trump last Saturday told supporters at a rally in Conroe, Texas, that he would consider pardoning those charged in connection with the January 6 attack, and Politico reported on Wednesday that he also contemplated doing so before leaving office in January last year.

“If I run and if I win [in 2024], we will treat those people from January 6 fairly. We will treat them fairly,” Trump said at the rally, without addressing any specific concerns about the treatment of rioters. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons. Because they are being treated so unfairly.”

Trump also said in a statement last week that former Vice President Mike Pence “could have overturned the Election!” — an assertion that, while incorrect, is among Trump’s most overt remarks about the intent behind January 6 and his actions leading up to it.

Trump has not yet announced an official run for the presidency in 2024, but signs point to a likely White House bid as he retains a tight grip on the GOP rank and file.

In the meantime, large swaths of the Republican Party, still apparently in Trump’s thrall, have shifted their position on the Capitol insurrection, distancing themselves from the disturbing reality of those events and positioning the insurrectionists as innocent protesters, or even patriotic guardians of the Constitution.

That reversal — from horror at the falsehood-fueled spectacle that unfolded at the Capitol last January to condemnation of Republicans who defy Trump’s narrative — may have coalesced even more clearly over the past week and a half, but it’s been building almost since the attack, spearheaded by members of Congress like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

While some establishment Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney, have spoken out against the censure and praised Cheney’s and Kinzinger’s moral compasses, while others have expressed dismay at the idea of a future President Trump pardoning January 6 rioters, many have bought so wholeheartedly into Trump’s narrative that they attacked Pence for accurately disputing on Thursday Trump’s assertion that he could have overturned the results of the election.

What Trump means when he says he wants January 6 prisoners treated “fairly”

Trump’s assertion that he wants fair treatment for the January 6 defendants may be superficially benign, but in reality, it’s just one front in the GOP attempt to mythologize the attack as less severe than it was.

Trump, along with members of Congress like Gaetz and Greene and would-be members like Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance, have made misleading statements about the slightly more than 700 people arrested for their roles in the attack, including describing them as “political prisoners” and claiming that they haven’t been charged with crimes (they have).

The subtext of Trump’s argument about fairness is particularly alarming, given the shocking violence directed against police defending the Capitol on January 6. By floating pardons should he regain office, Trump rewrites the limits of acceptable behavior for his supporters — and reinforces that those loyal to Trump are in the right and will be rewarded for their loyalty, while those who oppose his claims to power are not only wrong, but unprincipled.

“There is no room for dissenters from Donald Trump’s views in the Republican Party,” Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told Vox in a Sunday interview.

Gaetz and Greene — both ardent supporters of Trump — are leading proponents of the narrative that January 6 attendees are being mistreated (they’re not). Last summer, they, along with Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ), visited a DC jail where some January 6 defendants were being held, demanding access as members of Congress and erroneously claiming they oversaw the budget for the jail, according to the Washington Post.

The group, joined by Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and Bob Good (R-VA), also barged into the Justice Department this past summer, with Gosar calling January 6 defendants “political prisoners” and attempting to ask whether any of the defendants were being held in solitary confinement, the Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn reported at the time.

The January 6 defendants are facing a variety of charges, ranging from obstructing an official proceeding of the government to seditious conspiracy. Some have already been convicted and sentenced; as of the one-year anniversary of the attack, the longest sentence was just over five years in prison.

As Keyssar told Politico in a 2021 retrospective in December, the insurrection of January 6 accelerated “the downward spiral of American political life” and set off an “intensified, rancorous struggle over the preservation of democratic values and institutions.”

Trump’s insistence on pursuing his self-serving narrative of victimhood — and pulling the Republican Party along with him — doesn’t just affect the GOP, as Keyssar points out; it ultimately affects the functioning of democracy and people’s ability to participate in it. “It’s not just a matter of telling different stories,” Keyssar told Vox on Sunday.

Specifically, he said, Trump’s rhetoric around the insurrection is “storytelling to justify a particular social order.” According to Keyssar, the narratives forming around the insurrection echo the end of the Reconstruction period in the South following the Civil War. The Reconstruction era gave Black Americans unprecedented rights, power, and political representation for a brief period, until the end of the 19th century; in the decades following Reconstruction, the prevailing narrative among white Southerners was that the Civil War was an attack on Southerners’ ways of life, and the Reconstruction period was the result of corrupt Northern “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” taking over the remains of that society.

At the time, Keyssar said, the white Southern narrative argued that the disenfranchisement of Black Southerners and reinforcement of white supremacy “had to be restored in order to have a ‘good society’ again.” In the same vein now, Trump’s fiction — that he was the true winner of the 2020 election and widespread fraud robbed him of a second term in office; that members of his own party who don’t support his lies are unpatriotic; and that the people who protested and stormed the Capitol on January 6 aren’t criminals — aims to restore him to power.

Just because Trump’s talking points around the 2020 election and the Republican Party’s embrace of them aren’t exactly unprecedented, that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, Keyssar said.

The polarization of the two parties, and their dominance in state legislatures, has emboldened some places to propose laws targeting voter fraud — though there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election — which can have the real-world effect of making it more difficult for disenfranchised communities, including Black people and those in poverty, to vote.

Furthermore, Keyssar said, the constant effort to delegitimize the election does serve to negate the peaceful means of changing power, which could portend further violence in one form or another. “If you discredit the mechanism of elections,” he said, “then what are you left with? Force.”