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Trump has been indicted for something Americans seem to have forgotten

The latest Trump indictment underscores the tricky politics of accountability in a highly polarized era.

Rioters in front of the US Capitol wave MAGA and Trump flags.
Trump supporters stand on a US Capitol Police armored vehicle as others take over the steps of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

A few weeks ago, while chasing unproven criminal connections between the president and his son, far-right Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene unintentionally summed up a core principle of liberal democracy: “When evidence and proof of a crime is presented, no prosecution should be denied no matter who the person is.”

Her statement came less than two weeks before the Republican Party’s unofficial leader was indicted Tuesday on four counts in a federal investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election — an investigation that Republicans have been working hard to discredit as a part of a politically motivated plot to punish President Joe Biden’s main political opponent.

Trump allies like Greene have used that line of defense to muddy the waters around the last two Trump indictments — a move they have, predictably, been using again. In the run-up to the most recent federal charges, the former president resorted to similar tactics: arguing to Republican voters that “they’re not indicting me, they’re indicting you,” and calling the probes “Election Interference.”

Some evidence suggests those arguments are working. In the two and a half years since the insurrection at the US Capitol, public opinion on and political rhetoric about that day have followed a predictable path. What was once an event that united the public in horror has become just another contested item on our polarized national agenda.

The change is most clear among Republicans. Trump’s support in the Republican presidential primary has only grown since his first indictment in New York, and his favorability ratings have remained pretty static since January 6.

But the general public has also shown signs of, if not rejection, at least apathy about that event: Public opinion over the last two years indicates an increasing desire among Americans to move on from January 6.

Time may be causing some of this shift. As we drift further away from that date, the less its horrors register in the public consciousness. But partisanship, and Trump’s unique candidacy, may be contributing as well.

“It is certainly pretty worrisome,” Lilliana Mason, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University who studies partisanship, told me. “The extent to which people are going to be considering this to be a truly unique event in American history is going to be influenced by the extent to which people are reminded that it was an extremely dangerous moment.”

That’s the shifting political moment surrounding special counsel Jack Smith’s new indictment.

It’s possible that this indictment — Trump’s third, with a fourth waiting in the wings — might actually register in polls. But Trump’s ability to just campaign through the charges, including those centered around a plot to overturn an election, shows just how much he has changed how Americans think about politics, think about accountability, and think about him.

It all raises an important question: Can a polarized democratic society hold its leaders accountable, or is it doomed to see any attempt at accountability through the prism of partisan politics?

Public opinion on January 6 and Trump is murky — but shifting

One clear sign of Trump’s threat to the principle of accountability in a democracy comes from public opinion over the legacy of January 6 itself.

Though public sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Capitol was united in overwhelming disdain, that consensus has eroded over the last two and half years — especially among Republicans.

Partisanship is key here: Democrats and Republicans are now more at odds over how to describe the attack and Trump’s role in it, and are likely to side with their party leaders’ description of the day and the events leading up to it. One consistent element through the polling: Trump has a floor of support, a percent range in the mid-to-high-30s, regardless of what he does among Republicans.

The biggest warning sign that anti-democratic views are gaining ground comes from the number of Americans who now want to move on from January 6. Most recently, a January University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll found “Americans’ views softening on the day’s events,” with the share of Americans who think “it is time to move on” from January 6 rising from 44 percent in 2021 to 50 percent in 2023.

Conversely, the share of Americans who want to “learn more about what happened” has declined by the same margin.

That same tracking poll also finds other worrisome results: While most people still call January 6 a “riot” (nearly six in 10), nearly half of respondents feel comfortable calling the event a simple “protest” now, compared to about four in 10 two years ago. The number who would call it an “insurrection” similarly has dropped seven points, to 41 percent, since 2021. The poll directors point to partisanship driving much of this shift, with Republicans specifically wanting to move on or defend the Capitol rioters. And more information about the event “has done little to ameliorate this situation,” according to Jesse Rhodes, one of the poll directors.

This softening of opposition to January 6 registers in other surveys tracking American sentiment over the last few years. An Economist/YouGov tracking poll on January 6 from earlier this year shows this erosion: “While most Americans disapprove of the January 6 Capitol takeover, the share who approve has increased significantly since the event first took place,” the survey summary reads. “Two years ago, just 9% of Americans said they strongly or somewhat approved of the takeover; now, 20% do.”

And Quinnipiac, which has also been tracking January 6 sentiment over the years, notes that despite the House January 6 committee’s work and Trump’s campaigning in the midterms, sentiment on the seriousness of the Capitol attack and Trump’s connection remains pretty static. In December 2022, about 47 percent of respondents thought Trump committed a crime, while 43 percent think he did not — the same margin as in July of that year, shortly after the select committee’s work began.

Essentially, time is softening the memory of January 6 in the public mind, while also hardening public opinion on Trump’s culpability, despite more information coming to light. People are showing an increasing interest in moving on from January 6; the most partisan Republican voters are rallying to Trump’s perspective (reflected in the GOP presidential primary) and Democrats and independents are looking to other issues.

These shifting public views aren’t necessarily a political boon for Trump. The midterm results show that the former president’s efforts to make January 6 and the stolen election narrative matter for Republican voters had limited mileage (if not being an outright liability).

But his ability to “flood the zone with shit” has helped him erode negative public sentiment over January 6 and his involvement in it, as well as shore up support from primary voters and primary challengers as presidential election season begins.

That spells trouble for democracy in general.

Apathy doesn’t have to be permanent

Together, these polls suggest that the latest Trump indictment will also land with little fanfare beyond the political class and the most partisan Americans. But how much should that matter?

For now, it’s tempting to take a nihilistic perspective that nothing Trump can do will ever really matter. He’s survived plenty of scandals, investigations, and elections while not fading from relevancy. That Teflon Trump keeps bouncing back is surely a dangerous sign for democracy’s health and a worrying reflection of just how much Trump has changed — or accelerated change — in our politics.

Mason, who has studied and written extensively about the uniqueness of Republicans’ loyalty to Trump, told me that the indictments may even be sustaining his floor of support.

“For a certain percentage of his supporters, the appeal of him is really his transgressiveness rather than the actual things that he’s doing,” Mason said. “Breaking rules and making regular people feel upset is part of the thing that people are drawn to him for. It’s very difficult to have accountability when the main appeal is breaking the rules.”

And when it comes to accountability, two political factors overlap about January 6: the tendency for Americans to forget about information and the fatigue with Trump-related news that has settled in among voters. In that context, the changing memory of January 6 feels like another entry in the trend of post-truth politics since 2016.

“Americans forget quickly,” Mason said. “We know lots of different things, but when we choose who to vote for, you don’t use everything that we know. We pick certain things that we think are the most important for this particular decision. So if the January 6 stuff is out of our minds, we’re not necessarily going to use that anymore to decide how we vote or who we support politically.”

With Donald Trump, America’s institutions also ran into the problem of dealing with a political leader who has no problem with lying and lacks shame about being caught. What the Trump years have revealed is that the limits of what the public is willing to tolerate in its leaders may actually be a lot broader than we’d expected or wished.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) summed that perception up in a quote to HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic shortly after Trump revealed receiving the Jack Smith target letter: “I think it shows that politicians lie and they know they’re lying. … The liar knows that people know he’s lying, and the people that are being lied to know they’re being lied to.” This is the political reality of 2023.

The open questions going forward are whether this sentiment holds through a primary battle and to November 2024, and whether a potential Trump conviction, another unprecedented event, can actually alter the current political dynamic.

Those same polls that show that Trump’s anti-democratic side is winning the war of public opinion on the insurrection also show that most people still think he should be held accountable for his alleged crimes. So while the legacy of January 6 is trending in a bad direction, the broader public still grasps Trump’s culpability — even if it’s just not enthusiastic about dwelling on January 6.

That much is reflected in the most recent high-quality national polling from the New York Times/Siena College, which finds a tied national contest between Biden and Trump on the eve of Trump’s third indictment. The various investigations haven’t really moved that many voters away from Trump: About half of voters think Trump committed some kind of crime, the same number as a year ago. And while a higher (but still small) number of Republicans think Trump is culpable of a crime when compared to 2022, that hasn’t dented his support. People can think poorly of Trump and still support him.

The glass-half-full way of looking at all this is that apathy cuts both ways: The warnings of spontaneous violent protests by Trump supporters, outside attempts to obstruct or interrupt the Trump investigations, and civil war brewing haven’t come to pass. Even the spectacle of Trump’s arraignments has been muted, Trump’s own efforts at ginning up crowds notwithstanding. And though there may be some fatigue, Americans may tune back into the news as the summer ends, these trials unfold and break news, and the election gets closer.

Perhaps most important, the steady pace of new Trump indictments shows that, while public outrage over January 6 may be subsiding, the US justice system’s efforts at accountability are not similarly fading. Our institutions keep doing the work they are tasked with doing, regardless of public opinion — and that in the end may be the most encouraging takeaway from this tumultuous era.

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