On the morning of January 6, first-term Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican chiefly notable for her support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, tweeted that the efforts to overturn the 2020 election results amounted to a new American Revolution.
“Today is 1776,” she wrote.
It turned out that describing Wednesday as a violent revolution was more apt than Boebert may have intended. Several hours later, on the heels of a speech by the president decrying the 2020 election as stolen, a pro-Trump mob descended on the US Capitol, overwhelming Capitol Police and storming the building. Trump supporters waved Confederate flags and seized control of the Senate chambers; police drew their guns. At least four people died as a result of the chaos.
Blaming President Trump for this violence is, at this point, stating the obvious. He has been inciting his supporters for weeks, telling them that the election has been stolen and they need to stand up to save freedom. If you really believe that — took what the president said seriously — why wouldn’t you take dramatic action?
But the blame needs to go beyond Trump and land squarely on the Republican Party itself — an institution that, for decades, employed a political strategy that sowed the seeds of an uprising against the American state.
The animating force of modern Republicanism is this: Democratic Party rule is an existential threat to America and is by definition illegitimate. It is a belief that explains much of what we’ve seen from the GOP in the past few decades, the glue that binds together Republicans ranging from shitposters in the QAnon fever swamps to much of the GOP congressional caucus.
Whether elite Republicans genuinely believe what they tell their base is beside the point. The fact is their delegitimizing rhetoric has been the fuel of the conservative movement for many, many years now. Trump’s presidency, and the violence with which it is ending, represents the logical next step for the modern GOP — and where it goes from here will determine our future as a democracy.
The ideological structure of the GOP encourages rebellion against Democratic rule
In 2010, during the height of Tea Party fervor, then-Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R-NV) told talk radio host Lars Larson that she believed Americans might need to take up arms against the tyranny of Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress:
You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.
I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?
Angle’s story is illuminating. Initially, she ran as an insurgent, casting herself as the rock-ribbed alternative to a weak, corrupt Republican establishment. The party actually tried to stop her, but she was embraced by the GOP once she won the Republican primary in Nevada. The party held a glitzy fundraiser in Washington for Angle several months after the “Second Amendment remedies” comment.
Hardly a relic of the Tea Party era, it’s a story that’s emblematic of the contemporary GOP. The party leadership has created an institution where people like Angle can win primaries; though leaders may resist extremists at times, they end up admitting them as members in good standing when it becomes clear that the choice in a given election is either a right-wing radical or a Democrat. As a result, there’s a one-way ratchet toward an increasingly extreme party, one that has convinced itself over time that Democratic rule is so dangerous that getting in bed with anti-democratic radicals is preferable.
There are at least three critical features of the GOP as an institution that have allowed this process to go on as it has.
First, there is the argument, offered by mainstream Republicans at the highest levels, that freedom itself is on the ballot: that the Democratic agenda is so catastrophic that it might spell the end of America as we know it.
This is something Republicans have been saying about Democratic policies — including ones common in other advanced democracies — for decades. In 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that the passage of Medicare would be the end of liberty in America: that if federalized insurance for the elderly were to become law, “you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Sarah Palin offered a more recent variant in 2009, writing in a Facebook post that Obamacare would create “death panels,” transforming the “America I know and love” by imposing “a system [that] is downright evil” on it.
In 2014, Ted Cruz claimed that Obama’s use of executive orders was creating “an imperial presidency [that] threatens the liberty of every citizen.” In 2019, the National Republican Congressional Committee — the official arm of the party responsible for House races — all but accused Democrats of being murderous Stalinists:
The socialists now running the House Democratic caucus won't be the first ones to put political adversaries "on a list". https://t.co/1gC8tJHTe8 pic.twitter.com/zsrP9Gy0iH— NRCC (@NRCC) March 1, 2019
Hyperbole in politics is normal, of course. There are plenty of examples of rank-and-file Democratic partisans calling George W. Bush “Hitler.”
The difference is that casting the opposing party as an existential threat, a demonic force bent on destroying the very fabric of a free society, has become an accepted part of conservative rhetoric at the highest levels of the party. Yes, you’ll see an example here and there, but there is simply no comparison with how Democrats talk about Republicans; polarization in the United States is profoundly asymmetric.
These arguments do not merely attack Democratic policies; they attack the very idea that Democrats can be legitimate leaders of the American government. Among some Republicans, they bleed into baroque conspiracy theories about Democrats as individuals, explanations for how people like Obama and Hillary Clinton can support such heinous policies. Obama isn’t merely a liberal Democrat; he must be a Kenyan Muslim anti-colonial plant pushing America toward full communism.
Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, talk of “mutual toleration”: the idea that, in a democracy, both parties respect the other one’s right to win elections and hold power. In the United States, Republicans have all but told their supporters that Democrats do not, in fact, have a right to rule — that they are fundamentally hostile to the American way of life.
From our Francis Chung, Sen. Josh Hawley greeting protesters in the east side of the Capitol before riots began. pic.twitter.com/I8DjBCDuoP— Manuel Quinones (@ManuelQ) January 6, 2021
This rhetoric might not be so bad if it weren’t for the second prong of the problem: the alternative conservative media ecosystem that disseminates those messages.
From practically the inception of the modern conservative movement in the 1950s, a central tenet has been that the mainstream media is irredeemably biased against them — an agent of liberalism, not to be trusted. The conservative response has been to relentlessly delegitimize the media in their public discourse and to construct alternative media institutions for its base to consume.
This created space for extreme voices who, out of sincere belief or rank opportunism, chose to peddle dangerous falsehoods. Just think about everything that’s been said on Fox and talk radio in the past decade: Glenn Beck arguing that AmeriCorps would become Obama’s SS, Rush Limbaugh claiming that Obama and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Benghazi, and — of course — the spread of Donald Trump’s claim that Obama wasn’t born in America, something 56 percent of Republicans still believe.
There are no guardrails in the conservative media ecosystem world, no institutional Republicans willing to force their allies to adhere to the truth. These are the conditions under which Trump’s totally false claims about election fraud could become an article of faith among hardcore right-wingers — to the point where storming the Capitol started to seem justifiable, even righteous.
But it’s not just that Republicans have primed their audience to hate Democrats and created a media system that promotes the most extreme claims about them: It’s that they’ve tolerated and even cultivated figures in their ranks who are willing to explicitly endorse violent, individual action.
In 2009, for example, Alaska Rep. Don Young signed a letter claiming that “should our government seek to further tax, restrict or register firearms ... the duty of us good and faithful people will not be to obey them but to alter or abolish them and institute new government.” The letter’s author, Alaska-based militia member Schaeffer Cox, was later convicted of plotting to kidnap and kill federal agents. Young is still in Congress; in fact, he is currently the longest-serving House member in the GOP’s history.
If you are a rank-and-file Republican, the kind of person who listens to your party’s elected officials and friendly media outlets, you have been marinating in anti-democratic beliefs for years: that Democrats are fundamentally hostile to the American way of life, that people telling you otherwise cannot be trusted, that you have an obligation to fight against tyranny on your own.
In a 2020 survey, 51 percent of Republicans agreed with the claim that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Forty-one percent said that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”
“These are not fringe views. They are the views of roughly half of Republicans. Those views were plainly in sight months before a mob stormed the Capitol,” writes John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. “Without concerted and sustained pushback by Republican leaders, those views will remain long after Trump is gone.”
The reaction to Wednesday’s fracas vindicates Sides’s pessimism. A snap YouGov poll of Republicans across the country found that a plurality — 45 percent — approved of the storming of the Capitol.
The party is the problem
The day after President Trump incited a mob to attack the Capitol, he called in to a Republican National Committee winter meeting. The assembled Republicans did not greet the president with horror or anger; instead, he was met with cheers.
Of course, not every Republican is as corrupted as the ones on that call. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted for Trump’s impeachment and has gone after him in the day since the attack on Capitol Hill. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has called for a second impeachment after the mob.
But even the “responsible” leaders have often been complicit. Lest we forget, Romney courted Trump’s endorsement during his 2012 presidential run — while Trump was in the midst of his birther crusade against Obama. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), famous for his thumbs-down vote on Trump’s Obamacare repeal proposal, is the man who unleashed Palin on the world by making her his vice presidential pick in 2008.
From top to bottom, the party has stoked the embers of extremism. They have worked to convince their supporters that Democrats are monsters, they have to delegitimize the mainstream press and replace it with fact-free alternatives, and they have embraced extremist politicians and commentators who have condoned violence in the name of putting down the Democratic “threat.”
This is not just a question of “that’s how we got Trump” (though this is in fact how we got Trump). It’s that the party leadership has knowingly and willfully created an entire segment of the electorate that is prone to violent and dangerous conspiratorial thinking.
In the days since the Capitol insurrection, there have been innumerable calls from legislators and commentators to impeach Donald Trump or for his Cabinet to remove him using the powers of the 25th Amendment. It’s possible that such a thing will happen; some reports have suggested the discussions are more serious than they have been in the past.
But we have reason to be skeptical. Removing Trump from office would amount to an admission of Republican complicity.
They knew who they were enabling. In 2016, Ted Cruz called Trump “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) described him as a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot.” And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), in comments that proved prescient, describes him as someone who was inciting violence among his supporters:
I think we also have to look at the rhetoric coming from the frontrunner in the presidential campaign. This is a man who in rallies has told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he’ll pay their legal fees, someone who has encouraged people in the audience to rough up anyone who stands up and says something he doesn’t like. …
But leaders cannot say whatever they want, because words have consequences. They lead to actions that others take. And when the person you’re supporting for president is going around and saying things like, ‘Go ahead and slap them around, I’ll pay your legal fees,’ what do you think’s going to happen next?
The dangers of Trump were obvious to these men. But they chose to enable him after his victory anyway, much in the way their party chose to embrace Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle and Glenn Beck and all the other extremists who have proven useful to it. The Republican establishment created the conditions for Wednesday’s violence and chaos, and these conditions will persist even if Trump is removed prematurely. QAnon supporters are now sitting in Congress; Newsmax, a more unhinged version of Fox, has only grown in recent months; Trump was greeted by applause by House Republicans Thursday morning.
Just hours after her 1776 tweet, Rep. Boebert tweeted fearfully about the attack on Congress. “We were locked in the House chambers,” she said, as if the chickens weren’t coming home to roost.
But the fact that they don’t really want a violent uprising doesn’t mean their most committed supporters feel the same way. Republicans — not just Donald Trump, but the entire political movement — own that mob. If they do not change course, they will own the next one, too.