The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Appalling new video of the rioters is a big problem for Trump’s GOP enablers

Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

In the days after President Trump instigated a violent mob assault on the Capitol, his most craven enablers have frantically searched for a political sweet spot: They’ve tried to condemn the violence without retracting or apologizing for their active role in sustaining the big lie that incited it.

This will become a lot harder to pull off, thanks to appalling new video of the rioters brought to us by the New Yorker and by ProPublica.

The footage illustrates with great force just how tightly bound up that big lie — that the election was illegitimate — was in the rioters’ motivations. The enablers of this lie badly want to flush this truth down the memory hole.

The enablers here are Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri. They prominently led Trump’s charge to object to Joe Biden’s electors in Congress, which constituted an effort to invalidate millions of votes and overturn the results.

Cruz is directly mentioned in the video filmed by the New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson. It depicts two men rummaging through a lawmaker’s papers in the Capitol.

“There’s gotta be something we can f---ing use against these scumbags,” one says.

“I think Cruz would want us to do this,” the second man says soon after. “I think we’re good.”

It’s hard to know what “this” is a reference to. But plainly, they believed Cruz — by virtue of claiming fellow lawmakers shouldn’t count Biden’s electors — wanted them to go to extralegal lengths to damage them, including violently invading the Capitol and stealing their secrets.

At another point, as a mob menaces cops in a hallway, a man screams at them: “There’s a f---ing million of us out there. And we are listening to Trump.” And as a mob enters the Senate chamber, another man shouts: “Where the f--- are they?”

In other words, Trump’s effort to get lawmakers to object to Biden’s electors based on the lie that the election was illegitimate — and Trump’s command that the mob intimidate them into doing so — inspired them to break into the Capitol and seek out senators for exactly that purpose.

On the morning of Jan. 6, there were signs of the violence to come even before thousands of former president Donald Trump loyalists besieged the U.S. Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

‘We’re coming for you, too, f---ing traitor’

This is also forcefully demonstrated in the video obtained by ProPublica, a treasure trove of footage posted by Parler users. This illustrates how rioters subsequently shared footage with great pride to rally the movement in the attack’s aftermath.

“Where they meeting at?” one man shouts. “Hey, where they count the f---ing votes?” shouts another. All throughout, the crowd bellows with bloodthirsty rage.

“We’re coming, b---h,” another man says of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We’re coming for you, too, f---ing traitor,” he yells about Vice President Pence, whom Trump had menacingly singled out to the mob earlier in the day.

In short, they were seeking to intimidate and possibly injure or even kill lawmakers — and the vice president — for doing their constitutional duty in making a U.S. presidential election official.

Not long after this invasion, Cruz, Hawley and more than 100 other Republicans voted to sustain the very same lie about the election’s illegitimacy. Cruz and Hawley plainly sensed an opportunity: Promoting it was seen as good positioning for the 2024 GOP presidential primaries. Indeed, even former Cruz aides say his motive was to outflank Hawley.

Ever since Cruz and Hawley lost control of the plot, they have tried to condemn the violence itself while sanitizing their support for the lie driving it.

Surfing authoritarian currents

Cruz, for instance, has insisted that he disagreed with Trump’s inciting rhetoric, calling it “reckless,” and adding: “I have disagreed with the president’s language and rhetoric for the last four years.”

Hawley, for his part, claims that “to equate leading a debate on the floor of the Senate with inciting violence is a lie,” and says that in leading that debate, he was “representing my constituents.”

Both are nonsense. Even if many Hawley constituents believe the election was illegitimate, validating that lie by perverting his ceremonial role in counting already certified electoral votes — after the voter fraud claims were dismissed in dozens of courts — doesn’t constitute “representing” them. Rather, it constitutes deliberate abuse of Hawley’s official role for the purpose of keeping them trapped in an already litigated and debunked delusion.

Meanwhile, even if Cruz does condemn Trump’s incitement, that doesn’t justify his support for the lie at that rhetoric’s core, which, again, is a serious abuse of official duty for the express purpose of keeping that falsehood alive.

Even worse, Hawley and Cruz sought to validate that lie for purely instrumental purposes: to capture a constituency of Trump voters for 2024. The complication here, as Jonathan Last notes, is that it isn’t easy to see how the grip Trump holds over Republican voters can be transferred to other standard-bearers, since it appears largely rooted in perceptions of Trump’s willingness to do whatever it takes to vanquish the people he and they hate.

So Cruz and Hawley decided that the way to pull this off was to harness the surging authoritarian currents inside the GOP. These currents are real: Majorities of Republican voters say Biden didn’t legitimately win the election and that GOP leaders didn’t go far enough in trying to nullify the outcome. Cruz and Hawley tried to surf those currents, and they wiped out.

The offense here is in calculating that the way to capture the Trumpist energy is to abuse official power to bolster a lie so destructive that Trump’s own intelligence agencies have warned it threatens to inspire untold future violence.

What has now been underscored is the degree to which this falsehood inspired the assault. There’s only one way out for them now: Stand up for the legitimacy of the election, unambiguously disown the lie to the contrary, and accept that it’s singularly responsible for our ongoing breakdown. This new video illustrates their dereliction as forcefully as anyone could want.

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