The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are rewriting the past so they can seize power in the future

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Julio Cortez/AP)

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” — George Orwell

All authoritarian movements know the power of historical myths. That’s why they go to such great lengths to rewrite the past to justify their rule — and the atrocities they carry out against the minorities that they scapegoat for their country’s ills. The Republican Party, as it becomes increasingly anti-democratic, is no different. It is busy reshaping both the distant past and the more recent past to its liking.

Because the GOP is the White people’s party (former president Donald Trump won 58 percent of White voters in 2020, according to exit polls), it seeks to deny that the United States has a history of racism to atone for. It wants White people to feel good about themselves — and to resist suggestions that they should share political or economic power with minorities. This goes beyond attacks on “critical race theory” or defenses of Confederate monuments — it’s a rejection of any nuanced understanding of U.S. history that concedes that the good was mixed with the bad.

Hence former secretary of state Mike Pompeo tweets: “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That’s really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” In a similar vein, former Trump White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News: “We know most of our forefathers, all of our main Founding Fathers, were against slavery, recognized the evils of it.”

Follow Max Boot's opinionsFollow

This is some serious historical revisionism, given that a reported 41 of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned enslaved people. True, many were ambivalent enslavers, but they were enslavers nevertheless. This is America’s original sin, and it can’t be erased. That doesn’t mean America is irredeemably evil; the Constitution was eventually amended to abolish slavery. But it does mean that America has some serious demons to grapple with — and they were not vanquished in either 1865 or 1965. By airing White grievances, the GOP simply highlights the continuing impact of racism in the United States.

As the country becomes more multicultural and diverse, Republicans are increasingly willing to resort to undemocratic, even violent, means to defend conservative, White hegemony. This explains their efforts to rewrite before our eyes the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.

Initially Republicans were not sure what to make of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol: Was it a Good Thing carried out by stouthearted Trumpkins or a Bad Thing carried out by evil antifa provocateurs? A “normal tourist visit” or a dastardly plot by “FBI operatives”? The only thing Republicans could agree on is that Trump wasn’t to blame. In a recent Morning Consult poll, 52 percent of Republicans said Democrats in Congress were primarily responsible compared with only 30 percent who said Trump was responsible.

Now Trump has settled the debate by embracing the rioters. In an interview last Sunday with uber-fan Maria Bartiromo of Fox “News,” Trump said there was a “lovefest between the police, the Capitol Police, and the people that walked down to the Capitol.” (The Capitol Police union says 140 officers were injured during this love-in.) He praised the “tremendous people” who walked through doors that “were open.” (The doors were opened by rioters who had smashed windows to get inside.) He demanded that the authorities “release the people that are incarcerated,” because they supposedly had “no guns.” (One rioter was charged with a firearms offense and many others were armed with weapons ranging from baseball bats to bear spray.)

Most alarming of all, Trump deified Ashli Babbitt — the Air Force veteran and QAnon follower who was shot to death by a police officer while attempting to break through a barricaded door into the House Speaker’s Lobby — as a Trumpist martyr. He called her “an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman” and suggested there was some deep, dark conspiracy surrounding her death. “Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” he demanded to know. “Why are they keeping that secret? ... People want to know, and why.” If Trump wants to know who’s responsible for her death, he should look in the mirror.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a political movement claiming a martyr. Medgar Evers was a martyr of the civil rights movement, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) eulogized a Capitol Police officer killed on April 2 as a “martyr for democracy.” What’s concerning and telling is that Trump has claimed as a martyr a woman who believed in the “big lie” and died trying to overturn a democratic election by force.

There is a chilling reason why Trump and his followers are whitewashing a domestic terrorist — and the enslavers and segregationists of the distant past. It is the same reason all authoritarian movements rewrite history: They are creating myths to justify their seizure of power. Don’t be surprised if the next attack on our democracy — and there will be a next time — is accompanied by a stirring rendition of the (as yet unwritten) “Ballad of Ashli Babbitt.”