In order to continue supporting former president Donald Trump, Republicans are forced to make excuses for what happened on Jan. 6. Attempts to minimize the horror of that day — when a violent mob brutally attacked police officers and tried to hunt down members of Congress — come in two varieties: hard and soft.
The hard variant is what you hear from the party’s far right — loony rabble-rousers such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.) and Andrew S. Clyde (Ga.), and, of course, Trump himself. They argue that what happened on Jan. 6 was either a “normal tourist visit” and a “lovefest” or a plot by antifa or the FBI to frame the Trumpkins. Either way, they insist on seeing the arrested terrorists as “political prisoners” and glorify Ashli Babbitt — the QAnon follower killed while attempting to break into the House Speaker’s Lobby — as a martyr.
This narrative has gained disturbingly wide acceptance on the right. A majority of Trump voters in a recent poll described the Jan. 6 attack as a defense of “freedom” and an expression of “patriotism.” Even Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the formerly moderate, third-ranking House Republican leader, blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), rather than Trump, for the attack.
This is so obviously nuts that more sophisticated apologists for Trump’s crimes cannot repeat the new party line with a straight face. Hence a softer version of 1/6 minimization has taken hold among some right-wing intellectuals.
Christopher Caldwell, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and contributing editor at the pro-Trump Claremont Review of Books, offered his own version of events in a Times op-ed last week. He played down the concerns of Gen. Mark A. Milley that Trump was attempting to pull off a coup similar to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 power grab. “They may try, but they’re not going to f--king succeed,” Milley reportedly told his deputies.
Instead of thanking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for defending democracy, Caldwell suggested there was nothing to worry about: “Milley had no direct evidence of a coup plot.” He argued that “Republicans had — and still have — legitimate grievances about how the last election was run.” The storming of the Capitol was merely “a political protest that got out of control,” just like some rallies against police violence. “The stability of the republic never truly seemed at risk,” he concluded. So clearly it was no big deal.
This is excuse-making for extremism — and sophistry of a high order. It is possible to see the events of Jan. 6 as merely a “political protest that got out of control” only if you willfully ignore everything that happened in the months beforehand.
Even before the election, Trump had been laying the groundwork to overturn the results (as I warned in July 2020) on the grounds that only ballots cast on Election Day — which gave him an advantage — were legitimate. Immediately after the election, the president began pressuring federal and state Republican officials to overturn the results.
He told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a recorded call: “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” i.e., enough to flip the state. He told acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen and his deputy, Richard P. Donoghue, according to Donoghue’s notes on a phone call: “Just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. [Republican] Congressmen.” He demanded that Vice President Mike Pence refuse to certify the electoral college results and “send them back to the States,” where Republican state legislatures could presumably deliver a Trump victory.
Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 mob (“We are going to have to fight much harder”) was only the culmination of what was, yes, a coup attempt. It failed only because so many Republican officeholders and the nation’s top military officers refused to do Trump’s bidding. But we can’t count on similar forbearance in the future given the ongoing purge from the GOP of all politicians who put loyalty to the Constitution above loyalty to Trump.
The effort to minimize and normalize what happened on Jan. 6, in both its hard and soft variants, is laying the groundwork for a potentially more successful coup attempt the next time around. If Republicans gain control of the House and Senate in 2022 — an outcome made more likely by their gerrymandering and voter suppression — they will be in a strong position to return Trump to the White House even if he loses the 2024 election. Rest assured, even if the worst happens, there will be plenty of intellectuals happy to rationalize the end of our democracy.