The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Too many Republicans condone violence, and even more exonerate Trump

"Seeking information" fliers produced by the FBI as part of the Justice Department's probe into rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

As we approach the first anniversary of the violent insurrection triggered by President Donald Trump, the failed coup appears to have solidified a block of voters who repudiate facts and democracy.

The latest Post-University of Maryland poll contains troubling news. “The percentage of Americans who say violent action against the government is justified at times stands at 34 percent, which is considerably higher than in past polls by The Post or other major news organizations dating back more than two decades.” And even more ready to resort to violence are independents, reminding us that “independent” does not mean moderate. (“The new survey finds 40 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats saying violence is sometimes justified,” The Post reported.)

The latest ABC News-Ipsos poll returns similar results:

An overwhelming majority (72%) of Americans believe the people involved in the attack on the Capitol were “threatening democracy,” while 1 in 4 Americans believes that the individuals involved were “protecting democracy.” Broken down by party identification, Democrats are nearly unanimous (96%) in believing that those involved in the attacks were threatening democracy. Republicans are more split, with 45% saying it was a threat and 52% saying those involved in the riot were “protecting democracy.”

One can take solace, I suppose, that 62 percent of Americans reject violence, and 72 percent recognized Jan. 6 was a threat to democracy. However, when an exceedingly high proportion of one of the two major political parties does not accept the sanctity of elections and the peaceful transfer of power, it is no exaggeration to say democracy itself is on the ballot this year. Returning to power a party openly hostile to democracy is setting ourselves up for political self destruction.

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When it comes to blame for the siege at the Capitol, 72 percent of Republicans in The Post/UMD poll and 78 percent in the ABC/Ipsos refuse to hold Trump responsible or say they hold him only somewhat responsible. It’s telling that so many Republicans say in theory that violence may be needed, but when it comes to implicating their leader in the insurrection, they’d rather deny reality. Perhaps associating their party’s leader with a violent coup isn’t such an inviting prospect after all.

While there is a greater share of Republicans willing to inhabit a parallel universe in which Trump is innocent than there is of those who in theory support violence, they are more isolated than one might image. An overwhelming share of Democrats (92 percent) and a healthy majority of Independents (57 percent) understand he at the very least bears a good amount of responsibility for the attack.

For the habitually optimistic, there is a smidgen of positive news. In The Post/UMD poll, “About 7 in 10 Americans say Biden’s election as president was legitimate, but that leaves almost 3 in 10 who say it was not, including 58 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents.” The share of Republicans who say he was not elected legitimately has thankfully dropped from 70 to 58 percent since last January. Well, a drop in 12 points is not nothing. (The ABC/Ipsos poll shows less movement among Republicans; in that survey, 71 percent “sided with Trump’s false claims that he was the rightful winner.”)

The numbers should remind us that the threat to democracy may be greater than ever. As we enter one of the most perilous years for the American experiment since 1861, we would do well to keep several points in mind:

First, it matters not at all whether voters find democracy a compelling issue for the 2022 campaign; as a matter of intellectual honesty and public education Democrats must stay on the issue and hold Trump and his cronies responsible for his actions. They must continue to defend voting rights and nonpartisan election administration; to do otherwise is to cede the field to democracy’s foes. Moreover, given the strong support for democracy and for nonviolence, this is a popular issue, if not a motivating one.

That brings us to the next takeaway: President Biden needs a knockout Jan. 6 speech denouncing the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen and condemning the GOP’s growing acceptance of violence. He might even point out to reality-based voters how ludicrous and irresponsible the GOP is in making the “big lie” an article of faith for their party.

In thinking about the speech, Biden might recall Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address as California’s governor on Jan. 5, 1967:

We are participating in the orderly transfer of administrative authority by direction of the people. And this is the simple magic which makes a commonplace routine a near miracle to many of the world’s inhabitants: The continuing fact that the people, by democratic process, can delegate this power, yet retain custody of it.
Perhaps you and I have lived with this miracle too long to be properly appreciative. Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not our by inheritance, it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.

Biden should forcefully make the case that the essence of democracy is precisely the “orderly transfer of administrative authority by direction of the people.” Any individual or party who claims no election can be legitimate if his side loses violates that fundamental precept. Such voices take themselves outside a democratic compact that boils down to: “The people decide.”

There should be perfect clarity: If you are not prepared to accept defeat in an election, you do not believe in democracy. You do not believe in America. Biden needs to challenge Republicans to reaffirm the basic building blocks of democracy: Easy access to voting, nonpolitical election administration and government by the people (without subterfuge, chicanery and legal hocus-pocus).

Finally, Attorney General Merrick Garland should pay close attention. The danger in not holding Trump and associates responsible for any violation of federal laws would vastly outweigh the risk of political backlash among his followers. It is the MAGA cult’s very determination to exonerate Trump and simultaneously excuse violence that should, when the facts are all in, compel prosecution of those who use extralegal means to retain power.

These sobering poll results underscore how important it will be for the House select committee probing Jan. 6 to tee up complete cases for possible prosecution. Refusing to prosecute clear violations of law would be a moral and constitutional failure as glaring as the Republicans’ refusal to accept their 2020 defeat. Moreover, it would be an invitation to the insurrectionists to try it again.