The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Polling on Jan. 6 shows the vast majority of Americans aren’t crazy

Supporters of President Donald Trump outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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A frighteningly high percentage of Republicans remain in utter denial about the Jan. 6 insurrection, choosing to exonerate the president who instigated it and downplaying the violence that occurred. Still, let’s remember that a very large share of Americans have not lost their minds nor forgotten last year’s events.

A new Associated Press-NORC poll shows results similar to other major polling. Some 57 percent say former president Donald Trump deserves “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of the blame; that number grows to 70 percent when we include respondents who think Trump was moderately to blame.

Even 4 in 10 Republicans say he bears at least a moderate amount of responsibility. It’s still mind-blowing that 60 percent of Republicans say Trump bears little or no responsibility; that number, however, is 11 points lower than it was a year ago.

In addition, the poll says, “Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the riot was extremely or very violent, and about 7 in 10 think Congress should continue investigating the events of January 6.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Jan. 5 gave a preview of President Biden’s January 6 anniversary speech which will highlight truth of what happened. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Two things can be true: 1) Millions of Americans are deluded about Jan. 6 and think violence is acceptable, and 2) a big majority know Trump was responsible, support the Jan. 6 committee and reject violence as a way to settle elections. Once we come to grips with that dichotomy, several responses should follow.

Opinion by E.J. Dionne: How to get real accountability for Jan. 6

First, President Biden should accurately cast the Jan. 6 deniers and pro-violence crowd as a dangerous fringe. When “your side” has 60 percent or more of the public behind it, you should talk about it — a lot. You need to remind voters of the stakes and deprive the menacing minority of recruiting prospects. You would be wise to identify the source of the threat — Trump and the MAGA movement — so a majority of Americans can prevent them from recapturing power. It makes zero sense to say we should move on because cannot persuade the crazed minority; the point is to keep everyone else focused on the threat.

Second, because we have millions of people who are receptive to calls for violence, we need a serious and visible law-enforcement and national-security response. The Justice Department should do more to highlight the threat, more to reach out to state and local law enforcement, and more to build out its capacity to fight domestic terrorism. Aside from a speech in June, the attorney general has not done much to raise public awareness of the threat.

Third, we lack a serious whole-of-society response to the threat of domestic extremism. A proper one should address inroads it has made into the military, and it must include White evangelicals’ recognition of the growing connection between Christian nationalism and violence. Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, recently reminded us of the prevalence of Christian imagery at the Capitol: “Comfortably intermingled with these tributes to white supremacy were Christian symbols and rhetoric. There were numerous Bibles, crosses, ‘Jesus Saves’ signs and ‘Jesus 2020’ flags that mirrored the design of the Trump campaign flag.” A recommitment to nonviolence, tolerance and democracy must come from within these communities.

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Finally, as groups such as New America have argued, actors in civil society and philanthropy should start working to anticipate and prevent violence, reset public leaders’ conduct, strengthen social cohesion and bolster democratic reforms. (“International experience teaches that the risks of violence endure — and sometimes reach their heights — amidst efforts to reform dysfunctional systems and address democratic backsliding,” a recent report cautions.)

In sum, we have treated the problem of violent extremism too broadly (causing politicians to cower in fear of a political minority), and too narrowly (focusing too much on legal and political reforms). The data tells us that democracy and nonviolence are political winners, and that dabbling in political violence is a loser. We need to start acting as though we are under threat from a pernicious, anti-democratic and violent minority — because we are.