The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vilifying Trump supporters doesn’t solve anything

Activists participate in the Candlelight Vigil for Democracy at Union Square near the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Pete Marovich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A disturbing feature of last week’s commemoration of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot was the suggestion that 80 percent of Republicans who still support Donald Trump — roughly 60 to 70 million Americans, based on party registration numbers — are enemies of democracy.

President Biden set the tone. “The former president and his supporters are trying to rewrite history,” the president said Thursday. “They want you to see Election Day as the day of insurrection and the riot that took place here on Jan. 6 as the true expression of the will of the people.”

Biden rightfully called out Trump for fueling the riot. But then he went awry, conflating Trump and the relative handful of people who actually invaded the Capitol with millions of law-abiding Republicans across the country.

“While some courageous men and women in the Republican Party are standing against it, trying to uphold the principles of that party, too many others are transforming that party into something else,” said Biden — clearly implying that “something else” is to be feared.

I ran into the same sentiment last week on a “PBS NewsHour” panel, during which my suggestion that Americans need to respect each other despite differences on Trump, the 2020 election and Jan. 6 was roundly rejected — with one fellow panelist saying Republicans are under “the spell of an authoritarian demagogue,” and another saying of Trump supporters, “You can’t negotiate with evil.”

For those who want to turn Jan. 6 into a means of not just ostracizing Trump but also crushing the GOP at large, the facts don’t add up. After examining the federal charges brought against more than 700 people for their part in the Capitol riot, The Post recently found that “the vast majority” are not thought to have been part of any “premeditated conspiracies to attack the Capitol.”

Nevertheless, the conspiracy-minded have unraveled a plot. They claim that refusing to acknowledge Biden’s 2020 victory is the first step in some plan to end democracy as we know it. Their evidence is election security laws — “voter suppression,” critics insist — passed in several Republican-controlled states. Never mind that each one was enacted through standard legislative processes by duly elected representatives, and that enhanced election security has long been part of Republican Party ideology. If necessary, courts will correct any constitutional flaws.

Still, hyperbole abounds. In the Atlantic this month, Ronald Brownstein wrote that “for the first time in American history, the dominant faction in one of the nation’s major political parties is displaying the willingness to rig the rules of electoral competition in a manner reminiscent of the authoritarian parties that have undermined democracy in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela.” Quite an indictment of Republican state legislators scattered across America, many currently prepping for upcoming Lincoln Day dinners, complete with their bake sales and raffles.

Republicans long ago tuned out the constant criticism in most of the media — condemnation that naturally drives them to other sources of information. Being labeled as anti-democratic, or even evil, will isolate them further.

Demanding capitulation to a certain point of view should never be a condition of treating each other with respect — even on the subject of whether an election was fairly conducted, or a new virus is being accurately depicted or effectively fought. And people who insist that, before Trump, Americans routinely agreed on a shared set of facts apparently never engaged in discussions on abortion, gun control or the JFK assassination. Forget 2020. Can we agree now that Trump was, in fact, legitimately elected in 2016 and Russian collusion was a lie? Probably not.

I’m firmly with those who regard it as settled fact that in 2020, Biden won and Trump lost. It worries me that so many Americans disagree with that, but I’m not about to suggest that they are insurrectionists or authoritarians any more than I would suggest as much about the supporters and enablers of politicians who, I sincerely believe, are steering the United States into socialism, despite how dangerously misguided I consider them. As always, as Americans, we have to live, work and forge ahead together.

And, so far, the public isn’t buying the notion that the GOP is evil incarnate. Republicans are poised to do well in the midterm elections. But the drumbeat has only begun, and the vilification of the GOP goes beyond traditional doctrinal differences. It borders dangerously on suggesting that association with the Republican Party is somehow suspicious, or that millions of honest, law-abiding Americans should be shunned based on their voter registration.

That was the seed planted by Biden last week — carefully nurtured by other politicians and pundits. If it takes root, it will be a poisonous plant indeed.