The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dramatic moments from deprogrammed right-wingers indict the whole GOP

Jason Van Tatenhove, who once served as national spokesman for the Oath Keepers, testifies at the Jan. 6 committee hearing on July 12. (Oliver Contreras/AFP/Getty Images)
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Amid the parade of awful revelations unearthed by the House select committee examining the Jan. 6 insurrection, one area of immense culpability still needs further fleshing out.

It turns on this question: How is it possible so many Americans became convinced that a reversal of Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss was even possible in the first place? What’s been missing from this story has been the role of the Republican Party writ large in helping create the conditions for that belief to take hold.

Dramatic testimony from two former right-wing extremists at Tuesday’s hearing helps illustrate the point in a new way, one that implicates large swaths of the GOP in creating those conditions. What they said resembled the sort of introspection you sometimes hear from previously brainwashed, deprogrammed victims who escaped cults.

Stephen Ayres, who was among the rioters who entered the Capitol, offered powerful direct testimony on this score. He said he had fallen under the spell of Trump’s lies about the election.

Ayres said he came to Washington from Ohio precisely because he had been convinced that Trump’s lies were true. And, crucially, when Ayres was asked whether he thought the election could be overturned, he answered in the affirmative.

“At that time I did, because everybody was kind of, like, in the hope that, you know, Vice President Pence was not going to certify the election,” Ayres said.

What’s more, Ayres testified, had he known the president was being told by his own advisers that there was no evidence for his claim, he might not have showed up at all. “I may not have come down here,” Ayres said.

You know who else could have told Ayres — and countless others similarly deceived into following this doomed crusade — that there was no evidence for Trump’s claim? The vast bulk of mainstream Republicans who remained largely silent.

Another example came from Jason Van Tatenhove, a former high-level official in the extremist Oath Keepers who said he left the group in 2016. Some of its members are facing prosecution for seditious conspiracy.

Van Tatenhove was asked by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) why Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, kept calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. Van Tatenhove responded that Rhodes was looking for the trigger to carry out a violent insurrection, and said Trump himself kept Rhodes fully in the game by claiming the outcome could be reversed.

“The president was communicating, whether directly or indirectly, messaging that gave him the nod,” Van Tatenhove said.

Here again, a forceful and sustained declaration from most mainstream Republicans that the election was over and would not ever be reversed could have made a difference.

“I do fear for this election cycle,” Van Tatenhove also testified. And for good reason: Many continue to believe Trump’s lies, which again is partly the fault of Republicans who won’t unequivocally break with Trump and declare what happened disqualifying in a party leader.

A full accounting must include the role of many mainstream Republicans in feeding the belief among countless Americans that the election actually could be procedurally reversed. This no doubt helped fuel rage when Trump’s procedural efforts failed, helping spark the violence.

This dereliction included the studied silence of countless elected Republicans. But it also included the noise made by GOP politicians such as Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who led an effort to object to Biden’s electors on Jan. 6.

Hawley and Cruz have tended to claim they only did this to speak to their constituents’ concerns that the election’s outcome was dubious. In reality, they actively fed those concerns, and through the very process of objecting to Biden’s electors based on known lies that had been litigated for months, also fed the belief that a reversal was possible.

This failure by mainstream Republicans was very neatly captured by one other moment at Tuesday’s hearing. The committee played a recording of Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) telling other GOP members on a Jan. 5 call that she was concerned about security the next day.

“We have, quite honestly, Trump supporters who actually believe that we are going to overturn the election,” Lesko said. “And when that doesn’t happen, most likely will not happen, they are going to go nuts.”

Yet the next day, Lesko herself voted along with around 140 other House Republicans to object to Biden’s electors, further reinforcing this false belief.

There you have it: The violence was at least in part enabled by the deranged, futile and ultimately dashed hope that the election would be reversed.

Republicans were responsible for encouraging those hopes. And if you ask yourself why we’re now stuck in a situation where overwhelming majorities of GOP voters continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from them and that Trump was merely exercising his legal options in response, well, that’s part of the reason.

Without a full accounting of that extraordinarily degenerate conduct, as well, no investigation into this horror will be complete.

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