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Opinion Ex-cultists deliver the most effective message for Republicans

Stephen Ayres, left, who has pleaded guilty to charges related to the Capitol riot, and Jason Van Tatenhove, former member of the Oath Keepers, testify before the House Jan. 6 select committee on July 12. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), determined to rescue her party from the MAGA cult, has gone out of her way to offer her fellow Republicans models of exemplary behavior to follow. Her argument: Don’t copy the example of defeated former president Donald Trump. Look instead to Republican officials who stood up to the defeated former president, such as former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers or even former vice president Mike Pence.

Two rather sad characters conveyed this “you don’t have to keep following Trump blindly” message at the House Jan. 6 select committee’s hearing on Tuesday. One was former Oath Keepers spokesperson Jason Van Tatenhove; the other was Stephen Ayres, who illegally entered the Capitol on Jan. 6. Both appeared deflated, diminished and embarrassed by their association with insurgents based on the “big lie” of a stolen election.

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Still, they served two critical roles that those outside the MAGA world have not fully appreciated. First, they showed that a person can admit to being conned. Second, they warned that unless others break free from the violent cult, the United States will remain in deep trouble.

Given how many GOP politicians still spew the “big lie” or run from inquiries about the 2020 election, it was refreshing to see two ordinary Americans admit they now know the election was not stolen and that there was no way short of civil war to reverse the election results.

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Ayres explained that he arrived in D.C. on Jan. 6 because of Trump’s invitation. “The president, you know, got everybody riled up,” he said. “So we basically just were following what he said. … I was already worked up, and so were most of the people there.” He now realizes the vast conspiracy theory to steal the election would have been impossible and acknowledges that he was immune to contrary logic because of social media.

Van Tatenhove likewise now recognizes members of the Oath Keepers as “straight-up racists” and he refuses to indulge in the Republican National Committee’s lie that the insurrection was “legitimate political discourse.” As he declared on Tuesday, “We need to quit mincing words and just talk about truths, and what it was going to be was an armed revolution.” He described Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes as “always looking for ways to legitimize what he was doing,” not unlike Trump.

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It’s a message Cheney and other sane Republicans fervently want their party to adopt. It was a lie. Move on.

The two witnesses also warned about the consequences of following Trump’s mob. “It definitely changed my life, not for the good,” Ayres said. “Definitely not for the better.” He lost his job and had to sell his home.

Van Tatenhove expanded on some broader lessons: “I think we’ve gotten exceedingly lucky that more bloodshed did not happen because the potential has been there from the start,” he said. He added, “I do fear for this next election cycle because who knows what that might bring.”

The ongoing threat posed by Trump has not been stressed enough. Perhaps the two witnesses will start a more intense conversation among Republicans. Committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) in his closing remarks said that the crucial next step is to “fortify our democracy against coups, political violence and campaigns to steal elections away from the people." He concluded with an admonition: “We need to defend both our democracy and our freedom with everything we have, and declare that this American carnage ends here and now. In a world of resurgent authoritarianism and racism and antisemitism, let’s all hang tough for American democracy.”

If more Americans take that message to heart, the hearings will have been well worth the time and effort.