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Don’t call it an ‘insurrection’: GOP moves to excise a word it once used for Jan. 6

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to directly answer whether the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was an insurrection when asked on June 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

Back in February, I wrote I piece headlined, in part, “the emerging hoax-ification of the Capitol riot.” I argued that we were again seeing what we saw with Charlottesville: small but influential elements of the conservative movement, over time, capitalizing on fading memories to recast the official narrative. That narrative: a more politically convenient one in which President Donald Trump was actually, somehow, maybe right when he blamed “both sides” for what happened that day — despite all the evidence to the contrary.

By the time I wrote that piece, it was beginning to happen with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. And two events Tuesday reinforced just how much that revisionism is prevailing in GOP ranks, in subtle but highly pertinent ways.

The Senate early in the day released the first big report on Jan. 6, but the report conspicuously avoided a specific word: “insurrection.” The word appeared 11 times in the report, but only when directly quoting someone or citing a report that used it. CNN quoted those involved saying it was left out to ensure the bipartisanship of the report — i.e. Republicans, at best, viewed it as overly provocative.

Reinforcing that gradually emerging reality later Tuesday was a Q&A with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Asked about whether the Capitol riot was an insurrection, he demurred, citing his past commentary on the matter and suggesting that should suffice.

“Look, I’ve said a lot about that already,” McConnell said. “I said it on Jan. 6. I said it on Feb. 13. I’ve covered that comprehensively, and I really don’t think there’s anything I can add.”

The thing is, McConnell has weighed in on this. On Jan. 6, he labeled what happened that day a “failed insurrection.” On Feb. 13, he delivered one of the biggest rhetorical rebukes to Trump’s Jan. 6-related actions of any member of Congress (while voting against Trump’s impeachment conviction on procedural grounds).

Vice President Pence reopened the Senate on Jan. 6 to continue the count of state electors after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier in the day. (Video: The Washington Post)

But even in those latter remarks, he didn’t use the i-word. And given the report released Tuesday and its conspicuous avoidance of that word, it seems fair to ask whether he and others still regards the Capitol riot as such. He instead punted — signaling, not for the first time, that he would rather not continue to litigate these things, despite his dire past comments about the severity of what transpired that day.

His comments and the new Jan. 6 report’s avoidance of that word are the culmination of a long process building toward this moment.

First things first: While there has been a noisy resistance to the term from the start, it’s virtually incontrovertible that it applies. Merriam-Webster defines “insurrection” as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.”

Regardless of the prospects of success for the Capitol riot or the quality of those involved, they were clearly rising up against civil authority — the one charged with finalizing the election results — and the new government that was being established by the 2020 election. Efforts to question that term generally involve arguing that the people involved were hapless or that they had no true prospects for overturning the election; definitionally, that doesn’t matter. It was an attack on the government, trying to change who was going to be in power.

And even in that quibbling, we see the progression of the insurrection-truther movement.

At the time I wrote the “hoax-ification” piece in mid-February, the chief example was Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) disputing the idea that this was an armed insurrection. His argument: That maybe those involved weren’t truly so armed.

“This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me,” Johnson said on WISN. “When you hear the word ‘armed,’ don’t you think of firearms? Here’s the questions I would have liked to ask: How many firearms were confiscated? How many shots were fired?”

But even a member of Trump’s legal team acknowledged at the time that this was an insurrection.

“The question before us is not whether there was a violent insurrection of the Capitol,” Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen said at his impeachment trial. “On that point, everyone agrees.”

And that consensus apparently endured. Even as late as April, and even as he was watering down his previous criticisms of Trump’s actions, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed that it was an insurrection.

“You had an insurrection at the Capitol,” McCarthy said, responding to Fox News host Chris Wallace’s use of the word.

By early last month, though, Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) made waves by saying the Capitol riot looked like a “normal tourist visit” and was “not an insurrection.” Johnson soon expanded his questioning of the narrative by telling Fox it not only wasn’t an armed insurrection, but that it wasn’t an insurrection at all. “Calling it an insurrection … it wasn’t.” He also took issue with the supposedly underarmed insurrectionists, as if an insurrection weren’t possible without bazookas.

These figures and others who have implausibly cast the Capitol rioters as relatively harmless or even peaceful patriots have generally been on the fringe of the GOP. They have echoed the rhetoric of hosts such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham who have, more consistently than the broader GOP, questioned the true danger and severity of the Capitol riot.

But on Tuesday, it became even clearer who was winning that debate inside the GOP. The party’s top two leaders in both the House and the Senate have used the term insurrection, including in one case fewer than two months ago. One of them would apparently rather not repeat it, while the other has walked back his criticism of the man on whose behalf the insurrectionists acted. And the Republicans involved in getting to the bottom of it all have apparently won that day when it comes to excising the word from the official congressional narrative.