The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Jan. 6 — and Republicans — enabled Trump’s domination of the GOP

President Donald Trump meets with Republican leadership, including Senate leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), center, and House leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), left, at the White House in 2017. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When the dust settled on Jan. 6, 2021, even many prominent allies of President Donald Trump agreed that he was responsible — in some measure, and often in large measure — for the first major attack on the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812:

  • The No. 1 House Republican, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), said Trump bore “responsibility,” while suggesting a historic censure of a sitting president.
  • The No. 1 Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), said, “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking” the attack.
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Trump’s rhetoric about a stolen election had been “irresponsible” and “reckless.” He added that Trump “went way too far over the line.”
  • Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called on Trump to “quit misleading the American people and repudiate mob violence” and said Jan. 6 was “in part a result of” such misleading claims.
  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Trump’s call for protesters to march to the Capitol “was inciting.”
  • Even Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on Jan. 7 that Trump had “recklessly encouraged” the events of the day.

Exactly one year later, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot has basically served only to cement the very same former president’s hold on the same party. And that’s because of this: It was the most significant stress test on Trump’s hold on the party to date, and Trump’s hold bent but didn’t break.

GOP leaders thought they might be able to break with Trump, only to be proved very wrong. The lesson for all of them was that there’s virtually nothing Trump could do to lose the base, and they should act accordingly.

Today, Republican leaders barely bother with discussing Trump’s culpability for what Cruz has repeatedly labeled (including this week) a “terrorist attack”; instead, they are drowned out by those in their midst downplaying the events of the day, likening those who were charged and jailed to political prisoners, and assuring that this is still Trump’s party and that it’s time to move on from the historic attack on U.S. government (often for transparently political reasons).

They also stand by silently as fellow Republicans who push the same “big lie” they blamed for fomenting the Jan. 6 attack run for high-profile offices — including those that control elections — with Trump’s backing.

It is indeed still Trump’s party, and in rather remarkable measure.

The Washington Post’s David Byler this week spotlighted a telling chart from FiveThirtyEight. Some Republicans have fallen out of favor in their party after Jan. 6; it just happens to be the Republicans who found themselves on other side of Trump on Jan. 6. The favorability ratings of McConnell and former vice president Mike Pence, who declined entreaties to help overturn the election on Jan. 6, dropped sharply almost immediately — and have stayed down.

Trump’s consistent popularity with Republicans a year after his loss also is a departure from what usually happens to those who lose elections.

Sen. John McCain’s numbers among Republicans declined more than 20 points a year after his 2008 presidential loss and continued to decline over the following decade. Sen. Mitt Romney’s dropped by double digits a little more than a year after his 2012 presidential loss — and also continued to decline.

On the Democratic side, it happened to a smaller degree with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton after her loss to Trump in 2016. Former vice president Al Gore was relatively popular during his 2000 campaign, but a New York Times/CBS News poll two years later found him disliked by twice as many Americans (43 percent) as viewed him positively (19 percent) — in large part because only one-third of Democrats had a favorable opinion.

Trump is somewhat different in that he at least won a presidential election before losing one. (The last time we had a one-term president who lost reelection was after the 1992 election, when George H.W. Bush lost.) But Trump also has the distinction of having lost the House, the Senate and the presidency all in one term in office — the first time that’s happened since 1932.

If there were ever a moment to change course, out of sheer political calculation if nothing else, this would seem to have been it. Of course, Trump has convinced many that he actually won the 2020 election.

For Republicans, though, the calculation is less about what’s ideal than what’s realistic and manageable. They — or at least their leaders — thought the play was to turn the page on the Trump era after the Capitol attack, whether out of principle or something else. They decided this was the moment to come at the party’s king, and they missed. They’ve since reversed course out of political ambition and self-preservation, effectively disowning or ignoring the supposedly principled stand they took earlier against a man they blamed for a historic attack.

If past is predicate, the effect is that they probably won’t try again to criticize or break with him — or at least not try as hard. They’ll just hope against hope that they won’t be pushed into such a position again. But if they are, they’ll know that their momentary efforts to acknowledge reality and say what seems to be the right thing can be discarded just as quickly.

They might not themselves fully embrace the guy who was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack, but they’ll continue to let their party do so without raising a fuss. Which is really the story of the past 365 days.

Former president Donald Trump has remained the main driver of the Republican Party priorities, despite losing his reelection bid in 2020. (Video: Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)