Assuming that truth is the ultimate victor in America’s quiet existential struggle between truth and falsehood, history books will record too obvious, almost anodyne facts. One is that Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. The other is that he then tried to steal a second term anyway, an effort that included drawing thousands of people to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to express their frustration at the members of Congress formalizing his loss.
Saying that he bears responsibility for all of the necessary conditions that contributed to the riot — the delusions about the election, the calls to attend, the encouragement of extremist groups — is not to say that he directly told people to break windows and beat police officers. But history will record that he still bears responsibility.
And yet nearly two-thirds of Republicans think that Trump probably or definitely won the election. And nearly 6 in 10 think he bears no responsibility at all for the violence and destruction of Jan. 6. In total, about half of Trump’s party hold both views.
On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released new polling that shows how the false belief that Trump actually won in 2020 overlaps with skepticism about both Trump’s role in the day’s violence and the efforts to understand fully how it occurred.
Pew found that only about 1 in 3 Republicans think Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and only about 14 percent of them say he definitely won, which he did. In other words, six out of every seven Republicans are unwilling to say that Biden definitely won. Instead, a third say Trump probably won — somehow — and almost another third say Trump definitely won. By now, this position is simply an act of faith, a rejection of all available evidence in deference to a feeling. It’s still remarkable in scale.
The polling also found that people whose views were furthest from reality on the results of the 2020 election were also those most eager to downplay what occurred at the Capitol. For example, 7 in 10 Republicans who say Trump probably won in 2020 think that too much attention has been paid to Jan. 6. That position was held by 9 in 10 of those who say Trump definitely won. (On the graphs below, the widths of the columns are scaled to the percentage of Republicans who belong to each of the groups indicated along the horizontal axis.)
Predictably, those two groups were also more likely to say they have no confidence that the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack would act in a fair or reasonable way.
This makes sense. To believe that Trump won in 2020 is to reject concrete evidence that he didn’t. It’s to dismiss as unimportant or tainted any objective analysis to the contrary. Even allowing for the fact that members of the Jan. 6 committee would broadly be pleased to be able to implicate Trump more directly in the day’s events, it’s likely that any examination of the day would be treated with skepticism by a group that is defined by its skepticism about observable reality.
But then we factor in that original point: Most of those who think Trump probably won in 2020 also think he bears no responsibility for the violence and destruction on Jan. 6.
Some of this is probably a function of partisan flag-waving, a rejection of the mainstream media’s (accurate) description of events in a way that casts Trump in a negative light. But some of it is also clearly true belief, a sincere insistence that Trump did win and that the violence wasn’t his fault. Millions of Americans want to believe that’s true, and so some do.
It isn’t, as history should show. The challenge is that Pew’s polling doesn’t simply capture an aberrant view among American adults. It captures a significant view held by a large portion of the country. It reflects the views of the most energetic supporters of the person who at this point is most likely to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. It captures an incorrect set of beliefs held by Republicans who support a president who already once sought to directly shift how America discusses its own history.
Hence my use of “should” in the paragraph above.