The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More Republicans now call Jan. 6 a ‘legitimate protest’ than a ‘riot’

Rioters clash with police trying to enter the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)
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When the dust settled on Jan. 6, 2021, we were unable to agree on whether Donald Trump had incited the insurrection. But at least one conclusion crossed partisan lines: This had been a very bad and violent thing.

Apparently, we can’t even agree upon that anymore. The passage of time has prompted many Republicans to develop an increasingly fantastical view of what transpired that day.

A new Monmouth University poll carries some stark lessons for the work that lies ahead for the House Jan. 6 committee, to the extent that the panel seeks to convince conservative Americans that Trump committed a crime that day. That’s because they increasingly don’t even believe what happened that day — and what they formerly accepted as reality — actually happened.

The poll shows significant reductions in the percentages of Republicans who characterize Jan. 6 not just as an “insurrection” but also a “riot.” And it’s not the first to point in that direction.

In addition, the poll shows more Republicans regard Jan. 6 as a “legitimate protest” than a “riot.”

The poll asked people in June 2021 and June 2022 whether each of those labels were appropriate descriptors for what transpired on Jan. 6, 2021. And the GOP shifts are pretty uniform:

  • While 33 percent of Republicans said in June 2021 that Jan. 6 was an insurrection, that number is now just 13 percent.
  • While 62 percent of Republicans called it a “riot” back then, that’s down to 45 percent.
  • While 47 percent said it was a “legitimate protest,” that’s now up to 61 percent.

So whereas more Republicans once said it was a “riot” than a “legitimate protest,” by a 15-point margin, that has been flipped, with Republicans favoring the “legitimate protest” label by 16 points. A majority of Republicans no longer even regard Jan. 6 as a “riot.”

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, yes, it was an insurrection. But at least in that case, the doubters might not truly understand what that word means or might have been fed dubious and incorrect definitions by their favorite cable-news hosts and pundits. (By contrast, people know what a riot is.)

Indeed, what’s particularly striking about these numbers is that this isn’t comparing GOP views of Jan. 6 to the immediate aftermath; it’s comparing them to views in June 2021. By that point, the insurrection-doubter movement and its cohorts had already picked up steam. Yet one-third of Republicans still saw it as an insurrection, and 6 in 10 saw it as a riot. The intervening months have apparently persuaded many to join the doubter movement.

Other polling suggests this has indeed been a slow burn.

The CBS News/YouGov poll is the other big one to repeatedly ask such questions — both immediately after Jan. 6, 2021, and again in December. While 32 percent of Republicans in January 2021 said it was an insurrection, that dropped to 21 percent by December. Belief that it was an attempt to overthrow the government dropped from 27 percent to 18 percent.

But by far, the biggest shift came on an interesting — and telling — question. While in January 2021, 56 percent of Republicans understood Jan. 6 as an attempt “to overturn the election and keep Donald Trump in power,” that number dropped to just 33 percent by December. That’s a remarkable number of people who accepted a pretty vanilla statement about reality and then, nearly a year later, abandoned it.

Was any evidence presented in the intervening months that the insurrectionists weren’t, in fact, trying to overturn the election for Trump? Of course not. Claims about provocateurs had routinely fallen apart, even by that point. But lots and lots of people still talked themselves out of the idea that the express purpose of the Jan. 6 events was actually the purpose. Other terms could be viewed as more subjective, but this one is pretty black and white.

And perhaps better than anything, that shows what’s at work here.