Opinion | Trump’s Jan. 6 Obsession Is an Anchor for Republicans

Trump’s worst impulses threaten the GOP. The party can go another way.

Trump pointing

It’s understandable that Democrats would want to constantly revisit Jan. 6 — to invoke it, investigate it and sacralize it even.

It’s a mystery, at least from a certain level of abstraction, why Republicans would want to have anything to do with that day, or want to fixate on the 2020 election.

The party is on the cusp of a midterm triumph, has enormous openings on the economy and education thanks to Biden administration stumbles and left-wing overreach, is making inroads among Hispanic voters, and has a well-stocked political bench that Democrats worried about 2024 should envy.

Yet the GOP is stuck litigating the past almost entirely because its putative leader in Mar-a-Lago is incapable of admitting error or defeat, and will never stop trying to excuse and explain away his infamous conduct after November 2020.

You can argue that Jan. 6 was the work of an out-of-control mob and didn’t constitute an insurrection; that the composition of the committee is unfair and lacks the adversarial element that has always been presumed to be central to the workings of such bodies; that the revelations or supposed revelations from the committee are being overhyped; and that Trump, whatever his failings, didn’t commit crimes and shouldn’t be charged with one.

In fact, I agree with every one of those propositions. But none of them makes Jan. 6 any better or makes it good.

It’s not quite true, as is often said, that every election is about the future. Republicans waved the bloody shirt of the Civil War for years. Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for as long as they could. Republicans still talk about Jimmy Carter.

In all of these instances, though, a party made a focal point of a low and embarrassing moment for the other side, not its own.

Revisionist historians and writers might pop up to defend the legacy of a Hoover or Carter, or argue that they’d been misrepresented or unfairly maligned. Still, the parties moved on, and focused on making new memories.

This is what Trump doesn’t want to allow Republicans to do. With his knack for blunt-force marketing (Fake News, Russia Hoax), he believes he can deflect any attack and redefine the terms of debate to his liking. And he’s not wrong. He’s brought much of his party along with him in his insistence that 2020 was stolen (not just rigged, which can be a way of saying that he was treated unfairly by the press and Big Tech, but stolen).

His attitude toward Jan. 6 hasn’t gotten more defensive with time, but more fulsome. In a statement last week, he called it “the greatest movement in the history of the country to Make America Great Again.” His 12-page memo in response to the initial hearings doubled down on his fantastical case against the election, as if to confirm everything former Attorney General William Barr said about him.

Trump is acting on an entirely personal and selfish priority. There’s no principle at stake in embracing the Jan. 6 mob or advancing 2020 conspiracy theories.

It’s possible to defend free speech and assembly, obviously, without defending a breach of the U.S. Capitol. It’s possible to support the rollback of certain pandemic emergency measures — like drive-through voting or drop boxes — and tighten up the security around voting in general, without believing massive fraud changed the result in 2020.

It’s true that Democrats are pursuing partisan aims with the Jan. 6 committee. They hope to change the trajectory of the midterms and tar all Republicans as election-denying agents of mayhem. The sheer partisan interest of the GOP is not to play along. And really, why should the party care who drafted Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark’s ludicrous unsent memo urging states to send alternate slates of Trump electors to Congress or whether Rudy Giuliani was drunk on election night?

These matters are of great consequence to the people in and around the Trump vortex after the election, but they shouldn’t matter to the average Republican. The complication is that Trump has created and bolstered so many GOP candidates who believe, or pretend to believe, that the election was stolen that there is now a large contingent associated with this poisonous view. This, too, is a disservice to the party.

If Trump is the Republican candidate again in 2024, even in the unlikely event that he wanted to memory hole Jan. 6 and never talk about it again, it wouldn’t happen. The Democrats would bring it up unrelentingly and seek as much as possible to make the election a referendum on Trump’s conduct during the most disgraceful period of his presidency. Perhaps it wouldn’t work, but why would Republicans want to risk it or even deal with the complication?

Again, this is a vulnerability unique to Trump. No other prospective 2024 candidate would have to excuse Jan. 6 and parrot the most outlandish claims about the 2020 election, not Ron DeSantis, not Mike Pence, not Tom Cotton, not Nikki Haley. If none of these candidates would sound like Liz Cheney, they wouldn’t be inextricably linked to bonkers events four years prior, either.

They’d be free of the 2020 albatross and of any obligation to defend the indefensible, leaving the obsession with Jan. 6 to congressional Democrats — and Donald J. Trump.