Saturday is the third anniversary of January 6, the day Donald Trump incited an insurrection on the Capitol in order to nullify an election he lost. The country is still dealing with the fallout, and much is still unknown: Will Trump pay for his crimes? Will his co-conspirators? Will Trump be able to finish the job by seizing power this election cycle? But one dark outcome is coming more into focus: Republican voters are increasingly silencing their doubts about political violence, and are joining Trump’s effort to rewrite history to portray January 6 in a positive light.
The Washington Post and University of Maryland conducted extensive polling about American attitudes regarding January 6, timed for the third anniversary. What they found is alarming, but unsurprising to anyone who understands the trajectories of authoritarian movements. Larger numbers of Republican voters embrace both conspiracy theories to minimize January 6 and the view that political violence is fine if it’s their own people doing it.
“January 6 was an inside job” is merely a proxy for the real sentiment, which most Republicans don’t want to utter out loud to a pollster or in mixed company.
A big development is the rapid spread of an asinine conspiracy theory that the FBI “instigated” Jan. 6. It’s a lie that was heavily hyped by Tucker Carlson, who started invoking it very shortly after the riot itself. Carlson was fired last year from Fox News, but his hoax has spread to every corner of right-wing media and is frequently invoked by both Trump and Republican members of Congress. With that kind of all-hands-on-deck flogging of the lie, what’s surprising is how the nonsense is not even more popular. Forty-four percent of Trump voters espouse the lie, with another 33% demurring with “not sure.” Only 21% of Trump voters would admit that the FBI did not do January 6.
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As many people have pointed out, even by the low standards of a conspiracy theory, this one is especially illogical. One Trump supporter told the Post the violence was all from “the FBI, the police people that were put in there, the antifa and BLM hired by George Soros.” It’s silly to imagine such a massive conspiracy of unrelated people going off without a hitch or a leak. It’s also disproved by the over 700 court convictions of Capitol rioters, every single one a loud-and-proud Trump lover.
The lesser version of the conspiracy — that Trump supporters were “whipped into a frenzy by the FBI,” as another conspiracist told the Post — also doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the rioters are grown adults who were not forced to riot, no matter how “whipped” they were. Also, while we have no evidence of any FBI agents “whipping” people, we do have video of Trump doing exactly that, with his infamous “fight like hell” speech. If imaginary FBI agents can be blamed for “whipping,” then surely Trump is even more guilty because he whipped them up with a podium and microphone.
But of course, Republican voters don’t look too closely at the flaws in their own conspiracy theories, because they don’t really believe any of this nonsense they’re spouting. “January 6 was an inside job” is merely a proxy for the real sentiment, which most Republicans don’t want to utter out loud to a pollster or in mixed company: They support the aims of the people who used violence to try to overthrow American democracy.
People often resort to conspiracy theories when they know their true beliefs are indefensible. The conspiracy theory functions primarily as deflection. When people are arguing over whether the FBI instigated Jan. 6, what they’re not doing is talking about who actually started it (Trump) or why he did it (to end democracy). If Trump gets into office and declares Jan. 6 a national holiday, perhaps his followers will become more comfortable just admitting outright that they support fascist violence. But right now, they know that’s generally considered an immoral view, so they want to talk about anything other than their own shameful opinions.
The Washington Post poll has many questions that offer this proxy function: Is Trump culpable for January 6? Were the rioters violent or peaceful? Was Joe Biden’s presidential win legitimate? Did January 6 threaten democracy? On every metric, Republican voters have drifted further away from the truth and into the land of conspiracy theories.
This is not because they’ve been presented with new information that changed their minds. On the contrary, the information that’s emerged since January 6 has only confirmed everything we saw that day on TV: Trump did it, he wanted it to go further, and the rioters were well aware that they were trying to overturn an election. The reason Republican voters are moving in this direction is because increasing numbers of them have gotten on board with Trump’s not-exactly-subtle agenda to destroy American democracy. They also tacitly agree with using violence to do so, which is why there’s so much hand-waving and excuse-making for the violence that’s already happened.
Ultimately, there’s no coherent way to support Trump without supporting his fascist war on democracy. The cognitive dissonance is too great. Trump’s fascist aims are not a minor issue. This is not the same thing, for instance, as disagreeing with Biden’s stance on student loan relief but voting for him anyway. The centerpiece of Trump’s campaign is “retribution” against everyone who stood in his way of seizing power illegally. Fascism isn’t one aspect of Trump’s agenda. It’s the totality of it.
For better or worse, Trump’s brazenness forces everyone, both his opponents and supporters, into a binary position: You are either against Trump or you’re for fascist insurrection. Republicans may not be ready to admit that to a pollster, but it is the inescapable truth. There’s only so much cognitive dissonance the human mind can take, and “I’m against insurrection, but backing the guy who calls the Capitol rioters ‘hostages'” is well beyond the self-delusion powers of even the most cheese-brained QAnoner. As Election Day draws nearer and more voters pay attention to Trump’s pro-January 6 rhetoric, I expect the number of Republicans who cite conspiracy theories to justify fascist revolt will rise.
The good news is that, as Aaron Blake at the Washington Post reports, there’s no evidence that these conspiracy theories have persuasive power. There’s a vanishingly small number of people who voted for Biden but have been swayed to Trump by some Facebook rant about the FBI and “antifa” working together. These conspiracy theories were never meant to win people over. They exist solely to give cover to Republicans who want to vote for Trump again without admitting out loud they are supporting the overthrow of democracy. Biden faces a lot of electoral obstacles going into 2024, but Trump’s strategy of leaning into everything most people hate about him won’t do him any favors.
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