In the hours and days after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, there appeared to be a broad, bipartisan consensus that what had just occurred was a flagrant assault on democracy and the peaceful transition of power.
Republicans who had been loyal to then-president Donald Trump acknowledged he was responsible for sowing the seeds of discontent that led to the violence that day, in a desperate attempt to overturn an election he had lost, and many supported his impeachment.
Three years later, that consensus has evaporated and warped into something more dangerous.
Instead of moving on from Trump and his lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him, Republican voters have once again embraced him as he seeks to return to the White House this year.
Their views on Jan. 6, meanwhile, have softened, with a growing number of people now denying the rioters were violent and even believing a baseless conspiracy theory that the FBI was somehow responsible.
The shifting of opinion — and the increasing normalization of the attack among the right — has experts concerned that history could repeat itself.
“I think we have to take really seriously the idea that this might not have been a one-time event,” Michael Hanmer, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, told Global News in an interview.
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A new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll shows just 24 per cent of Republican voters think Jan. 6 should “never be forgotten,” with most of the remaining three-quarters of those surveyed believing it’s “time to move on.”
Only 31 per cent of Republicans surveyed believe President Joe Biden was legitimately elected — down from an already low 39 per cent in 2021.
Most concerning, the poll suggests a quarter of all Americans believe FBI operatives “organized and encouraged” the Jan. 6 attack. The number jumps to 34 per cent among Republicans and 44 per cent among Trump voters.
The conspiracy theory, which has been debunked repeatedly by the FBI and in evidence presented in court cases against rioters charged and convicted for the attacks, has been spread by some right-wing media figures and Trump himself.
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During a town hall event on CNN, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called Jan. 6 an “inside job” to loud applause from the Republican audience.
“I think that is the most stunning result” of the Post-UMD poll, said Hanmer.
“It’s a sign that we have a really serious problem.”
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At least nine people who were at the U.S. Capitol that day died during or after the rioting, including several officers who died of suicide, a woman who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break into the House chamber, and three other Trump supporters who authorities said suffered medical emergencies.
More than 1,250 people have been charged in connection with the attack, and nearly 900 people have been convicted, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland confirmed Friday as he marked the anniversary. Leaders of the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys militias are set to spend decades in prison after being convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Lawyers for many of the other defendants have blamed Trump for spreading false claims of election fraud that incited their clients to violence.
Yet Trump and far-right Republican lawmakers have defended the rioters, with Trump promising he’ll pardon them if he returns to the presidency. He has called Jan. 6 “a beautiful day” and described those imprisoned for the attack as “great, great patriots” and “hostages.”
At some campaign rallies this year, he has played a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by jailed rioters that is interspersed with his recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Footage of the attack sometimes plays on screens behind Trump as he places his hand over his heart.
The findings of a U.S. House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack — which pin the blame squarely on Trump, his rhetoric and his inaction that day for the violence that unfolded — have been dismissed by Republicans as a partisan investigation that cherry-picked evidence.
Trump himself is facing federal charges in connection to his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and his efforts to deny Biden’s election victory. A separate indictment in Georgia charges him under the state’s anti-racketeering law for leading a criminal conspiracy to overturn his loss there, along with 18 other alleged co-conspirators, and states have charged people who falsely tried to declare Trump as the winner.
More recently, the Colorado Supreme Court and Maine’s secretary of state separately disqualified Trump from the Republican primary ballot in those states under a clause in the U.S. Constitution barring anyone who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding public office. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on whether the Civil War-era provision can apply to the presidency.
Trump and his campaign have painted the indictments and disqualifications as evidence that it’s Democrats, not him or his Republican supporters, who are interfering in free and fair elections.
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That fight over the future of democracy is set to become a defining theme of this year’s presidential election. In a campaign speech from Valley Forge, Pa., on Friday marking the anniversary of Jan. 6, Biden said the stakes for November were clear.
“Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time. That’s what the 2024 election is all about,” he said.
“Donald Trump’s campaign is about him. Not America, not you. Donald Trump’s campaign is obsessed with the past. Not the future. He’s willing to sacrifice our democracy to put himself in power.”
Biden and Garland both warned on Friday that political violence and threats against elected officials are continuing to rise. Several state legislatures were evacuated this week due to fake bomb threats. Lawmakers, secretaries of state and judges have faced death threats from both the left and the right over Trump and policy issues like abortion and immigration.
Political watchers say the increase in violent rhetoric stems from the same forces that led to Jan. 6 — and the ever-widening chasm between reality and conspiracy.
“Democracy exists because enough people agree that it ought to exist. We keep talking it into existence,” said Peter Loge, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
“That requires a consensus … that is being challenged.”
— with files from Global’s Jackson Proskow
© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.