The Ghost of January 6th Haunts 2024

The long shadow of January 6, 2021, hangs over this election. Three years after a mob of Americans stormed their own Capitol, seeking to block Joe Biden’s victory and keep Donald Trump in the White House, Biden and Trump each began 2024 with plans to make the tragic events of that day the centerpiece of his campaign. For the incumbent, it’s the rationale for his entire Presidency and the most compelling reason to give him a second term—a continuation of the “battle for the soul of America” that animated Biden’s run in 2020. For Trump, it’s the false battle cry around which he hopes to rally the MAGA mob once again. Already, he has proved that millions of his supporters are immune to the truth about January 6th. It will be an incredible act of political sorcery if he can ride his lies about the 2020 election and its violent aftermath back into the White House. And yet, as the year begins, his chances of doing so are better than even.

On Wednesday, in his first day back in the office this new year, the President hosted lunch for a group of American historians to advise him on how to frame the stakes of this election. One attendee, Heather Cox Richardson, a Civil War scholar whose latest book, “Democracy Awakening,” was Biden’s most conspicuous purchase during a day of post-Thanksgiving shopping, has called the visual of Trumpists parading the Confederate flag through Congress on January 6th “a gut-punch larger than any other moment in history.” Biden’s first campaign ad of the year, released on Thursday, leans heavily on the history theme, interspersing violent images of January 6th with old footage of civil-rights and suffragist marches, of Martin Luther King, Jr., and American Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima in the Second World War. “I’ve made the preservation of American democracy the central issue of my Presidency,” Biden says.

The challenge for Biden, though, is recapturing the visceral outrage of the insurrection—voters have, for years, been bombarded with horrific images of the riot and a steady drip of investigative revelations about how Trump helped conjure it into being—while imbuing it with new meaning and relevance. It is a necessary act of remembrance, but one that risks reminding Americans of how annoyed they are about a 2024 election that looks very likely to be a repeat of 2020. Is there anyone who truly relishes the prospect of Biden and Trump going at it once again, changing few minds while reinforcing for everyone how mired we remain in the division and rancor of that unpleasant year? No country would want to be stuck in such a doom loop.

But doom loop it looks to be. There is no moving on from that day so long as its instigator remains the leader of the Republican Party. In less than two weeks, Trump is on track to secure what could be the largest win in the history of the Iowa Republican caucuses. His lead is so wide that some expect him to sew up the Republican nomination by March. If and when Trump does, he will have accomplished it with a platform that doubles down on January 6th and his own sorry role in calling forth the mob. He is not denying the facts; he is outright rewriting them.

To his original Big Lie about the “rigged election” in 2020, Trump has added ever more lies. He now calls January 6th “a beautiful day” and the nearly thirteen hundred defendants arrested in connection with the attack on the Capitol martyrs and “hostages.” In recent months as he has campaigned for his return to the White House, he has dangled pardons for the insurrectionists, to be issued “on Day 1” of his second term, and threatened instead to lock up the police who tried to defend the Capitol that day. “When people who love our country protest in Washington, they become hostages unfairly imprisoned for long portions of their life,” he told a rally in Iowa last month.

This rhetoric is likely only to escalate in the course of the campaign, as Trump faces both a federal and a state trial on criminal charges connected with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. In fourteen states, meanwhile, there is pending litigation to keep Trump off the ballot on the ground that his role in inciting the events of January 6th makes him an “insurrectionist” as defined by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution—a matter soon to make its way to the Supreme Court since both Colorado and Maine have already disqualified him from their ballots. Trump’s legal team is also challenging the federal case against him, on the basis that his extraordinary post-2020-election acts were part of his official duties and thus covered by Presidential “immunity.” One thing we can pretty much say for sure about 2024 is that not a day will go by without the ghost of January 6th echoing loudly in our courtrooms and in our politics.

Another sad but inescapable truth is that Trump’s January 6th revisionism has proved even more politically salient with the Republican electorate than anyone could have predicted on the day itself. Remember all those panicky texts to the White House, begging Trump to call off the mob? “He is destroying his legacy,” Laura Ingraham warned Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff. Even Don, Jr., begged Meadows to intervene: “He’s got to condemn this shit. Asap.” But Trump, it turns out, knew better. A Washington Post/University of Maryland survey published this week found that, in the intervening three years, the number of Republicans who believe Trump’s lies about a “rigged election” has, in fact, gone up. Today, only thirty-one per cent of Republicans believe that Biden is the “legitimate” President, down from thirty-nine per cent in late 2021. The number of Republicans, meanwhile, who believe that Trump personally bears “a great deal” or “a good amount” of responsibility for the events of January 6th has gone down from twenty-seven per cent two years ago to just fourteen per cent today. The right-wing media ecosystem has been so effective in pumping out Trump’s propaganda that the Post/Maryland poll found thirty-four per cent of Republicans now say they believe the bogus conspiracy theory that the F.B.I. itself was responsible for inciting the attack on the Capitol.

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