WASHINGTON – For a day or two or maybe a week after the can-you-believe-this-is-happening-in-America events of a year ago, there were those who thought that the shock to the system might upend U.S. politics in a profound way.
That the country might speak as one against an attempt to overturn democracy. That the tribal divisions of the era might be overcome by a shared sense of revulsion. That an American president who encouraged a mob that attacked Congress in a vain bid to hold onto power might be ostracized or at least fade into exile.
That was then. A year after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol in which supporters of President Donald Trump trying to stop final recognition of a certified free and fair election burst through barricades, pummeled police officers and forced lawmakers to flee for their lives, what is most striking is not what has changed, but what has not.
America has not come together to defend its democracy; it has only split further apart. Lies and disinformation spread by the former president have so permeated the political ecosphere that nearly universal outrage has reverted to separate blue and red realities. Far from shunned for what even his own vice president deemed an unconstitutional attempt to thwart the will of the voters, Trump remains the undisputed powerhouse of his party — and a viable candidate to reclaim the White House in three years.
“I just kept hoping that that was going to change after the election,” said Olivia Troye, a lifelong Republican who worked on the White House coronavirus task force before breaking with Trump in 2020 and joining efforts to defeat him. “And then with the events after the election and Jan. 6, it became clear this was something that was going to be even more dangerous and pervasive than one man sitting in the Oval Office.”
The anniversary of the assault on the Capitol served as a chance to take stock of a country still trying to make sense of it all. Rather than a wake-up call highlighting for all the fragility of the American experiment, the violence that besieged Washington turns out to have been one more chapter in the polarizing, partisan, ideological and cultural struggle over truth and consequences in the modern era.
The disparate approaches to Thursday’s anniversary reflected the fraught condition of the nation’s politics. Rather than join in unified commemoration, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats held events marking the moment while Republican leaders absented themselves. Trump originally planned to hold his first post-presidential news conference Thursday but abruptly changed his mind.
While Biden and the Democrats describe the dangers to the constitutional order from what amounted to an anti-democratic insurrection, Trump and his allies rail against a congressional investigating committee and seek to rewrite history by repeating wild and false claims about a supposedly stolen election and asserting that the riot was born out of justified anger.
“Why is the primary reason for the people coming to Washington D.C., which is the fraud of the 2020 Presidential Election, not the primary topic of the Unselect Committee’s investigation?” Trump said in a statement this week. “This was, indeed, the Crime of the Century.”
In fact, no matter how many times Trump says the 2020 election was stolen, not a shred of evidence has emerged to prove it. Not one independent authority — no judge, no prosecutor, no governor, no election agency, no news media organization — has found any credible indication of fraud on a scale that would have changed the outcome.
An extensive, monthslong review by The Associated Press of every fraud claim in six battleground states targeted by Trump found fewer than 475 suspicious votes or attempted votes. That was not nearly enough to swing the results in a single state, much less the three or more necessary to tip the Electoral College, even if all of them had been counted for Biden, which they were not.
But the extent to which Trump has shaped the narrative, at least within his own party, would have defied belief a year ago when leaders on both sides of the aisle were seething with indignation at what he had unleashed. At the time, even allies thought Trump had forever sullied his name in the history books, as indicated by the subsequent investigation.
While intruders marauded through the Capitol, Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, texted the White House chief of staff imploring him to get the president to call off the mob, warning that “he is destroying his legacy.” Her colleague Brian Kilmeade likewise texted that Trump was “destroying everything you have accomplished.”
Today, it has become heresy among conservatives to question Trump’s legacy. The Cabinet secretaries and White House aides who resigned in protest of his role in the violence now largely keep to themselves. Many corporations that vowed to halt donations to Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the election have quietly reopened the contribution spigot. The congressional Republicans who angrily denounced the president after their headquarters was invaded have gone silent or even made the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, all but pretending it never happened.
“It’s a pretty sobering lesson about human nature,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat who led the House managers prosecuting Trump in a Senate impeachment trial and now serves on the House select committee investigating Jan. 6.
In an interview, Raskin said he had ordered books about cults and deprogramming to try to understand his Republican colleagues. “It’s amazing to me how many of these Republican leaders have just fallen into line like lemmings,” he said. “I tell them when it’s all over, they’re only going to be fit to sell flowers and incense at Dulles Airport. They have basically surrendered their critical thinking skills.”
Raskin, who this week published “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy,” his own book on Jan. 6 and the subsequent Senate trial, at one point a year ago thought enough Republicans were fed up with Trump to convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors. In fact, just seven Republican senators voted to convict, short of the 17 required along with Democrats for a two-thirds majority, but it was the most bipartisan Senate vote in presidential impeachment history.
And then there are the Republicans still firmly in the former president’s camp and eager to take on the fight and amplify his claims, like his onetime chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who hosted a podcast with other Trump allies on the anniversary to counterprogram the Democratic-led events.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, said that “Jan. 6 is going to be a disaster rather than an asset for Democrats” that will cost them seats in the November midterm elections. While he said those who broke into the Capitol should be brought to justice and the event investigated, he argued that Democrats were covering up their own complicity in not providing adequate security for the Capitol.
“The process of the select committee is only getting more corrupt and destructive,” Gingrich wrote in a newsletter this week. “Using an outrageous, painful and unacceptable event (which I fully condemn) to smear your opponents rather than find the truth will ultimately be repudiated by the American people.”
In fact, at the time of the attack, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, shared control of the Capitol with the Senate majority leader, who at the time was Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. Republicans have made no attempt to blame McConnell for the security breach or for failing to prepare for an attack.
As unlikely as it seemed 365 days ago, Trump emerged from the wreckage of Jan. 6 as still the dominant force within the party. Those who speak against him are purged, and his endorsement is the most coveted asset in almost any Republican primary. One Republican senator privately explained his reluctance to break with Trump by noting that the former president polled better among Republicans in his state than he did. “You can’t minimize that in terms of the political reality,” the senator said.
Still, Trump is not all powerful. For months, he has railed against McConnell, demanding that Republican senators remove him as their leader. Republican senators have uniformly ignored Trump as if his rants were irrelevant.
And there are times when Trump appears not so much in command of his base as a captive of it. When he urged an Alabama audience in August to get vaccinated for the coronavirus — a vaccine he helped generate — the crowd booed him. Taking the point, he avoided bringing up the vaccine again for months.
When he said in Texas last month that he had received a booster, he was booed again. This time, he told supporters that although “you shouldn’t be forced to take it,” they were “playing into their hands,” meaning his opponents, by denigrating the vaccine. By Wednesday, he pivoted to a full-throated attack on vaccine mandates. “This is an outrage, and MAGA nation should rise up and oppose this egregious federal government overreach,” he said in a statement.
If he is at odds with his base over vaccines, they are in sync on the election and Jan. 6. Fresh polls have documented the public divide in stark terms. While nearly three-quarters of all Americans view the storming of the Capitol as an assault on democracy, about half of Republicans say the rioters were actually the ones “protecting democracy,” and nearly as many think the attack was not that violent. While most Americans believe Biden was elected legitimately, 7 in 10 Republicans think otherwise.
“Trump as shorthand is easy to talk about and write about, but what if he’s not the center of gravity of the problem?” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey.
And a year later, Glaude added, the risk is thinking the danger has passed just because the fences around the Capitol have come down and many of the invaders have been locked up.
“The front end of a hurricane is really, really violent, and then you have the calm of the eye,” he said. “But then the tail is coming, and the tail is just as violent as the front end.”
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