On Tuesday, more than a week after Republican senators filibustered and blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked whether he would call the events of that day an insurrection. “I’ve said a lot about that already,” McConnell replied, ducking the question. “I really don’t think there’s anything I could add.”
McConnell’s reticence and his party’s obstruction of the commission are warning signs that American democracy is less secure than ever. Republican leaders continue to promote, excuse, or downplay lies about the 2020 election, and they have reaffirmed their fealty to former President Donald Trump, who—having provoked the Jan. 6 assault in a failed attempt to stay in power—rejects the current government as illegitimate. But the threat goes beyond Trump and his base. Attitudes that are fundamentally dangerous to democracy and the rule of law—against accepting election results, against investigating the insurrection, and against prosecuting the perpetrators—have spread to the general public.
The situation within the GOP is grave. Polls taken in April and May show that among rank-and-file Republicans, disbelief in the government’s legitimacy has hardly subsided. Two-thirds to three-quarters of Republicans continue to say that President Joe Biden was illegitimately elected. More than 60 percent say the election was “stolen from Trump.” When they’re asked who “the true President is right now,” most Republicans say it’s Trump. And more than 30 percent of Republicans reject a basic premise of democracy: that “the loser in an election must concede defeat.”
When Republican senators blocked the proposed Jan. 6 commission, they said it wasn’t necessary, since everyone knew what had happened that day and agreed it was wrong. But that isn’t true. In the latest polls, 21 percent of Republicans insist “the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was justified,” and about 25 percent express a favorable opinion of “the people who took over the Capitol.” Twenty-two percent, when they’re asked about the people who “broke into the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 to disrupt the certification of the 2020 presidential election results,” endorse “these actions by Trump supporters.” Thirty-five percent, when they’re offered a menu of words to “describe the participants who took part in the events on Jan. 6,” choose the word “patriots.”
By joining with other Republicans who don’t endorse violence but believe Trump’s lies—or who know what happened but want to bury it—these pro-insurrection Republicans have gained control of the party. Fifty percent of Republicans blame the Capitol attack on “left-wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad,” and 60 percent blame it on Biden, Democrats, or antifa. (Another 16 percent blame the U.S. Capitol police. Only 25 percent blame Trump, Republicans, or white nationalists.) Three-quarters of Republicans say it’s “time to move on” and forget the attack, and more Republicans say the perpetrators shouldn’t be prosecuted (about 40 percent of the party) than say they should. That’s why Senate Republicans blocked a commission: By exposing and addressing the truth, it would upset their supporters.
The consolidation of this anti-truth coalition—and the prospect that it will take control of Congress in next year’s election—is a serious threat to the republic. But even if Republicans lose the midterms, there are broader signs of trouble. White people, for instance, make up 72 percent of the U.S. electorate, and they’re evenly split on whether voter fraud influenced the outcome of the 2020 election. When they’re asked which of two objectives is more important—“putting the attack on the U.S. Capitol behind us” or “holding Trump and others accountable for their role in the attack”—50 percent of white Americans say we should put the episode behind us. Only 36 percent say we should hold Trump and others accountable.
Nonwhite Americans have largely resisted Trump’s lies about the election and the insurrection. But if a national referendum were held on these questions, the results would be uncomfortably close. Thirty-six percent of Americans say voter fraud influenced the outcome of the election; only 46 percent disagree. Forty percent blame Biden, Democrats, antifa, or the Capitol Police for the violence on Jan. 6. Forty-three percent say it’s important to hold Trump and others accountable for their roles in the attack, but 41 percent say it’s more important to put the episode behind us.
When the Jan. 6 attack was underway, and in the hours and days afterward, some people called it an attempted coup. They thought that word conveyed the gravity of the threat; others thought it was hyperbolic. But in retrospect, “coup” understated the danger. It implied that a small faction might attempt such a revolt, but the public as a whole would never tolerate it. Half a year later, most Americans are happy with Biden and don’t like Trump, but they don’t show much interest in prosecuting, investigating, or even remembering what happened. A government of the people won’t last long if the people won’t protect it.