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The GOP Field Is United: January 6th Is Not a Thing

That which shall not be named.
March 7, 2023
The GOP Field Is United: January 6th Is Not a Thing
Trump insurrectionists cheer as more of the crowd gains access to the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of the intriguing questions of the 2024 campaign is how Republican candidates will position themselves regarding Trump’s January 6th insurrection. So far, the Republicans who want to be president simply refuse to mention it.

Credit where it is due: Asa Hutchinson recently said Donald Trump had “disqualified himself and should not serve our country again as a result of what happened” on January 6th. But the former Arkansas governor is polling at zero percent. If you want to sit at the back of the pack in the GOP primary you can keep it real, but if you want to get some traction with the Republican base you better forget the 45th president’s attempted coup. And the dead and injured cops. And Trump siccing a mob on his vice president. That’s behind us.

It’s no surprise that in safe media spaces on the right, GOP contenders aren’t asked whether someone who tried to overthrow the government can be trusted to lead it again. The Real Americans who decide GOP primaries won’t permit it. Even as Trump celebrates it with a song.

But since these Republicans are positioning themselves to run against Trump, it is curious that potential candidates don’t even briefly mention January 6th when talking about “electability,” which is their go-to call for change. They insinuate that Trump is unelectable now because . . . he can’t pick strong candidates? Or because he doesn’t spend enough money in their races? Or his endorsements don’t win elections? Or the party needs fresh leadership and a way to win back suburban voters? Yet there’s nothing, ever, about how a large swath of voters might be turned off by a president’s plot to overturn an election.

There is a funny tension between the Republican candidates and the Big Lie. No Republican positioning himself or herself for 2024 has challenged the Big Lie directly. They are, at worst, agnostic on the question of who won the 2020 election. Yet the implication of their very candidacies is that Trump lost and that’s why the party needs a new standard bearer.

But again: They can’t actually say that.

Many of them use some version of “let’s not look back, elections are about the future,” which means they likely all believe Joe Biden won and Trump lost. Or they accept that the Big Lie isn’t popular and that promoting it is what helped Democrats beat the odds last November. Perhaps it would be fine if Republicans had picked up ten more House Seats and flipped the Senate seats in Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. But because election deniers lost in the midterms, the 2024 contenders will gingerly suggest it’s time to . . . uh . . . stop talking about the past. (Unless “the past” is the glorious history of the Confederacy. In which case it must never be forgotten.)

But the point here is that the we’re-tired-of-losing lament is safe ground for those vying to beat Trump. But January 6th is Voldemort. That which must not be named.

Ron DeSantis realized pretty fast that January 6th would have to be disappeared. On January 7, 2021, he said: “It was totally unacceptable and those folks need to be held accountable. It doesn’t matter what banner you’re flying under—the violence is wrong, the rioting and disorder is wrong.”

But a year later DeSantis had power-washed the attack, belittling the commemoration of it and saying it was like “Christmas” for the media, something used to “smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump.” Before the anniversary he predicted the coverage would be “nauseating.”

Two years ago New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu called the rioters “domestic terrorists” and said “it is clear that President Trump’s rhetoric and actions contributed to the insurrection at the United States Capitol Building.” But he has not said Trump’s role in the insurrection disqualifies him from the presidency. Sununu has said he’s trying to run as a “normal” Republican, and he’s moving past Trump. “I don’t like losers,” he told the New York Times. “I’m not anti-Trump, I’m not pro-Trump. We’re just moving on.”

He also said he would support Trump if he is the GOP nominee.

We don’t have to wonder if Sen. Tim Scott will raise any concerns about the insurrection should he enter the race. On that fateful day Scott voted to certify Joe Biden’s election, resisting the pressure to fall in line with Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and the rioters. But when Sean Hannity asked Scott last week what policy differences he has with Trump Scott said “probably not very many at all. I am so thankful that we had President Trump in office.”

Scott’s message to the hardcore MAGA voters is that he loves Trump, but also:

“I see 330 million Americans getting back to celebrating our shared blessings again, tolerating our differences again and having each other’s backs again,” he said last week in Iowa. As Scott envisions what he called a “new American sunrise,” he will not disavow insurrection.

Mike Pence, like Scott, also believes Republicans will move on from Trump because they want someone more genteel. He told NBC this week “the times call for different leadership. And I’m confident we’ll have better choices than my old running mate come 2024.” He said of voters, “They want to see us and our politics return to the kind of civility and respect that Americans show one another every day.”

These voters also don’t care about a historic assault on democracy, by Pence’s measure. Because the former vice president has only accused Trump of using “reckless” words on January 6th. He has also said Trump was “deeply remorseful” about people losing their lives after he sent armed protesters to the Capitol to stop the certification of the election. And Pence doesn’t want the Department of Justice to indict Trump for his actions before and on January 6th: “I don’t know that it’s criminal to take bad advice from lawyers,” Pence told Fox News in December.

Indeed, January 6th is such a nothingburger that Pence will do anything not to talk about it under oath. Last year he said, “Congress has no right to my testimony,” and now he’s fighting a subpoena from the DOJ.

Mike Pompeo, who has been prepping a run for president as long as Pence and Haley have, not only dismisses January 6th as a media obsession and just another riot but has said, “We had a peaceful transfer of power,” that night. “There was a bad day at the Capitol. The security team there failed to prevent these guys from rioting there,” Pompeo said, blaming the blue. In his new book, Pompeo denies seeking Trump’s removal after January 6th and discussing the Twenty-fifth Amendment with then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—as was reported at the time. In more than 400 pages of Pompeo’s book, January 6th is referenced once.

Nikki Haley is the only Republican who has officially entered the primary contest to run against Trump, and is on the record as the biggest fraud when it comes to January 6th. She condemned Trump for January 6th, telling Tim Alberta for an interview in Politico that Trump would not run for federal office again. “I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far,” she said, and predicted Trump would “find himself further and further isolated.”

Haley warned Republicans to be sober about this great, sad chapter in American history—to acknowledge it was time to turn away from Trump. “We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

Yet Haley backed down almost immediately. Alberta noted that after January 6th, she took “three distinct stances on Trump in the span of six weeks.” Before the end of the year, she told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”

Republicans wanting to knock off Trump and win a general election have decided his efforts to stage a coup and the insurrection that resulted are acceptable—because they refuse to say they are unacceptable. Or perhaps they hope an indictment of Trump will suddenly sour primary voters on him. Or that they can become Very Concerned about January 6th after the primary is over. Or that swing voters will be swayed by Tucker’s coming montage of peaceful patriots doing nothing at the Capitol on January 6th.

It’s all magical thinking. And no matter who wins the nomination, the 45th president will ensure none of them is going back to the days before Trump.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.