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Opinion | How the Storming of the Capitol Became a ‘Normal Tourist Visit’

At the end of the day, Binder continued,

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that public criticism of the Jan. 6 events only briefly looked bipartisan in the wake of the violence. G.O.P. elites’ decision to make loyalty to Trump a party litmus test (e.g., booting Rep. Cheney from her leadership post) demands that Republicans downplay and whitewash Trump’s role, the violence that day, and the identity of those who stormed the Capitol. Very little of American political life can escape being viewed in a partisan lens.

Alexander G. Theodoridis of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst wrote in an email that “the half-life of Jan. 6 memory has proven remarkably short given the objectively shocking nature of what took place at the Capitol that day.” This results in part from the fact that

there is now seemingly no limit to the ability of partisans to see the world through thick, nearly opaque red and blue colored lenses. In this case, that has Republicans latching onto a narrative that downplays the severity of the Capitol insurrection, attributes blame everywhere but where it belongs, and endorses the Big Lie that stoked the pro-Trump mob that day.

A UMass April 21-23 national survey asked voters to identify the person or group “you hold most responsible for the violence that occurred at the Capitol building.” 45 percent identified Trump, 6 percent the Republican Party and 11 percent white nationalists. The surprising finding was the percentage that blamed the left, broadly construed: 16 percent for the Democratic Party, 4 percent for Joe Biden and 11 percent for “antifa,” for a total of 31 percent.

The refusal of Republicans to explore the takeover of the Capitol reflects a form of biased reasoning that is not limited to the right or the left, but may be more dangerous on the right.

Ariel Malka, a professor at Yeshiva University and an author of “Who is open to authoritarian governance within western democracies?” agreed in an email that both liberals and conservatives “engage in biased reasoning on the basis of partisanship,” but, he argued, there is still a fundamental difference between left and right:

There is convincing evidence that cultural conservatives are reliably more open to authoritarian and democracy-degrading action than cultural liberals within Western democracies, including the United States. Because the Democratic Party is the party of American cultural liberals, I believe it would be far more difficult for a Democratic politician who favors overtly anti-democratic action, like nullifying elections, to have political success.

These differences are “transforming the Republican Party into an anti-democratic institution,” according to Malka:

What we are seeing in the Republican Party is that mass partisan opinion is making it politically devastating for Republican elites to try to uphold democracy. I think that an underappreciated factor in this is that the Republican Party is the home of cultural conservatives, and cultural conservatives are disproportionately open to authoritarian governance.

In the paper, Malka, Yphtach Lelkes, Bert N. Bakker and Eliyahu Spivack, of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Amsterdam and Yeshiva University, ask: “What type of Western citizens would be most inclined to support democracy-degrading actions?”

Their answer is twofold.


Westerners with a broad culturally conservative worldview are especially open to authoritarian governance. For what is likely a variety of reasons, a worldview encompassing traditional sexual morality, religiosity, traditional gender roles, and resistance to multicultural diversity is associated with low or flexible commitment to democracy and amenability to authoritarian alternatives.


Westerners who hold a protection-based attitude package — combining a conservative cultural orientation with redistributive and interventionist economic views — are often the most open to authoritarian governance. Notably, it was the English-speaking democracies where this combination of attitudes most consistently predicted openness to authoritarian governance.

Julie Wronski of the University of Mississippi replied to my inquiry about Jan. 6 suggesting that Democrats appear to have made a strategic decision against pressing the issue too hard:

If voters’ concerns over Jan. 6 are fading, it is because political elites and the media are not making this issue salient. I suspect that Democrats have not made the issue salient recently in order to avoid antagonizing Republicans and exacerbating existing divides. Democrats’ focus seems more on collective action goals related to Covid-19 vaccine rollout and economic infrastructure.

Democrats, Wronski continued, appear to have taken

a pass on the identity-driven zero-sum debate regarding the 2020 election since there is no compromise on this issue — you either believe the truth or you believe the big lie. Once you enter the world of pitting people against each other who believe in different realities of win/lose outcomes, it’s going to be nearly impossible to create bipartisan consensus on sweeping legislative initiatives (like HR1 and infrastructure bills).

In a twist, Wronski suggests that it may be to Democrats’ advantage to stay out of the Jan. 6 debate in order to let it fester within Republican ranks:

Not all Republican identifiers are strong partisans. Some people may align with the party for specific issue, policy reasons. Their identity is not as tied up in partisanship that an electoral loss becomes a loss to self-identity. This means there are intraparty fractures in the Republican Party regarding the big lie.

Republican leaners “seem to be moving away from the party when hearing about intraparty conflict regarding the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s win,” Wronski wrote, citing a May 14 paper by Katherine Clayton, a graduate student in political science at Stanford.

Clayton finds that

those who call themselves “not very strong Republicans” or who consider themselves political independents that lean closer to the Republican Party demonstrate less favorable opinions of their party, reduced perceptions that the Democratic Party poses a threat, and even become more favorable toward the Democratic Party, as a result of exposure to information about conflict within their party.

Wronski writes that

the implication of these results would be for the Democratic Party to do nothing with regards to their messaging of January 6 and let the internal Republican conflict work to their benefit. In a two-party system, voters who do not espouse the big lie and are anti-Trump would eventually align with the Democratic Party.

Jeff Greenfield, writing in Politico, takes an opposing position in his May 12 article, “A G.O.P. Civil War? Don’t Bet On It”:

It’s getting harder to detect any serious division among rank-and-file Republicans. In Congress, and at the grass roots, the dominance of Donald Trump over the party is more or less total.

More significant, Greenfield continued,

History is littered with times that critics on the left, and in the pundit class, were positive the Republican Party was setting itself up for defeat by embracing its extremes, only to watch the party comfortably surge into power.

Despite Trump’s overt attempt to subvert the election, Greenfield observes, and

despite his feeding the flames that nearly led to a physical assault of the vice president and speaker of the House, the Republican Party has, after a few complaints and speed bumps, firmly rallied behind Trump’s argument that he was robbed of a second term.

The challenge facing Democrats goes beyond winning office. They confront an adversary willing to lie about past election outcomes, setting the stage for Republican legislatures to overturn future election returns; an opponent willing to nurture an insurrection if the wrong people win; a political party moving steadily from democracy to authoritarianism; a party that despite its liabilities is more likely than not to regain control of the House and possibly even the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

The advent of Trump Republicans poses an unprecedented strategic quandary for Democrats, a quandary they have not resolved and that may not lend itself to resolution.

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