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Jun 18, 2024, 6:08pm EDT
politicsNorth America

What ‘democracy’ means to the post-Jan. 6 right

Attendees hold up 'Never Surrender' posters as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at an event held by the national conservative political movement, "Turning Point", in Detroit, Michigan, on June 15, 2024.
Rebecca Cook/REUTERS
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The Scene

DETROIT – Each Republican who took the stage at The People’s Convention, a three-day summit organized by Turning Point Action to train conservatives on election work, got the same introduction. A dubstep track rattled every tooth in the Huntington Place event center. A ring of cold spark machines shot off sparklers or smoke. The speaker’s name, face, and home state were splashed across Times Square-sized screens.

This was how freshman Missouri Rep. Eric Burlison took the stage on Sunday, to a crowd that had shrunk and quieted down since Donald Trump’s keynote. He got a roar of applause anyway, for promising legislation that would “rescind the subpoenas and withdraw the recommendations of the bogus January 6 select committee.” Jailed or soon-to-be-jailed former Trump aides Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro; people who the movement called “political prisoners” could be freed, before Trump took back the presidency.

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” said Burlison, quoting philosopher Edmund Burke.

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It was one of numerous onstage references to Jan. 6 and its aftermath, a topic that cleaved Trump from many of his fellow Republicans at the time, but has increasingly become an applause line up and down the party. The re-nomination of Trump, who takes the stage at rallies to a tape of the national anthem he recorded with Jan. 6 defendants, has cemented its place.

“Anyone that wants to continue to shame us for January 6 can go to hell,” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told the crowd on Friday.

The intervening years have given conservative activists time to build a new folk mythology around the 2020 election and Capitol riot and develop them into a unified message at events like these.

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That message: This party, led by Trump, was trying to save democracy.

“We all know what happened to President Trump in 2020,” said Republican National Committee Chair Michael Whatley, not specifying what the “what” was. “It cannot happen again.”

Biden campaign ads, which ran in Michigan during the conference, remind voters of Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election based on false claims of fraud, warning that the president of Jan. 6 wants to be a dictator.

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The conservative movement has flipped that script. In this one, the 2020 election was clearly stolen, and citizens are being unfairly jailed for saying so. Jan. 6 was a trap for Trump supporters — a “fedsurrection” that Nancy Pelosi could have stopped. The Trump campaign will restore democracy; the prosecutions of Jan. 6 participants, like the conviction of Trump, are attempts to smother it.

“Let’s look at what [Biden] is doing to our democracy right here at home — tearing it apart, trying to take away our right to vote for the candidate of our choosing,” former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard told the convention on Saturday, before Trump spoke.

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Know More

Any debate about this theory of 2020 ended for Republicans last week, when Trump spoke to House and Senate Republicans — his first visit to the Capitol since his supporters stormed it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who called Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the Capitol riot in 2021 while voting against conviction at his impeachment trial, shook his hand during a meeting with senators and pledged his support.

“No real Republican with any credibility in the party is still blaming him [for Jan. 6],” Ohio Sen. JD Vance told reporters as he left the meeting. In an interview with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Vance argued that “even under a circumstance where the alternative-electors thing works, and he’s president again,” Trump would have served a term and retired, mooting any Democratic fear about dictatorship. (Vance won the TP Action convention’s vice presidential straw poll.)

Polling since November 2020 has been consistent: Most Republicans believe that the election was stolen. The party’s grassroots has reflected that view, choosing at least 17 people who signed on to be Trump electors in states he didn’t win as delegates to the 2024 convention — including seven who face criminal charges.

Their fates, like Bannon’s and Navarro’s, are covered in conservative media as purely political, part of a “lawfare” campaign to destroy a movement that is otherwise on track to win. While Trump’s own election interference case is delayed in Georgia, his conviction in New York last month has helped activists tell that story.

“For low-propensity voters, it’s a net positive, for sure,” Turning Point Action CEO Charlie Kirk told Semafor. “These are people who feel that the system is not in their favor. If they thought the system was working perfectly for them, they’d be voting every cycle. Trump’s conviction gives him a kind of rebel energy, especially with younger voters — with younger male voters, in particular.”

The gathering was a study in how the Whatley/Lara Trump-led RNC was outsourcing some of its mission to grassroots groups like Kirk’s. Both Whatley and Trump addressed the convention, too, with Whatley explaining how activists could help them “chase every ballot” and find the otherwise disengaged voters who love their ideas, but don’t trust the system.

In the halls of the event center — as Kirk and others reminded the crowd, it was the site of the 2020 Wayne County ballot count that they considered fraudulent (the courts disagreed, finding no evidence) — Trump’s “outlaw” image was everywhere. Shirts with his mugshot from the Georgia case were on sale, and on bodies; Kirk wore TP Action’s own branded shirt, with an upside down flag and the message “The real verdict is coming November 5th.”

Outside the conference, that premise has conquered the GOP; Trump and the people who challenged the election must win, if democracy can survive. Over the weekend, Indiana Republicans nominated state Rep. Micah Beckwith as their candidate for lieutenant governor; on Jan. 7, 2021, he uploaded (then deleted) his take on the holiness of the election challenge.

“You know what the Lord told me?” Beckwith asked viewers. “He said, Micah: I sent those riots to Washington. He said: What you saw yesterday was my hand at work.”

On Sunday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott told ABC News that he stood by his vote not to challenge the 2020 election — but that Biden was putting democracy at risk, because “nonviolent folks” who participated in the Jan. 6 protests were being railroaded.

“Some of those have been in pretrial incarcerated for longer than the sentence attached to that crime,” Scott said. “The greatest threat to democracy today is Joe Biden.”

Tonight, in central Virginia, Republican voters will decide whether to re-nominate Rep. Bob Good, or to replace him with Trump-backed state Sen. John McGuire. In a Sunday interview with CNN, McGuire defended his presence at the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the march to the Capitol; it had been fair, he said, to question the democratic integrity of the 2020 election.

“Trust has been destroyed all over the place,” McGuire said. “Changing the rules in the middle of the game is cheating, and I think that Trump was robbed. And I think the American people, under their constitutional right, can peacefully assemble.”

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David’s view

None of this is evidence that Trump’s obsession with overturning the last election is popular: It isn’t. The same polls that show most Republicans in disbelief about 2020 find that the rest of the electorate trusted the result. The candidates most associated with Trump’s 2020 election claims fared poorly in the midterms in competitive races, many of them in battleground states whose results he had tried to overturn.

But it’s a reflection of how the “democracy” issue, as advanced by Biden’s Democrats for three years, doesn’t mean the same thing to half the electorate. It’s taken for granted on the right that 2020 was stolen, at some level; the least contested theory is that the company then known as Twitter suppressed stories about Hunter Biden’s hard drive, which in theory could have swung the election.

Part of Turning Point Action’s work now is convincing voters who believe that democracy was smothered by anti-Trump forces that it can be resurrected and saved if they cast ballots. The other part — framing anything bad that happens to Trump as a threat to the democratic system — has already happened among the GOP base.

“They are going to try to assassinate President Trump,” Alex Jones told the crowd, in his first appearance since he was ordered to liquidate assets to pay damages to Sandy Hook families. “They are desperate because there is a global worldwide political realignment against the new world order.” Jack Posobiec, the conservative influencer who’d brought him onstage as a special guest, held up his rosary beads.

At the convention, Bannon added a twist to the democracy-under-threat argument — Democrats, not Republicans, might try to steal the 2020 election, referencing efforts to keep Trump off the ballot over a 14th Amendment prohibition on insurrectionists taking office. The Supreme Court rejected state efforts to invoke the clause.

"[Maryland Congressman] Jamie Raskin is going to try to steal the election on Jan. 6,” said Bannon. “They’re already talking about it right now! They’re going to say, President Trump is an insurrectionist, and we’ll never certify the election of an insurrectionist.”

Raskin defended state-level invocations of the insurrection clause and introduced legislation to provide a method of adjudicating them in response to the Supreme Court ruling. His office did not return a request for comment on Bannon’s post-election accusation.

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The View From Democrats

On Monday, a new Biden campaign ad invoked Trump’s New York convictions as evidence that the GOP nominee is “only out for himself.” Biden himself has stuck to the argument that Trump is a unique threat to democracy, and beating him would end that threat.

“Institutions matter,” Biden said at last weekend’s fundraiser with Barack Obama and Jimmy Kimmel. “And this President, what he did on January the 6th, he’s — do you hear what he’s saying now? He said if he doesn’t win, there’ll be a ‘bloodbath.’ It’s outrageous what he’s talking about. Outrageous. We must make the institutions work.”

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Notable

  • For NPR, Elena Moore captures the enthusiasm of young TP Action organizers about 2024: “Honesty is the best policy. And up here in the Midwest, we’re honest. We say it like it is. And Trump did that.”
  • In the LA Times, Doyle McManus asks why Republicans aren’t worried about the implications of Jan. 6 forgiveness. “The problem is the message he’s sending to extremists who might be tempted to act in 2024: If you fight for me, you, too, can count on getting off — and on being hailed as a hero.”
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