Opinion

Dems aren't sure they want to run on Jan. 6. Trump might not give them a choice.

The former president embraces the worst parts of his legacy

Donald Trump is being Donald Trump again. He held another rally on Saturday night in Texas, the latest event in his probably-running-for-president tour, and as always he used it to dwell on his grievances. He's angry about the multiple inquiries into his personal and presidential activities, and he's eager to unleash his followers on the people investigating him.

"If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington D.C., in New York, in Atlanta, and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt," Trump told his enthusiastic fans. 

That sounds an awful lot like a redux of the Trump-incited "Stop the Steal" protests that became the violent Jan. 6 insurrection: Trump is plainly, openly weaponizing his base as a threat against any official who might try to hold him accountable for his (alleged) financial and constitutional misdeeds — he even dangled future presidential pardons as a reward for the Jan. 6 defendants, offering an incentive to followers who might be inclined to commit mayhem in the service of his ambitions. He's not much hiding his real aims anymore: On Sunday, Trump put out a statement that (among other things) grumbled that then-Vice President Mike Pence should have "changed the outcome" of the 2020 election. It's not hard to see where all of this is going.

So what are Democrats going to do about it?

It's not clear. Democrats spent the actual Jan. 6 anniversary this year holding vigils, giving angry speeches, and — very weirdly — listening to performances from the cast of Hamilton. Despite that, the party seems uncertain whether it can or should try to make a big deal of the insurrection as it moves into the 2022 and 2024 campaign cycles.

"Most everyday people are worried about their kids getting a good education, worried about getting paid for, making sure their roads are fixed, being able to connect to high-speed internet," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said last month. "The political process issues, I've never been a real fan of making them a central part of messaging."

It's easy to understand this kind of thinking. Voters tend to focus more on how their own lives are doing — how much they pay at the gas pump, or for health care, for example — than on seemingly more abstract questions about the fate of democracy. And it's clear that many of them have moved on from Jan. 6, even if the political and media classes haven't. Most Americans say the insurrection had little or no impact on their worldview. Just a third of us say it will affect our vote in the 2022 midterm elections. Glenn Youngkin's gubernatorial victory in Virginia last November made those trends concrete. No wonder some smart Democrats want to move on. 

But as Saturday night's rally shows, Trump may not give them any choice. It can't be the case that he can run on Jan. 6 while Dems step carefully past the issue, can it? 

It's not only Trump though. The morning after the Texas rally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) used the former president's promise of pardons for Jan. 6 defendants as a talking point to pump up Republicans backing J.D. Vance, the U.S. Senate candidate in Ohio. "He told them he's going to make sure they're treated right, and he wants to pardon them," she told the audience. For the most devoted GOP voters, then, Jan. 6 is definitely on the agenda. Democrats can't really avoid it.

The only real choice is for Democrats to walk and chew gum at the same time. They have to do kitchen table issues and keep Jan. 6 at the forefront of the conversation.

In fact, there's never really been any other option at all. As Republicans have increasingly turned into an authoritarian party and the broader conservative movement embraces a "post-liberal" moment, the challenge confronting Democrats has been twofold: To shore up the shaky structures underpinning American democracy, but also to demonstrate through their actions an affirmative case for democracy's continued existence. They can't just defend voting rights or shore up the Electoral Count Act; they also have to prove to voters that the system works by addressing everyday concerns about inflation, health care, and the like. It's not either-or. The two questions are inextricable from each other. 

That task would be a lot easier if Democrats were doing a better job of proving that the system does work. (It's not all their fault, but still.) There's a little bit of time left to get better on that issue. But it really does appear that the fate of American democracy is on the line over the course of the next two election cycles. Maybe it's "smart" to duck that issue, but it would also be moral cowardice. Donald Trump is clearly ready to reclaim the White House by embracing the legacy of Jan. 6. It's up to Democrats to push back.

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