The GOP's love-hate relationship with the Capitol riot fallout

Debating the Capitol riot is politically damaging for Republicans. Why do they keep bringing it up?

Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol.
(Image credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Republican House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (Ky.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have announced plans to travel to the Washington, D.C., detention facility that houses a number of arrestees accused of various crimes linked to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Referencing the alleged mistreatment of the several-dozen so-called "1/6'ers" kept there, Greene claimed, "they're pretrial and they haven't even been convicted and they're not allowed to see their families, many times are not allowed to see their attorneys." She added that the quality of the jailhouse meals "has been a major complaint" as well.

The announcement that two high-profile GOP lawmakers were, once again, choosing to champion the plight of those allegedly connected with the Capitol attack came on the heels of a CNN report that Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) will spearhead a new, Republican-led probe into Jan. 6, which is expected to "focus on the [previous, bipartisan] select committee and what he's called security failures leading up to the attack." That report was filed in the wake of the ongoing fallout from Fox News' Tucker Carlson obtaining, and selectively broadcasting, footage from the riot, provided exclusively to the network by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

This confluence of Jan. 6-related efforts on the part of conservatives highlight a problematic dynamic within the Republican Party — one which pits a core group of lawmakers willing and eager to stoke the flames of Jan. 6 for a mixture of personal, professional, and ideological reasons, against the broader interests of the GOP itself.

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What are the risks for Republicans?

Six months after supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building complex in an unsuccessful attempt to subvert the results of the 2020 election, several University of Copenhagen political science professors published a study that concluded: "the riot dramatically decreased expressions of identification with the Republican Party and Trumpism across the country." As they wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, "that drop lasted."

That conclusion was seemingly corroborated by separate reports of mass exoduses from the GOP's voter rolls, with a New York Times analysis finding more than 140,000 registered Republicans leaving the party in 25 states within just one month of Jan. 6. University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald stressed to the Times that "it probably is indicative of a larger undercurrent that's happening" and is "probably a tip of an iceberg."

While the precipitous drop in party affiliation may have stabilized since then, the second half of 2022 continued to show how problematic the insurrection had become for the GOP. A CNN poll taken that summer showed that while Republicans were less likely to consider the event "a crisis or major problem" and an "attack on democracy," a total of 69 percent of Americans did agree with that framing, "up slightly since earlier this year, when 65 percent said the same." That dynamic played out a few months later in the 2022 midterm elections, when GOP candidates who most closely associated themselves with Jan. 6 as part of their campaign pitch were broadly unsuccessful at the polls. As HuffPost's Igor Bobic wrote, Democrats had "mixed success [...] beating some election deniers while failing to defeat others," but were largely "effective in preventing people with some of the strongest ties to the Capitol riot from obtaining seats to statewide and federal offices."

So why are they continuing to focus on it?

It largely boils down to political expediency and financial opportunism for the Republicans who have continued to advocate for Jan. 6 revisionism, Politico explains. Consider Rep. Taylor Greene, perhaps the most high-profile example, who in the months immediately following Jan. 6 raised more than $3 million from more than 100,000 individual donors, confounding expectations that "Republicans would take a big hit, since many corporations froze their donations to lawmakers who challenged the election results," as Politico noted at the time. "There was also energy on the right — especially among small donors — to rally around some Republicans under fire."

Greene wasn't alone. That same spring, Roll Call reported that although "House members who objected to Biden's electoral votes in two states raised $52,000 less from PACs, on average, than they did during the same period two years ago," that loss was more than made up for by "donors giving small sums, less than $200 a pop," who provided "an average $56,000 more than in the previous period two years ago." As Salon's Amanda Marcotte quipped in a recent essay on McCarthy's ongoing elevation of Greene: "nothing opens MAGA wallets faster than success at 'triggering the liberals.'"

Indeed, McCarthy has already begun fundraising off the renewed focus on Jan. 6, writing in an email solicitation that "It is in the public interest to know everything that happened that day – not just the narrative that Pelosi's partisan committee wanted you to see ahead of the 2022 midterm elections."

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Financial incentives aside, the Republican lawmakers most closely embracing Jan. 6 may be considering the Trump factor. As former Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock wrote in a 2021 New York Times opinion piece: "Many Republicans want to move on from the Jan. 6 attack. But how is that possible when the former president won't move on from the Nov. 3 election and continues to push the same incendiary lies that resulted in 61 failed lawsuits before Jan. 6, led to an insurrection, and could lead to yet more violence?"

That Trump has continued — if not ramped up — his "stolen election" rhetoric as part of his current re-election campaign for the White House only serves as an incentive for Republican lawmakers hoping to capitalize on his political clout and popularity. Republicans were more willing to denounce Trump and the riot based on the "calculation was that [Jan. 6] is clearly indefensible, he's not going to have a place in the party going forward," a GOP strategist told Politico recently. "That clearly hasn't happened … January 6th is advantageous for Trump in a Republican primary now. Nobody's going to hit him on January 6th."

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"Polls show that there just isn't much of a constituency in the GOP primary for anyone criticizing Trump on Jan. 6," Politico's David Siders and Meridith Mcgraw continued. "More than two years after the riot, the share of Republicans who disapprove of Trump supporters taking over the Capitol building has fallen to 49 percent, from 74 percent in 2021."

That message has seemingly trickled down to Republican lawmakers who have spent the past several years molding themselves in Trump's image.

"I can tell you that just interacting with a lot of the activists here, there is concern that the violations of protocol and civil rights around the Jan. 6 issue haven't gotten sufficient attention from the Congress," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told Politico in the midst of this year's Trump-infused CPAC. "That's really a matter for us in the House majority more so than 2024 candidates."

Is everyone on board?

Not at all. Tucker Carlson's decision to broadcast his trove of Jan. 6 footage prompted some surprising pushback from a number of conservatives, many of whom not only objected to Fox's framing, but the political impact of relitigating the Capitol riot at all. "If your message is then to try and convince people that nothing bad happened, then it's just gonna make us look silly," Rep Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said.

"It's definitely stupid to keep talking about this," he added. "So what is the purpose of continuing to bring it up unless you're trying to feed Democrat narratives even further?"

"I don't know if there's anything legitimate that could come out at this point," Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) told CNN. "I just think both sides are going to play to their base and run with it."

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was even less circumspect with his criticism.

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Where could this all lead?

Straight to the 2024 election. As Marcotte argues in Salon, Democrats succeeded in staving off the predicted "red wave" in 2022 thanks in no small part to the Jan. 6 Select Committee's ability to bring the attack back to the forefront of voters' minds. "Now," she writes, "McCarthy, Greene, and other far-right Republicans in the House seem determined to do Democrats' work for them, and make sure that people are talking about Jan. 6 throughout 2023."

In part, this schism represents the broader GOP struggle to determine whether Donald Trump can again win the party's presidential nomination. Should he secure the GOP nomination, not only will he likely ramp up his own efforts to continue justifying the riot, but even more of the party will follow suit. If he loses, however, will Republicans begin to shy away from what would by then be a three-time electorally disadvantageous position? Only time will tell.

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