Comment: Trump has only postponed onslaught against democracy

His relative silence on Jan. 6 is about timing, not about regret for the insurrection he spurred on.

By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg Opinion

So Donald Trump didn’t use the first anniversary of the Capitol insurrection to stage a Mar-a-Lago press conference allowing him to blame Antifa and the FBI for his supporters’ deadly violence. He also didn’t use the occasion to label the congressional investigation into the siege a “witch hunt” or to continue to push the dangerous myth that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. He didn’t try to recast thugs who propagated the carnage he inspired as patriots.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to say all of that, of course. He just decided the timing wasn’t right.

Advisers, Republican senators and reality convinced the former president that his road show would demonstrate poor judgment and remind voters that he tried to engineer a coup. Because this is Trump, he also postponed his event because the media wasn’t planning to give it the ubiquitous coverage he craves.

But fear not, Trump fans. He merely rescheduled his propaganda blitz and will revisit his favorite Jan. 6 themes at an Arizona rally next week. And while Trump’s firm hold on the GOP and loose hold on the truth continue to make his machinations noteworthy, they’re also a reminder of the larger lessons of last year’s siege and the country’s collective and unsettled reckoning with the facts surrounding it.

Disinformation campaigns and a rampant disregard for facts are hallmarks of the Trump era, after all, and they’ve taken American dysfunction to a horrific place. The twin threats of public violence and an anti-democratic putsch are escalating alongside Trump and his party’s assault on history and memory.

Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger’s efforts to chart a different course through their courageous work on the Jan. 6 committee offer conservatives an opportunity to retain their values while disavowing sedition and lawlessness. But Cheney, Kinzinger and too few other Republicans like them face uphill battles; within the GOP and with many of their voters.

A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 36 percent of Republican respondents thought the Jan. 6 rioters were “mostly peaceful.” (Watch some of the videos; they weren’t.) About 40 percent of Republican respondents said that “violent action against the government is sometimes justified.” Polls are notoriously unreliable bellwethers, but this data comports with what is obvious all around us. Republican voters have been fed a steady diet of lunacy about Jan. 6 and other pivotal matters by their party’s leaders and right-wing media, and it has taken root; possibly for quite some time.

Still, defacing the Constitution and embracing bile may be an effective path to power for some politicians, but it doesn’t lend itself, ultimately, to unity, problem-solving or rational public policy. Movements such as this often lead, instead, to anarchy or fascism. These forces are also difficult to put back in the bottle once they’re uncorked. They’re even haunting Trump himself, the most influential participant in this malicious shell game, and may no longer require his presence on the political landscape to retain their momentum.

Some of those already prosecuted for their roles in the Jan. 6 siege have said they feel abandoned by Trump. “So glad he was able to pardon a bunch of degenerates as his last move and s*** on us on the way out,” one of them, Ethan Nordean, a Proud Boys leader, noted in text messages he sent last January. “F*** you trump you left us on [t]he battle field bloody and alone.”

“I’ve followed this guy for 4 years and given everything and lost it all. Yes he woke us up, but he led us to believe some great justice was upon us … and it never happened,” he added. “Now I’ve got some of my good friends and myself facing jail time cuz we followed this guys lead and never questioned it.”

Is that kind of resentment and anger likely to keep resurfacing, violently? You bet. Will Trump take any steps to contain it? Don’t count on it. He’s more incentivized to mend broken bridges to that crowd, as his coming Arizona rally shows.

Trump pays close attention to his audience, and he has to notice that a sense of betrayal simmers just beneath the surface around other issues he’s put into play. While he helped ignite the federal push for a covid-19 vaccine, he simultaneously undermined confidence in public health measures during the pandemic. When he recently told attendees at a Dallas rally that he had received a booster shot, he was booed. Trumpism requires Trump to toe the line, too.

Trump has continued to support boosters despite criticism from the right, and he and Joe Biden shared a little olive branch to jointly advocate for vaccinations, but we’ll see how far that bonhomie travels. Last January, as Trump stood on the Ellipse and fired up the people who later assaulted police and ransacked the Capitol, he told them that he loved them. They shouted back that they loved him, too.

Trump has always been a narcissistic, lonely man, and ardor from others entrances him. He did nothing to stop the Capitol siege during its first three hours, and spent part of it watching the assault on a White House television, basking in the dedication of his rioters. Expect him to continue to court his lovers, regardless of the consequences.

For those who want to avoid that dating game — and have an uncompromising understanding of the perils ahead — ensuring that our institutions and voters stand in the breach would be wise. Holding on to facts, and never forgetting the true lessons of Jan. 6, may also help. That’s what anniversaries are for.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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