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The immovable Republican Party and 'ink-blot politics'

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pauses for a moment of silence alongside fellow lawmakers and congressional staff members during a vigil Thursday evening to commemorate the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pauses for a moment of silence alongside fellow lawmakers and congressional staff members during a vigil Thursday evening to commemorate the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It was an effort to stop the procedural certification of a presidential election that Joe Biden won and Trump lost. The mob was egged on by conspiracies and Trump's lies about that 2020 election.

Those are facts. One year later, and a day after the commemoration on Capitol Hill of that attack, those facts should be indisputable.

And yet millions on the right do dispute them. They've been convinced by Trump, reinforced by right-wing media and enabled by Republican elected officials that his meritless lies about a stolen election are somehow true.

They are not. The independent judiciary, with many judges who were appointed by Republicans and Trump himself, as well as audits in state after state, have rejected Trump's false claims.

How did this happen? A couple of reasons:

First, there's a problem with how Americans are consuming information

The media landscape is fractured. Confirmation bias is real — if people believe something, there's likely a link on social media that shows them why they're right (even when they aren't).

There's fertile ground for that landscape, as trust in the media has declined over the last few decades. It hit 32% just before the 2016 election, the lowest ever recorded by Gallup. (As of 2021, it was a similar 36%.)

The decline in mass media coincides with the advent of Fox News, the conservative cable channel. Fox was created in 1996, about when Gallup found a majority of Americans said they had trust in the media.

Now, there are even more — and even more extreme — voices and outlets on the right, rife with misinformation and disinformation, that are gaining traction.

An NPR/Ipsos poll released this week showed that a majority — 54% — whose primary source of news is Fox News or conservative media believe falsely that there was major voting fraud in the 2020 election.

Second, Republican elected officials have enabled Trump's lies

When Trump first took office and was still allowed on Twitter, he would write lots of controversial things.

When Republicans in Congress were asked about them, the answer routinely was along the lines of, "I didn't read the tweet."

It became something of a joke. Actually, Paul Ryan, who was House speaker at the start of the Trump administration, made the joke himself.

"Every morning, I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend that I didn't see later," Ryan said in October 2017 at the annual Al Smith Dinner, which includes a political roast.

Six months later, Ryan announced he would not run for reelection.

Ryan and plenty of other Republicans had, during the 2016 presidential campaign, criticized Trump's views and behavior. But when he won, almost all GOP officials swallowed their criticism.

As Trump went largely unchallenged from his party, he demanded fealty from Republicans, they gave it to him, and his hold on the base grew.

So the path was paved early for Trump's lies — as outlandish and baseless as they are — to speed down the road to rank-and-file Republicans.

A similar trend has emerged this past year, since Jan. 6, as Republicans have largely avoided criticizing Trump's role and response to the insurrection.

"In many ways, except for a number of people who've emerged as true leaders, like [Rep.] Liz Cheney [R-Wyo.], against their party interest, a lot of this is ink-blot politics," said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and former senior adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "You see what you want to see on Jan. 6 based on your already-defined political persuasion."

Supporters take part in a vigil outside a Washington, D.C., detention facility to protest the treatment of prisoners charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Samuel Corum / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Supporters take part in a vigil outside a Washington, D.C., detention facility to protest the treatment of prisoners charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

McCarthy and McConnell

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy didn't mince words in his criticism of Trump days after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

"The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters," McCarthy said plainly, a week after the siege. He had even called Trump on the day of the riot telling him to call off the insurrection.

But instead of keeping up the criticism and casting Trump aside, less than two weeks later, McCarthy flew down to Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida residence, and made amends. He released a statement — and now-famous photo — of the two of them, apparently having reconciled.

McCarthy wants to be the next House speaker — and Republicans are favored to take back the House after the 2022 midterm elections.

In May, McCarthy came out against a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. This week, in a letter to his GOP conference, McCarthy derided the "actions of that day" and said the "Capitol should never be compromised and those who broke the law deserve to face legal repercussions and full accountability."

But there was no mention of Trump and his responsibility. Instead, McCarthy accused Democrats of using Jan. 6 as a "partisan political weapon to further divide our country" and pivoted to criticizing Democrats for being "no closer to answering the central question of how the Capitol was left so unprepared and what must be done to ensure it never happens again."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy watch as a military honor guard carries the flag-draped casket of former Sen. Bob Dole from the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021.
Greg Nash / AP
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AP
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy watch as a military honor guard carries the flag-draped casket of former Sen. Bob Dole from the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021.

McCarthy is just one example. Two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell went right after Trump.

And though McConnell in some instances has kept up his criticism of Trump, drawing attacks from the former president, McConnell's statement Thursday on the Jan. 6 anniversary mentioned nothing about Trump. Instead, he called Jan. 6 a "dark day," a "disgraceful scene" — and also criticized Democrats.

"[I]t has been stunning to see some Washington Democrats try to exploit this anniversary to advance partisan policy goals," he said.

Trump going unchallenged

For Madden, Trump has this hold on the party base because Republican leaders aren't challenging him en masse.

"I think it's because he's directly communicating with the base and is really the only one," Madden said. "Everyone else is reacting to the Trump factor. ... Every force like Trump, where you to try and counter it, you'd have to do so relentlessly. Name one person who's done that."

Madden rattled off Republicans who might want to run for president in 2024, people like former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

"No one's taken him on directly," Madden said. "They've all been reactionary, and they've all ceded the rostrum to him."

Now, multiple surveys show Americans are sharply divided by party about what happened on Jan. 6.

For example, a December NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 9-in-10 Democrats described what happened that day as an insurrection and threat to democracy. Just 10% of Republicans did.

A recent YouGov survey conducted for Bright Line Watch showed that only a quarter of Republicans said they believe Biden is the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney walks with his daughter Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, in the Rotunda at the Capitol on  Thursday.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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AP
Former Vice President Dick Cheney walks with his daughter Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, in the Rotunda at the Capitol on Thursday.

During the events commemorating the attack on the Capitol, barely any Republicans showed up. The only ones were Cheney and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

"I'm deeply disappointed we don't have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution," the elder Cheney said.

Let's just pause for a moment. That's Dick Cheney saying this.

On Thursday night, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a candlelight vigil to remember what happened a year ago.

But it was missing all those Republicans.

Imagine if all 535 members of Congress had been there and the message it would have sent about democracy's resilience.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.