The start of hearings earlier this week by the House Committee investigating January 6 was, at least by all normal accounts, compelling, damning and history-making. Faced with four police officers—the epitome of the "blue" that they are supposed to "back"—the GOP now finds itself scrambling for a coherent response, particularly given two of the most eloquent and outspoken Committee members—Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, are themselves Republicans.
The GOP's arguments proceed down a bewilderingly illogical and deeply cynical path that looks something like this:
"It wasn't that bad.
It wasn't Trump supporters.
Okay, it wasn't as bad as Black Lives Matter.
Anyway, it's Nancy Pelosi's fault.
It's really not worth our time to even watch."
I address the first two GOP arguments here, largely because they are far more dangerous and perplexing than the last three, which comprise the kind of unsurprising whataboutism, scapegoating, and downplaying that we normally expect from political adversaries.
It wasn't that bad.
The GOP began to test the idea of downplaying the horror of the day months ago, taking their cue from the former president who (despite prepared remarks on January 7 saying he was "outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem") still insisted that it was a "loving crowd" gathered on January 6.
Perhaps the most well-known version of this denialism came from Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA), who declared that calling it an "insurrection" was "a bold faced lie." Clyde added, "You know, if you didn't know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit." (Clyde was mocked roundly on social media after pictures emerged of him barricading the doors to the chamber against these tourists.)
The Committee members were prepared to respond to this revisionist take. The hearing began with a brutal video compilation of the attack, drawing a bright line between those minority of Americans who, as George Orwell wrote in 1984, are prepared for the "most essential command" of the Party "to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears"—and those majority of Americans who are not.
Rep. Cheney, who is turning out to be the GOP's worst nightmare, followed up on this theme by smartly making it personal to the witness. She asked Officer Gonnell, "When you think about that and share with us the vivid memory of the cruelty and the violence of the assault that day and then you hear former President Trump say, quote, 'It was a loving crowd. There was a lot of love in the crowd,' How does that make you feel?"
"It's upsetting," Gonell replied. "It's a pathetic excuse for his behavior, for something that he himself helped to create, this monstrosity." Officer Gonnell continued, "I'm still recovering from those hugs and kisses that day."
It wasn't Trump supporters.
A curious companion argument to the "it wasn't so bad" argument is "it wasn't even us." I say "companion" argument because, like the first claim, this one depends on people disbelieving the hundreds of hours of footage as well as the actual statements and admissions of defendants who now number over 500 and who are all ardent Trump supporters. Setting this inconvenient fact aside, if it wasn't MAGA supporters, who was it?
As the New York Times reported, just before 2PM on January 6, a right-wing radio host named Michael D. Brown tweeted that rioters had breached the United States Capitol but immediately speculated about who was really to blame. "Antifa or BLM or other insurgents could be doing it disguised as Trump supporters," Mr. Brown wrote. "Come on, man, have you never heard of psyops?"
The rioters hadn't even been completely cleared from the Capitol on January 6 before Fox News, through its host Laura Ingraham, raised that same false flag. "Earlier today, the Capitol was under siege by people who can only be described as antithetical to the MAGA movement," Ingraham told her viewers that night. "They were likely not all Trump supporters, and there are some reports that Antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd."
Sean Hannity echoed this and suggested outside influence. "I'd like to know who the agitators were," he told his Fox News viewers, referring to the people seen marching on the Capitol after Trump urged them to in a speech outside the White House. Hannity maintained that "those who truly support President Trump … do not support those that commit acts of violence."
The "outside agitators" claim gained steam when the Washington Times falsely reported that a facial recognition company called XRVision had linked some of those photographed at the Capitol to Antifa. But in a statement to The Washington Post, Yaacov Apelbaum, an executive from XRVision, denied his firm had provided any such analysis. "XRVision didn't generate any composites or detection imagery for the Washington Times nor for a 'retired military officer,'" Apelbaum said, "and did not authorize them to make any such representations." Still, the damage had been done. Fox News already had amplified that fabricated story (which the Times later rescinded). On the House Floor Rep. Matt Gaetz put the conspiracy into the record, and at Senate hearings in February on the security breakdown at the Capitol, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) repeated the falsehood that "fake Trump protesters" fomented the violence.
The idea that Antifa tried to stop the election or pin the riot on Trump supporters would be laughable were it not so effective. In January, according to a poll by the American Enterprise Institute, half of Republicans thought that it was mostly or completely accurate to say that Antifa "was mostly responsible for the violence that happened in the riots at the US Capitol." This number has stayed stubbornly high since. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from March found that 55 percent of Republicans agreed that the riot on January 6 was led by left-wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad. By April, in a poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and WCVB, 22 percent of Republicans still blamed "Antifa" for the violence but began to shift the blame: 31 percent blamed "the Democrats" and 16 percent even blamed the Capitol Police.
These polls demonstrate that it doesn't require much more than a convenient counter-narrative to sway die-hard supporters away from an actual truth that they don't want to face, even if the "evidence" in support of it is wholly fanciful. (That same tactic underlies the Big Lie about a stolen election, for which there is still no credible evidence.) But this gambit comes with a cost: It doesn't work all that well with non-MAGA moderates and further marginalizes the hard core base from middle America, which rejects by solid majorities the notion that the rally was peaceful or that the riot was instigated by the left.
These twin arguments—that the insurrection wasn't that bad and in any event Trump supporters didn't do it—are dangerous precisely because they rest upon an alternate reality at direct odds with the video evidence and eyewitness accounts from that day. That makes for a sharp rift in America that is difficult if not impossible to mend because the "truth" is no longer objective or even provable to a third of the country. The arguments thus become a kind of test to see how far down the rabbit hole the GOP base is willing to go.
Would-be authoritarians are likely taking note. As the writer Voltaire once warned, "Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust"—which has since been commonly paraphrased into the far darker warning, "Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." The surreal, anti-factual GOP claims around January 6 are thus a symptom of a deeply unwell third of our electorate, who inhabit a universe where something so unbelievable actually will be believed without question.