The storming of the Capitol and attempted insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021 was perhaps the most immediate and explicit threat to the United States’ democracy in recent history. In its aftermath, key Republicans in Congress joined the troves of politicians denouncing the attack as an affront to democracy.
Just more than a year after the attack, however, many Republicans have walked back on those declarations, and in doing so are positioning the future of the American republic dangerously close to the edge of jeopardy.
The Republican National Committee voted Feb. 4 to censure Representatives Liz Cheney (Wy.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) for participating in the House investigation into the events that took place Jan. 6. Alone, this censure — more a symbolic gesture than literal silencing — has worrisome implications for democratic principles of bipartisanship and cooperation. More immediately threatening, however, is the words used to describe the investigation: “a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” While RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel later said the phrase “legitimate political discourse” wasn’t intended to justify the actions of the insurrectionists, the resolution made no distinction between rioters at the Capitol and other protesters that day.
The significance of this language is two-fold: In doing this, the RNC not only further legitimized the basis of the riot — the widely disproven belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent — but legitimized the riot itself, an act of anti-democratic mass violence. The toleration of violence is an important indicator of authoritarian behavior. Further indication of the House Republicans’ troubling slide toward authoritarianism is highlighted repeatedly in the resolution to censure: the Republican party’s official goal is to get Donald Trump reelected, the very man who primed his supporters months in advance to reject the results of the election should it not go in his favor. In fact, the censure itself came mere days after Trump announced his intentions to pardon defendants in the Capitol riots if reelected.
In viewing the RNC thus as an arm of a demagogue, its actions and rhetoric further exemplify the indicators of authoritarianism. Any refusal to cooperate with the opposition — whether it be in an investigation or the writing of legislation — undermines the democratic principle of mutual toleration. Mutual toleration, or the recognition and acceptance of the opposition as legitimate, is crucial to the ebb and flow of democracy and changes in power. Censuring its own party members for participating in the Jan. 6 investigation denies not only the legitimacy of the opposition but of the investigation itself and attempts to hold individuals and groups accountable. By legitimizing the insurrection, the RNC has further shown weak regard for the democratic rules of the game — the rules dictating that the 2020 election was free and legitimate and that attempts at forcefully overturning that election were wrong, regardless of the ideology or political affiliation of the rioters.
Notably, the decisions and procedures leading up to the censure were themselves less-than-democratic. The RNC passed the resolution without any debate or public presentation beforehand, and indeed without the input from many Republican leaders. While not legally wrong, the secrecy behind the measure was unethical at best and antidemocratic at worst — and it further lends to the notion that the RNC as a bloc is willing to ignore and abandon democratic rules of the game.
While the RNC both censured Cheney and Kinzinger and legitimized the Capitol riots as a bloc, not all Republican politicians fell into line. Senator Mitt Romney (Utah) tweeted in support of Cheney and Kinzinger. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told reporters after the censure the riots were a “violent insurrection.” And although he didn’t address it after the censure, former Vice President Mike Pence recently rejected Trump’s assertion that the 2020 election was fraudulent, saying, “President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.”
This apparent divide in the Republican party will prove to be consequential in multiple ways. For one, the RNC has already positioned itself to support Cheney’s opponent, Harriet Hageman, a staunchly pro-Trump Republican whose election would further cement the Trumpian bloc. The battle over the Republican party’s platform will play out in midterm elections across the country. If the Trumpian bloc grows — and especially if it gains control over either chamber of Congress — the implications for American democracy are numerous and troubling. The RNC’s simultaneous legitimization of the Capitol riots and delegitimization of the opposition will likely continue to evolve absent the checks and balances a strong legislative opposition would provide.
If the RNC’s official stance is to not view what happened Jan. 6 as not just harmful for democracy but wrong, it does not hold itself to any commitment to prevent what happened in 2021 from happening again. It does not hold itself to any commitment to accept or recognize any president other than Trump in 2024. In a world where an attempted insurrection is seen as “legitimate political discourse,” American democracy teeters on unstable ground, ready to fall if given the right wind or force.