Capitol attack
Credit: Tyler Merbler/Flickr

Conventional wisdom suggests that Republicans are well-positioned for the 2022 midterms: the president’s party tends to suffer significant losses in the first midterm following the presidential election. Conservatives are poised to gain an advantage from post-census redistricting; their state parties are actively passing laws to disenfranchise opposing voters; Biden’s agenda is stalling in the face of Republican obstructionism and the refusal of centrist Democratic Senators to reform or eliminate the filibuster. The GOP plan is to cause as much chaos and prevent as much action as possible until they take control of Congress in November 2022.

But Republicans in their extremism are also sabotaging themselves in ways that may upset their plans and defy history. Most of these are looming turnout and mobilization problems, but Trump’s rhetoric around the insurrection threatens to overshadow them all.

On the turnout front, the GOP has chased after infrequent voters driven by various bigotries in order to avoid making significant policy changes–the so-called “Missing White Voter”–but in so doing, it has alienated potentially more numerous and potentially loyal supporters in the suburbs. It has made voting by mail politically toxic among the GOP base, thereby burning to ash a turnout advantage that they had spent decades building. It has made their party brand contingent on cult-like dedication to Donald Trump–such that Republicans have yet to prove they can actually mobilize voters in an election where Trump is not himself on the ballot. And by insisting on buying into Trump’s Big Lie that he won the 2020 election, Republicans are reducing their base’s trust in elections themselves.

But Trump and his most dedicated lackeys in the conservative movement are stepping on their message–especially over the January 6th insurrection. Some Democrats are hopeful that their party’s focus on kitchen-table issues will contrast well to GOP obstructionist stances on COVID and infrastructure, but it’s unclear how much voters will care or even remember in 18 months. The January 6th insurrection, though, is another matter. It is deeply polarizing and emotional in a way that damages Republicans with moderate and independent voters.

Most Republicans in leadership–and most Republican voters–would like nothing more than to move on and pretend the insurrection never took place. Senate Republicans refused to cooperate with a bipartisan Senate commission. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is trying to sabotage the upcoming House investigation and portray it as a partisan star chamber. They don’t want Democrats to talk about it, they don’t want the public to be thinking about it, and they want to be able to dismiss any damaging information that comes out as the product of a witch-hunt over the past. At the same time, they themselves pretend to talk about “real issues” facing today’s voters.

But Donald Trump can’t let it go. He and his allies refuse to move on. They are engaged in a concerted effort to rehabilitate the insurrection. This morning Trump went on Fox News to offer his most aggressive fiction yet about that day’s events.

Speaking on “Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo” on the Fox News Channel, he also said the rally participants were patriots, that some of them were unjustly arrested and jailed, and that a woman who was shot and killed by law enforcement during the insurrection was a great hero.

“The crowd was unbelievable and I mentioned the word ‘love,’ the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of his rally on the Ellipse. “That’s why they went to Washington.”

He added: “Too much spirit and faith and love, there was such love at that rally, you had over a million people,” inflating the size of his rally crowd.

He also reiterated the conservative movement’s obsession with identifying the law enforcement officer who shot Ashli Babbitt, the violent insurrectionist who first jumped through the final flimsy barrier between the murderous mob and members of Congress just yards away:

“Who is the person that shot an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman, a military woman, right in the head?” Trump said. “There is no repercussion — that were on the other side, it would be the biggest story in this country. Who shot Ashli Babbitt? People want to know and why.”

The main intent of naming the official is as dark and ominous as it sounds: to inflict yet more seditious vigilante violence on an unnamed heroic defender of democracy who protected the nation from the same vigilante violence from the same source. It is an attempt to make a martyr of Babbitt, rehabilitating the most violent knife’s edge of the attempted coup and perversely reinterpreting it as a civil rights struggle on behalf of MAGA-Americans, maybe even women’s rights. QAnon Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, drew widespread condemnation for attempting to equate Babbitt’s death with that of George Floyd, whose murder by a police officer ignited a wave of protests against police violence.

The Party of Trump falsely insists that the 2020 election was stolen from them, which has negative repercussions for mobilizing their base and keeping moderates in the fold.

But keeping the insurrection in the news and at the forefront of voters’ minds is something else entirely. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell presumably know how disastrous it could be. But they have no choice in the matter. The GOP is Trump’s party, and Trump is determined to present his violent insurrectionist mob as heroes, forcing voters to either accept or reject that proposition–with the implicit threat that he might well attempt to stage another insurrection.

If there is any justice in politics, the entire Republican Party will pay the price for it at the polls in 18 months.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.