It might be thought that Republicans would prefer not to remind Americans of the day their president nearly destroyed US democracy.
But the party’s right wing is going all in to rewrite the history of the 6 January 2021 storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters, and to make political martyrs of those imprisoned for assaulting police officers and sending politicians fleeing as the mob attempted to stop Congress from endorsing Joe Biden’s election victory.
Trump himself has waded in by appearing on a song sung by the “J6 Prison Choir” of men locked up for their part in the insurrection while Republican supporters in Congress are setting up a delegation to visit the prisoners in what will be seen as an act of solidarity.
Meanwhile, after taking control of the House of Representatives in January, the Republicans have launched an investigation into the then Democratic-led original congressional investigation of the January 6 Capitol attack which recommended Trump’s prosecution for inciting the riot.
But leading the charge in the Orwellian attempt to control the past in the hope that it will lead Republicans to control the future is the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who pressured Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives, into releasing to him thousands of hours of video of Trump supporters swarming the Capitol.
Carlson presented selected snippets on his nightly show that he claimed proved the rioters were really no more than tourists who “obviously revered the Capitol”.
These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers
“These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers,” he said.
Carlson, who has claimed that the January 6 attack was a “false flag” operation by the Washington establishment to discredit Trump’s supporters, said the video shows “mostly peaceful chaos”.
“Taken as a whole the video record does not support the claim that January 6 was an insurrection. In fact, it demolishes that claim,” he said.
Republicans in Washington are not universally happy with this revisionism. Senator Kevin Cramer said that the attack “was not just some rowdy protest of Boy Scouts” and that the Fox News interpretation was “a lie”. Senator Thom Tillis called Carlson’s description of events “bullshit”.
Asked if it was a mistake for McCarthy to hand the footage over to Fox News, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, distanced himself from the consequences.
“My concern is how it was depicted,” he said.
McCarthy defended the release of the video in the name of transparency although that did not explain why he gave it only to Fox.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said McCarthy was driven principally by thirst for power as the Republican right made release of the video a condition of support for his election as speaker in January.
“Everybody knows that McCarthy, who was once very upset about what happened on January 6 and said so, is just using this for his own purposes. This was simply an action designed to get him the final few votes needed to become speaker. He sold out his country. It was absolutely spineless,” Sabato said.
“Carlson and McCarthy have given the crazies, the far-right extremists, the neo-Nazi white supremacists who are obsessed with January 6, the counter reality they’ve been looking for of a bunch of patriots taking a tour in the Capitol.”
Sabato said Carlson, who is working to shore up his own credibility with Trump’s followers amid revelations that the Fox News host regularly derided the then president and said “I hate him passionately”, was a driving force behind the move.
“Tucker Carlson on his own show said that if McCarthy wants these votes to become speaker then show us by releasing all of the information on the film. Everybody knew from the instant Carlson got it he was going to put together snippets that were very misleading, and which excluded all of the real action that day, all of the criminal action that day. It was totally predictable,” he said.
While Carlson’s selective interpretation of the video was rapidly derided by some Republicans, as well as by the Capitol police chief and the family of an officer who died after being assaulted as “unscrupulous and outright sleazy”, plenty of others were onboard.
The House Republicans’ Twitter account said that Carlson’s take on the footage was a “MUST WATCH”.
Congressman Mike Collins of Georgia said the clips were proof of the innocence of the more than 1,000 people charged with crimes as the mob stormed the Capitol. Hundreds have already been convicted including some jailed for violence.
“I’ve seen enough. Release all J6 political prisoners now,” Collins tweeted to considerable derision.
The attempt to turn the imprisoned rioters into martyrs gained steam after Trump appeared in a song by a choir of men jailed over their involvement in the January 6 attack. They sing the national anthem as the former president recites the pledge of allegiance. Trump has praised the insurrectionists and said that if he were to win the presidency again he would “very, very seriously” consider giving them all pardons.
The prisoners’ cause has been taken up by other Republicans.
The far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was among those pressing McCarthy to release the January 6 video as a condition for her support for his election as speaker. She is expected to lead a congressional delegation to a Washington DC federal prison where some of the rioters are being held, ostensibly to check on their welfare, as the result of another of her conditions for supporting McCarthy.
Everybody knew … Carlson … was going to put together snippets that were very misleading, and which excluded … all of the criminal action that day
Meanwhile, after taking control of the House of Representatives in January, the Republicans have launched an investigation of Congress’s original investigation into the events of 6 January 2021, which recommended Trump’s prosecution for inciting the assault.
The latest committee to look into the riot will be led by Congressman Barry Loudermilk, who contested Biden’s victory and likened Trump’s impeachment to the crucifixion of Jesus.
Loudermilk was found by the earlier House investigation to have a given tours of the Capitol to a group of people the day before the insurrection even though it was closed to visitors. They included at least one man seen photographing corridors and staircases who was later identified outside the Capitol on 6 January making threats against members of Congress.
Loudermilk tweeted that he intends to revisit the January 6 investigation because, he said, the earlier inquiry was politicised.
“The J6 committee chose to ignore the facts and pursue a particular political narrative. I will not do this. As chairman of the subcommittee on oversight, I’m focused on finding out what really happened on J6 to ensure it never happens again,” he said.
Former congresswoman Liz Cheney, one of only two Republicans who served on the January 6 committee, and who then lost a primary race against a Trump-backed rival, challenged Loudermilk, who declined to testify at the hearings she helped chair.
“If @HouseGOP wants new Jan 6 hearings, bring it on. Let’s replay every witness & all the evidence from last year. But this time, those members who sought pardons and/or hid from subpoenas should sit on the dais so they can be confronted on live TV with the unassailable evidence,” tweeted Cheney, who was hired by Sabato earlier this month as a professor at the Center for Politics.
Whether revisiting what many Americans regard as a shameful day for democracy will work in the Republicans’ favor remains to be seen.
Opinion polls show that views about what happened on 6 January 2021 have not shifted dramatically in the intervening two years. According to a Quinnipiac university poll in December, 45% of Americans said that Trump bears “a lot” of responsibility for the storming of the Capitol. Just 21% did not blame him at all. The country was almost evenly split over whether the former president committed a crime that day.
Polls also show a deep divide over the significance of the January 6 Capitol attack, with 50% of Americans saying it represented an assault on democracy that should not be forgotten while 44% say events are being overstated.
Sabato said that while the reimagining of events will play well with hardcore Republicans, it may ultimately not be good for the party as a whole.
“This will stir some of the base. But it’s not all positive for Republicans because it helps Trump, the one guy who probably will lose to Biden if it turns out to be Biden versus Trump again,” he said.
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