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The Jan. 6 committee’s focus on Trump lets the GOP off too easily

Trump acted in coordination with his party. The historical record should reflect that.
Image: Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson speaks to reporters.
Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., speaks briefly to reporters as he arrives Monday for the final hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the Capitol.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The House Jan. 6 committee held its final public meeting on Monday, capping off months of investigative work and public presentations on the makings of the 2021 insurrection. Reflecting back on the past year and a half, the committee did one thing superbly well: It was successful in its comprehensive demonstration of former President Donald Trump’s intentions and culpability for the insurrection. 

The committee made a compelling case that Trump was not a deluded actor who haphazardly encouraged an unpredictable mob to march up to the U.S. Capitol, where things got out of hand. Instead, the evidence shows he deliberately spread disinformation and summoned an armed and partially organized militia to try to seize control of the government. The case was made so thoroughly that the committee’s four criminal referrals against Trump only seem prudent. 

Much of the GOP was cheering Trump and his movement on — and actively participated in trying to help him pull off a coup.

But the committee’s success in nailing Trump’s role was also accompanied by a failure, or at least a missed opportunity. 

The House committee was right to focus on Trump’s role as the kingpin on Jan. 6, and was also right to make criminal referrals against a handful of his top henchmen, like his final chief of staff Mark Meadows and his lawyer John Eastman. But Trump and a few of his most loyal friends weren’t the only people trying to ensure he stayed in power. Much of the GOP was cheering Trump and his movement on — and actively participated in trying to help him pull off a coup.

The laser focus on Trump obscured the complicity of the GOP party establishment in the event. That in turn will narrow the public’s historical understanding of the radical nature of today's Republican Party as a whole. It could also weaken the kind of vigilance needed to guard against other right-wing authoritarian politicians in the future.

We know Trump’s inner circle was exchanging messages with and working closely with dozens of members of Congress in the run-up to and in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6. These messages show that many Republicans actively encouraged Trump to take steps to stay in power despite the absence of credible evidence of fraud. They show that Republican lawmakers were coordinating and organizing to help him craft legal strategy to advance a case against a nonexistent problem. They show that they were coordinating with him on whipping up a mob furious over false claims of fraud on Jan. 6. Ultimately they illustrate that the party had an appetite for trying to thwart a lawful transfer of power even before the events of Jan. 6 gave them an incentive to downplay the insurrection out of political expediency.

Trump wasn’t dealing with obscure lawmakers in the Republican caucus. We know Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the most powerful Republicans in America, was working directly with Trump to make the case against lawfully transferring power to Democrats. We know that Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri was pumping his fist to encourage a riled up, militant band of protesters before they stormed the Capitol. We know Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio spoke with Trump the morning of Jan. 6,  and then objected to certifying the election results — along with over a hundred of his colleagues in the House and a handful of Republican senators. 

Were all of these lawmakers playing the same role as Trump, who constantly bombarded his followers with disinformation and gave them the order to “fight like hell” at the Capitol? No. Jan. 6 wouldn’t have unfolded the way it did without Trump fueling the whole manufactured crisis. But his colleagues’ hands were far from clean.

On the right there's a systemic receptivity to authoritarianism, and it wont' end with Trump.

Many Republicans worked with and encouraged Trump on his 2020 propaganda, and through their parroting or tolerance of his claims, helped create the conditions for the storm that took place on Jan. 6. Presumably many of them would argue that there’s a difference between supporting false claims of fraud and supporting a violent mob. But one naturally follows from the other: Why on earth would they expect their constituents to sit idly if they were telling them that the election was being stolen, that their country was on the brink of sliding toward tyranny? 

One could argue that the Jan. 6 committee had to choose a strategic focus to make the most impact, and that total focus on establishing the main culprit’s intentions and plans was of chief importance. There’s a strong case to be made for that focus, especially in light of Trump's third presidential bid.

But over the longer run, it would be tragic if this results in the GOP getting off more lightly in our analyses of this historical moment. Guarding against future authoritarian politicians on the right requires understanding that Trump wasn’t at odds with his party — he was working in concert with it. On the right there's a systemic receptivity to authoritarianism, and it won't end with Trump.