The 2022 midterms will be all about Jan. 6 — and that gives Democrats a big opportunity

The 2022 midterms will be all about Jan. 6 — and that gives Democrats a big opportunity
Credit: Gage Skidmore

President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a "Keep America Great" rally at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona.


Donald Trump may have canceled his press conference to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection that he incited on the Capitol, but he still has managed to communicate his desire for the event to be lauded as a glorious revolution. He wants to whitewash an act of domestic terrorism in the name of fascism, making life extremely hard for Republican politicians who wish to remain on the fence over the question. One year out, Republican leaders continue to hedge their bets. They are attempting to both appeal to the Trump base by pretending to believe there are "questions" about the validity of the 2020 election and also to appeal to swing voters and moderates by publicly denouncing the violence of the insurrection fueled by such "questions." But playing in the gray zone may not be an option for Republicans much longer —if Ted Cruz's very bad, no good week was any indication.

Cruz's woes started on Wednesday when he, correctly, called the Capitol riot "a violent terrorist attack" and lauded the Capitol police for their courage in fighting back. Cruz, it should be noted, should get absolutely zero credit for this. He, like most of the GOP leadership, is running interference for Trump by engaging in a massive gaslighting effort, where Republicans will admit the violence happened, but pretend that it had nothing to do with Trump or his lies about the 2020 election. Still, Trump has long been hostile to such triangulating political tactics, especially when it comes to his own ego. He clearly wants the insurrection celebrated as a triumphant strike in his war against democracy, not this mealy-mouthed "violence is bad" talk.

So, unsurprisingly, Tucker Carlson of Fox News went after Cruz, insisting that "it was definitely not a violent terrorist attack." (It absolutely was. The FBI defines terrorism as violence committed "to further ideological goals," which storming the Capitol in order to overthrow an election 100% is.) And Cruz, equally unsurprisingly, went on Fox News the next night to grovel for forgiveness, calling his phrasing "sloppy" and "dumb." But because Cruz kept insisting that assaulting police officers was wrong — while he downplayed how many Trump supporters engaged in that behavior — Carlson kept tearing into him, making it quite clear that any bad word against Trumpian violence is simply unacceptable.

The incident was the capstone in a year's long — and now hugely successful — effort by the far-right to bring the GOP in line with not just Trump's Big Lie, but the belief that violence in the name of the Big Lie is not just acceptable, but laudable. It is something Republican leaders have been resisting. Initially, the hesitance seemed due to a lot of them being genuinely rattled by having a mob come for their lives. Now, however, it's purely for political reasons.

Polling shows that a huge majority of Americans disapprove of the insurrection at the Capitol. But in 2024 election match-ups, President Joe Biden and Trump are neck-in-neck. That can only mean that a lot of voters are happy to vote Republican, so long as they can keep telling themselves a story about how Republicans are not the party of violent insurrection.

That's why Cruz and other Republican figureheads — including, at times, Carlson himself — are drawn to a narrative about January 6 that paints the event as a random anomaly, instead of the direct result of months of Trump's fomenting of violence. Even Trump himself understands that capturing those more moderate votes for Republicans likely means backing this ridiculous spin on the events and falsifying a story where the GOP is a normal political party. That's why he, however reluctantly, canceled his January 6 celebration event, at the request of Republican leaders who think there's a way to push the Big Lie without also embracing the violence that resulted.

Cruz's situation suggests that may be untenable, however. There is not and has never been a way to be for Trump while against either his coup or the violence he harnessed in his last-ditch attempt to steal the election. To support Trump is to support what Trump stands for, which is violent insurrection in the name of fascism. The only way that Republicans leaders can continue to walk this tightrope, pretending to somehow be for Trump but not for his violent insurrection, is if the issue isn't at the forefront of the 2022 midterms. Unfortunately for Republican leaders, that's unlikely to happen, for a couple of reasons.

For one, celebrating Trump's coup is a surefire way to get the most hardcore Republican voters engaged and excited. As Axios reported Monday morning, prominent Republican candidates — including some Senate candidates — are campaigning heavily on the Big Lie, finding that it's a great way to reap in piles of donations. For another, Trump's ego won't let the issue go away. He may have canceled his January 6 celebration, but he made it clear he intends to keep up the drumbeat of pro-insurrection talk at his various rallies and other communications.

Democrats can — and critically should — make sure Republicans can't play this game.

Democratic candidates must resist the campaign-consultant-driven urge to always be changing the subject to "kitchen table issues." Instead, between now and November (and ideally as long as is necessary), Democrats must not treat their opponents like they're in a friendly disagreement over tax rates, but make sure they have to answer for Trump and his violence every day. Bring up the insurrection often, in debates and in ads, and make sure that it's never far from voter minds. This doesn't need to be lieu of talking up kitchen table issues, but it simply can't be memory-holed, as Republicans dearly wish it to be.

As the Cruz example shows, Republicans don't have a lot of wiggle room on this issue, because they're trapped by Fox News and the right-wing media. Attempts to distance themselves from the violence increasingly result in a sharp rebuke from the likes of Carlson and other powerful right-wing pundits and leaders. That's why the insurrection is, despite being an unusual event in American history, is still a standard issue wedge issue, one that pits the GOP base against the moderate voters they need to win elections. (While we still have elections, which may not be for much longer if the Democrats screw up the 2022 midterms.)

The good news is, by giving a January 6 speech where he didn't shy away from blaming Trump, Biden has given the go-ahead signal to the rest of the party to make January 6 a central campaign issue. The House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack also seems prepared to keep pushing out information and generating news hooks that make it hard for Republicans to memory-hole either the event itself or Trump's central role in it.

There's a reason Fox News and Republican leaders are feigning outrage at Democrats for "politicizing" Trump's act of political terrorism. They want to scare Democrats off of talking about an issue that will rally voters to their side. Democrats should take that fake outrage as more evidence to lean into the issue, and not give in to that cowardly urge to avoid controversy that has already lost them elections.

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