WASHINGTON — In the hours after a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, before the hallways were clean of broken glass and blood, many Republicans made sweeping denouncements of the violence and the lie about a stolen election that had fueled it.
“They tried to disrupt our democracy,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the majority leader, said that night. “They failed.”
It wasn’t just the insurrectionists who wanted to stop a handover of political power; then-president Donald Trump himself had spent two months trying to overturn his loss, and nothing had worked.
But in the year since, the false denial of Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election has become deeply embedded in the Republican base. It has shaped public opinion, political campaigns and new election laws so profoundly that constitutional scholars say American democracy is now in an even more precarious state than it was when rioters overran the Senate floor and beat on the doors to the House chamber in their assault.
“January 6 was ugly in its violence . . . but it’s what’s happened since January 6 that’s in some ways more dangerous long-term,” said Ned Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University. “The Republican Party as a whole did not pivot toward truth, they pivoted toward Trump, away from truth.”
Over the last year, Trump avoided a conviction in his second impeachment trial — which could have resulted in his being barred from running for office again — and maintained his grip over the GOP. He and his top supporters have tried to rewrite the story of what happened that day, with one congressman comparing armed rioters to “tourists.” He has tried to reshape his party in absentia, seeking to punish and purge those who blame him for the violence and challenge his fictions about the election, while giving his sought-after endorsement to those who do the opposite.
And as the officials who stopped Trump in 2020 leave office or face being voted out, and Republicans in some states seek to rewrite the rules of elections, experts warn that the effort McConnell declared a failure last Jan. 6 is ongoing, and could well succeed in the future.
“I think that you can look at 2020 as a dress rehearsal for 2024,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California Irvine who specializes in election law.
“You can learn lessons from what worked and where the pressure points are and what didn’t work,” Hasen said. “With the Republican Party base primed to believe the false statement that the 2020 election was stolen, it lays the groundwork for a subverted election in the future.”
Some Republicans, including Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene and North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn, forcefully defended Trump and his false claims of widespread election fraud from the start. But over the past year, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, and others in the GOP who quickly condemned the violence of Jan. 6 or blamed Trump have embraced the former president anew, sometimes complaining about election “security issues” or voting methods like mail ballots instead of embracing the false allegations of outright fraud. Some, like McConnell, have taken to ignoring Trump instead of forcefully and repeatedly denouncing him and his claims.
“The Republican Party has to condemn anyone who is promoting a lie, that’s the first step,” said former representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida who is now on the board of the pro-democracy group Issue One. “This is an issue that needs to be confronted directly, with absolute honesty and sincerity, and many Republicans have fallen short.”
Multiple polls in recent months have shown that a strong majority of Republicans do not trust the results of the 2020 election. An ABC poll conducted just before the new year found that 71 percent of Republicans believe Trump was the rightful winner of the election, and that just over half of Republicans believe the people rioting at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were “protecting democracy.” A poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst around the same time also found 71 percent of Republicans see Joe Biden’s victory as “illegitimate.”
The endurance of that belief is a “mortal threat” to democracy, said Michael Miller, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.
“Democracies rise and fall on people consensually accepting outcomes of elections,” he said.
The polls also help explain why so many Republican elected officials were loath to break with Trump after the insurrection.
“They were hearing from the voters they need to win their elections, that they better not turn on Trump over this,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who opposes the former president. “Trump has always understood Republican base voters better than any other Republican politician.”
Republican candidates seeking to appeal to that base have been quick not just to echo his claims, but to pledge to do what their predecessors did not, should they be in power during the next presidential election in 2024.
“It creates the conditions where those who parroted Trump’s claims are supported by the Republican Party, and those who fight against them are replaced,” Hasen said. “And that means that many of the people who are going to be running our elections in 2024 are people who embraced the false claims in 2020.”
In Georgia, David Perdue, the former Republican senator who lost his runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff in January, is challenging Governor Brian Kemp in what is expected to be a divisive primary this year. Perdue, a former executive who was long seen as a fairly traditional, pro-business Republican, launched his campaign with a video castigating Kemp, who certified Biden’s victory in the state, for “caving” to Democrats and said a few days later that he would not have certified the election if he were governor.
Representative Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican who has repeatedly suggested that fraud cost Trump votes in his state and that the election was not fair, has launched his own primary challenge against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who rebuffed Trump’s entreaties to “find” more votes for him.
Hice is among Republican candidates for secretary of state in 13 states who have cast doubt on the 2020 elections, according to a tally by NPR. That list also includes Arizona Representative Mark Finchem, who tweeted the #stopthesteal hashtag on Jan. 6 and expressed sympathy with the crowd outside the Capitol.
Republican strategists say that appealing to voters’ doubt about the 2020 election could help candidates shore up support in the primaries this year, although it could be a risky general election strategy in swing states like Georgia and Arizona.
“I think in primaries, some Republican candidates will run on it, but by the time the general election rolls around this is going to matter very little,” said Scott Jennings, a strategist who has advised McConnell. “It will manifest itself more fully in 2024′s presidential contest.”
This year will offer another test of Trump’s influence — and the power of his false claims. Republicans like Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach him, and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict him, face Trump-backed challengers. The other Republican senators who voted to convict Trump and would have faced voters this year, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina, are retiring.
Legislatures around the country have seized on Trump’s false election claims as a pretense to take up new voting restrictions — which were passed in 19 states in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which expects those efforts to continue this year.
Experts are particularly concerned with bills that give partisan officials more control over election administration, like the Republican-led bill in Georgia that gave the GOP legislature more control over the state elections board, and they are warning that “election subversion” efforts will be a fixture in GOP-controlled state houses this year.
They are also warning that Republican-led reviews of 2020 results in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and elsewhere undermine voters’ confidence in elections and could set the stage for further challenges — even though none of those reviews turned up credible examples of widespread fraud.
“That’s not going to stop the grifters from continuing the grift,” said David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “This is going to continue, I’m going to continue to watch this.”
Democrats in Congress have written two bills they say would protect voting rights and prevent Republicans motivated by Trump to try to tilt the playing field in their favor. But the bills have been stalled in the narrowly divided Senate.
In recent days, Republicans have shown interest in making changes to the Electoral Count Act, the arcane 1887 law 147 Congressional Republicans used to object to the certification of the 2020 election on Jan. 6. That intrigues some Democrats, but they say it’s not enough on its own to protect against what they see as an attack on American democracy.
“It is a cynical political maneuver by people who are trying to rig the elections of our country,” Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock said on Wednesday. “We need a comprehensive approach to what’s happening on the ground.”