“I don’t know about you,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in October 2004, “but I dream of going back to the days when terrorism was just a nuisance in our lives.” The ubiquitous reminders that terrorists killed more than 3,000 Americans on September 11 were, in Friedman’s estimation, a gauche political exercise on the president’s part. George W. Bush was trying to make 9/11 “into another wedge issue” to “rally the Republican base and push his own agenda.”
The president’s critics deeply resented the degree to which Bush allegedly “politicized” the terrorist attacks in pursuit of his own parochial goals. In op-eds, books, and major motion pictures, they waged a counteroffensive to convince the public to avoid ruminating on the day’s horrors and look instead at how they were being used to manipulate the public into accepting new foreign wars, assaults on American civil liberties, torture, obstruction, and lies. It didn’t work. The voting public didn’t regard Bush’s invocations of the day’s horrors with similar contempt. Bush’s entreaties did not cheapen the attacks. Rather, they served to remind voters that the threat of terrorism persists and would return absent vigilance and the resolve to preempt violence before it materializes.
Yes, this served Bush’s interests and not the interests of his opponents. But that was not the former president’s fault. His opponents miscalculated insofar as they positioned themselves on the wrong side of the public’s views on the 9/11 attacks. Voters didn’t want to “move on” from the day’s events and focus on how its memory was being misused by cynical political actors—at least, not yet. No one forced Bush’s critics to scoff at the earnest solemnity he evinced. That was their choice, and it wasn’t a smart one.
Twenty years have passed, but the times haven’t changed all that much.
President Joe Biden will mark the second anniversary of the January 6 riot with both a “solemn tribute” and a “warning,” according to Politico’s reporting, about “the danger and chaos posed by election deniers even as the November elections in which many of them lost their races for office begin to fade from view.” Politico frames this as somehow incongruous, but it isn’t.
The most recent polling of the public’s views on the siege of the Capitol Building via the Economist/YouGov found, unsurprisingly, that the vast majority of Americans continue to disapprove of those who violently sacked the seat of the United States government. Most call the day’s events “bad” or “tragic.” But self-described Republicans are more ambivalent. Nearly half of Republicans declined to characterize the day as either good or bad, and fully one-in-five Republican respondents said they approved of the rioters’ actions—up 11 points from January 2021.
The GOP’s reaction is, perhaps, an understandable (if not rational) response to the general impression among right-leaning partisans that Democrats are trying to extract political advantage from the events of January 6. Rep. Kevin McCarthy alleged that his opponents transformed the riot into a “partisan political weapon” to “divide the country.” Sen. Lindsey Graham indicted the “brazen politicization of January 6 by President Biden.” Rightwing outlets decry the annual remembrances orchestrated by Democrats on the Hill, which may explain why almost no Republican lawmakers attend them.
Republicans have every reason to believe that Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats are squeezing all the political juice out of that attack. That is, indeed, unseemly. It’s also politically effective.
When voters went to the polls in 2022, they proved unmistakably and almost across the board that lending credence to the narrative that fueled the riots was a political loser. Particularly at the statewide level, Republican candidates who advocated the myth that fraud and malfeasance cost Donald Trump the 2020 election lost or dramatically underperformed their more conventional Republican counterparts.
In a post-election survey, FiveThirtyEight found that “political extremism or polarization” ranked just below inflation—the prohibitive issue of this election and one which favored the GOP—as the second most important issue for voters. Republican voters were literate enough in the cryptology of American politics to know that “political extremism” has become code for the conspiracy theories that animate Donald Trump and his movement. The issue didn’t resonate with Republicans, but it did with independents and Democrats. That helped neutralize the historic headwinds Democrats faced going into the 2022 midterms. Why would Biden and his fellow Democrats abandon a strategy that has worked so well for them?
The evidence, albeit circumstantial, suggests that Democrats will pay no political price for using January 6 as a cudgel against Republicans. Just the opposite. But the strategy would pay no dividends if Republicans did not participate in the dramaturgy of it all. If the GOP were as solemn about the attack on the Capitol as their Democratic counterparts, the cudgel would have no force. The New York Times editorial board would seem myopic in the extreme to insist that “every day is Jan. 6” if the American right wasn’t engaged in a frenetic campaign of misdirection. Joe Biden would find his constant warnings about the imminent threat Republicans pose to American “democracy” would have no traction if Republicans displayed half the hostility toward the rioters that they reserve for the people condemning them.
Republicans are making a choice, and it’s a dumb one. Most Americans still regard that day’s events with horror. They do not want to see them repeated, and they’re trepidatious about the prospect. Republicans should be working to put their fears at ease. Instead, they’re contributing to that anxiety with their too-clever efforts to convince the public to focus on how the attack’s legacy is being weaponized against them. As a tactic, it has backfired. Hopefully, it won’t take 20 years for the GOP to recognize its mistake.