For millions of Americans, Jan. 6 was a jarring day that ended their nation’s 150-year streak of peaceful transitions of power.
It was an enormous win for Donald Trump.
Ever since his supporters stormed the Capitol as Joe Biden’s victory was being certified, Trump has continued to falsely insist he won in 2020 and paint the unrest as the result of a stolen election. In December, Trump said that the real insurrection “took place on Nov. 3,” recasting the violence that left five dead as an “unarmed protest of the rigged election.”
It has proved to be a potent—and lucrative—lie. According to polling, nearly half the Republicans think Trump won in 2020. For months, fundraising emails from Trump that claim that the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen” have pointed readers to a bright red button that reads -DONATE TO SAVE AMERICA. Trump’s political machine raked in at least $50 million in the six months that followed the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, an unusually high figure for a defeated former President during his first year out of office and nearly eight times what Trump raised in outside funding while seeking the GOP nomination in 2015.
In addition, the fallout of Jan. 6 allowed Trump to strengthen his hold on the Republican Party. Lawmakers’ reactions to the attack have become a personal loyalty test: at least six Republicans who have criticized the rioters have been targeted for primary challenges by candidates loyal to Trump. Pro-Trump groups have used critical ads to highlight members of Congress that supported the House probe into the attempted rebellion. “Sometimes there are consequences to being ineffective and weak,” Trump said in May of the “wayward Republicans” who voted for the congressional probe to move forward. Trump’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump and his close aides want to do more than simply gloss over the facts. They are using it as a rallying cry to raise the specter of more violence if future voting doesn’t go Trump’s way in the 2022 midterms or, should Trump run again for President, in the 2024 elections. Asked by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl in a March interview about the individuals who breached the Capitol and threatened Vice President Mike Pence’s life over his decision to uphold the legitimate election results, Trump backed his supporters: “Well, the people were very angry.”
It appeared that there was reason for hope.In the immediate aftermath of January 6, the sight of violence in Congress may have sparked a correction of course.
That didn’t happen. Instead, disinformation about alleged election fraud has become mainstreamed as a plank of both the Republican Party’s political strategy and Trump’s potential 2024 run. While most major GOP advertisers have stayed away from highlighting the Jan. 6 insurrection in their ads, Republicans routinely use myths around election fraud as a central message in their funding drives and efforts to collect contact information from supporters, according to analysis of Republican political–ad spending by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a left-leaning digital-advertising firm.
The Facebook Ad Library shows that since July the pro-Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee spent $1 million in Facebook ads. This was in addition to a total of $20 million raised in the first six months of 2021. A single ad asked, “IS TRUMP TRUE PRESIDENT?” Those who clicked “Answer Now” were sent to a fundraising page and asked for their emails.
This strategy goes beyond raking in the cash. NPR/Ispos released a poll on Jan. 3 that found that 45% believe fraud was the reason for the election’s outcome. Nearly one-third of Republicans polled believed the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was carried out by groups from the far-left “anti-fa” movement or government agents, a conspiracy theory propagated early on by right-wing media outlets, and 38% of Republicans described Jan. 6 as a “riot that got out of control,” rather than an attempt to overturn an election.
64% of Americans polled believed that American democracy was at serious risk and in danger. That sense of alarm boosts Trump’s power, says Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Jan. 6 has increased his rank and file’s anger and resentment,” he says. “It’s confirmation for them that everybody else is out to get them.”
As Trump and his allies have used Jan. 6 to raise money and woo voters, they have also leveraged it to weed out GOP members critical of Trump’s -actions that day. After U.S. Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan voted to impeach Trump for trying to overturn the election result and staying silent for hours while his supporters violently laid siege to the Capitol, Trump called him a “RINO” (“Republican in name only”) and endorsed a primary challenger. Trump also endorsed a challenger against Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington State, who voted in favor of his second impeachment and said Trump encouraged “would-be assassins” with his remarks at a rally before the attack. The Senate acquitted Trump in his impeachment trial.
The fight was joined by groups that supported the ex-President. A pro-Trump superPAC intervened when 35 House Republicans voted to create a commission to investigate the riot. Drain the DC Swamp, registered in Marlton, N.J., spent more than $210,000 for 13 ads on Facebook and Instagram in a two-week blitz, labeling the GOP lawmakers “communist traitors” and “turncoats.” The campaign, which continued through mid-July, appeared in Americans’ Facebook and Instagram feeds more than 6.7 million times.
On Oct. 21, Nancy Mace of South Carolina voted in favor of holding Stephen Bannon (former Trump advisor) in contempt for his failure to cooperate in the House probe into Jan. 6 and Drain the DC Swamp continued its spending spree. On Dec. 13, the group dropped at least $14,000 for five different ads on Facebook and Instagram calling Mace “anti-Trump” and “a disgrace.” The ads appeared more than 450,000 times, reaching an audience largely over the age of 55, per the Facebook Ad Library.
The events of Jan. 6 are “being used as a resource for Trump,” says Amy Fried, a political-science professor at the University of Maine, “to raise funds, to keep himself front and center, to bind himself with loyalty to his supporters.” Fried, who co-authored the book The Conservatives at War with Government: From Goldwater to Trump, How They Weaponized Terrorism sees this as an escalation of a decades-long tendency by Republican politicians to undermine the public’s faith in government. Republican voters, she says, have “gotten used to that diet of distrust.”
It is extremely difficult to reverse this erosion. “We can never take the American system for granted,” says Sabato. “We’re just as vulnerable as most other societies-—most other democracies—to deterioration in our standards and values.” One year later, there’s every reason to fear that the violence of Jan. 6 may not have marked the end of the nation’s political degradation, but its acceleration.
—With reporting by Julia Zorthian