In a sane world, Donald J. Trump, defeated for reelection, twice impeached and caught up in multiple investigations, would slink into retirement from politics. That the former president is seeking reelection — and “retribution” — is a reflection not only of his narcissism and the deluded devotion of his followers but also of the failure of prominent Republicans to ostracize him.
Exhibit A is the seesawing of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. During the post-Jan. 6 debate over Trump’s impeachment — which he opposed — McCarthy rightly said Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on Congress as it set about certifying Joe Biden’s victory. McCarthy also described the attack as “undemocratic, unAmerican, and criminal.” Earlier, in a conversation with colleagues, he said he would recommend that Trump resign, though he accused the New York Times of “false and wrong” reporting when it disclosed that fact. (The reporters later released a recording of the conversation.)
But despite McCarthy’s criticism of Trump, the Bakersfield Republican soon was making a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, where, in what Trump’s political action committee described as a “cordial” conversation, he and Trump discussed the campaign to regain control of the House. More recently, McCarthy provided Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson with 41,000 hours of Jan. 6 security video that Carlson used to present the Jan. 6 insurrection as a mostly peaceful event. The overwhelming majority of participants, Carlson said, “were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.”
Predictably, Trump thanked Carlson and McCarthy, and called for the release of those who have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to charges from the attack. (In the past, he has suggested that if reelected he might pardon some Jan. 6 defendants.) Whatever Carlson thinks of Trump in private, his whitewashing of that day’s events plays into Trump’s attempt to rewrite a traumatic moment in American history to his political advantage.
To their credit, some Republicans in Congress treated Carlson’s presentation with the scorn it deserved. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell associated himself with a statement by Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger complaining that Carlson’s presentation “conveniently cherry-picked from the calmer moments of our 41,000 hours of video.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) was pithier in his comment: “I was here. I saw what happened. I saw the violence. And you know, I thought it was an insurrection at that time. I still think it was an insurrection today.” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called the Carlson version of Jan. 6 “bullshit.”
Yet it’s not enough for prominent Republicans to criticize a TV program that minimized what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Everyone with a leadership role in the party should also work in the coming months to ensure that the president who propagated false claims about a rigged election — and exhorted his followers to show up in Washington on Jan. 6 for a “wild” protest — never returns to the White House.
A recognition of what really happened on Jan. 6 necessarily involves a harsh judgment on the man whose falsehoods inspired the insurrection. As former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, aptly put it: “No man who would behave that way at that moment in time can ever serve in any position of authority in our nation again. He is unfit for any office.”
Republicans naturally worry about alienating Trump supporters. Cheney lost her leadership position, and then her seat in Congress, after she voted to impeach Trump and continued to criticize him. But as the 2024 campaign approaches, it may be not only responsible but also smart for Republicans to acknowledge that Trump is a fatally flawed candidate. Despite what his supporters may believe, Trump lost the 2020 election, lied about it to millions and tried to subvert the constitutional electoral process. What kind of future would the party have if it continued to accept him as its standard-bearer?