On January 5, 2022, one day before the anniversary of the right-wing storming of the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Ted Cruz called the event a “violent terrorist attack.” That evening, Tucker Carlson of Fox News excoriated Cruz for his remarks. The following night, Cruz appeared on Carlson’s show to beg for forgiveness. “You called this a ‘terror attack,’ when by no definition of the word was it a terror attack,” Carlson said. “That’s a lie. You told that lie on purpose, and I’m wondering why you did.”
Cruz cowered before Carlson like a schoolboy caught out after curfew. “The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy, and it was, frankly, dumb,” Cruz said. “I don’t buy that,” Carlson responded. “I do not believe that you used that accidentally. I just don’t.”
The next seven minutes of the interview continued in the same fashion, with Cruz desperately justifying himself over a chyron that at one point read: “What was Cruz thinking?” Carlson’s dominance over Cruz was total. Cruz’s surrender was unconditional. The power dynamics could not have been clearer if a CEO were excoriating a new employee on their first day on the job.
Far from being an outlier, that interview encapsulated the official and unofficial conservative response to the anniversary of January 6. Unlike in the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, conservative leaders were not even willing to give lip service to criticizing the events of that day. Taken as a whole, the various conservative responses, or lack thereof, offer the strongest evidence to date that the attempted coup was not likely to be a maligned one-off event but is instead threatening to serve as a mythologized day of glory for the right that could become a template for the future. A review of conservative reactions one year after the January 6 attack also shows that in most spheres there is virtually no distinction between the so-called respectable right and the violent, explicitly racist and insurrectionary fringes.
Carlson is not just a television host, and Cruz isn’t some congressional backbencher. These two, together, represent mainstream conservatism essentially by definition. Carlson’s show ranks as either the most-watched or second-most-watched show on Fox News, averaging over 3 million viewers every evening. Cruz, meanwhile, is the standard bearer for conservatism in the Senate.
These two figures, together, made it clear that finding fault with any aspect of the January 6 attempted coup was unacceptable. Cruz wasn’t saved by his repeated protestations that he was only criticizing the protesters who physically harmed police. Nor was he protected by the fact that he spearheaded the effort inside the Senate to oppose certifying the 2020 presidential election. The party line has been set, not just by the fringes, but by the most influential conservatives in the country.
That’s not to discount the role the far-right flank of elected Republicans have played in generating support for the events of January 6. In another interview on the failed coup anniversary, a former staffer for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (California) accused the House Republican minority leader of taking his cues from the farthest right fringe of his caucus. “His leadership strategy is dictated by the most extreme wings of his party,” Ryan O’Toole, now a staffer for Rep. Liz Cheney, told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And so, when Marjorie Taylor Greene or Matt Gaetz put their thumb on the scale, that’s what he responds to.”
Gaetz and Greene, for their parts, spent the year anniversary offering the only semi-official Republican response. The two appeared on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast in the morning, and held a press conference in the afternoon. On both occasions, the two offered up baseless conspiracy theories that blamed the FBI for instigating the riot. “We did not want the Republican voice to go unheard, and we did not want today’s historical narrative to be hijacked by those who were the true insurrectionists,” Gaetz said, referring to his conspiracy theory about FBI agents and paid informants.
Though it’s true that Gaetz and Greene represent the far right of the elected Republicans, members of the GOP’s mainstream faction did everything they could to downplay the mob attack on the Capitol. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the GOP’s likely 2024 presidential front-runner if Donald Trump declines to run, used the occasion to attack the media for alleged anti-Trump bias: “Jan. 6 allows them to create narratives that are negative about people that supported Donald Trump,” he stated. Senate mainstay Lindsey Graham tweeted that President Joe Biden was engaged in a “brazen politicization” of January 6, as though there were a way to discuss an attempted coup outside the realm of politics.
A recent review of the January 6 “insurrectionists” also shows that demographically, they comprised the GOP’s traditional voting base, rather than a collection of outsiders. Political science professor Robert A. Pape analyzed the economic records of more than 500 January 6 defendants, and found that “more than half are business owners, including CEOs, or from white-collar occupations, including doctors, lawyers, architects, and accountants,” and only 7 percent were unemployed. Those demographics map with the demographics of Republicans in general, who tend to be wealthier than Democratic voters. When asked to self-describe their economic status, 66 percent of Fox News viewers said they were middle class or wealthier. In other words, the demographic groups that stormed the Capitol have significant overlap with the groups who watched Tucker Carlson discipline Ted Cruz one year later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nominally anti-January 6, “Never-Trump” wing of the conservative movement also went out of its way to make apologies for the insurrectionists, even while offering mild criticism. “It is now an article of faith on the left that these goons were determined to ‘destroy democracy’,” argued conservative author Jonah Goldberg, writing in Bari Weiss’s newsletter. “But that wasn’t their actual intent. They believed Trump’s story. They believed they were saving democracy from a coup.” He went on to write that their “stupidity” doesn’t “let them off the hook,” and that the central plotters should be held accountable. But ultimately, Goldberg sees the attempted coup, and the Trump administration more broadly, as a deviation from conservatism, rather than a predictable culmination of the movement’s values and priorities.
There were two stalwart conservatives who were embraced by Democrats on the anniversary, both with the last name Cheney. Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyoming) is one of two Republicans to sit on the January 6 committee, and has become something of a hero to the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party. She and her father, former vice president and Iraq War architect Dick Cheney, both attended the official anniversary ceremony. Both were fawned over by Democrats, more than a dozen of whom lined up to shake their hands. “One by one, Democrats put aside their fierce and lasting policy divides with the Cheneys to thank them for condemning the attack and Trump’s continued effort to undermine the 2020 presidential election results with his false claims of fraud,” The Washington Post reported.
It is a grim irony that Dick Cheney, a man partially responsible for legally disrupting and ultimately stealing an election in 2000, has been recast as a great and principled defender of democracy by liberals. The Supreme Court’s decision to stop the Florida recount as a result of Bush v. Gore is not only a reminder of the long-hollow promise of U.S. democracy, it also serves as another tool in the toolbox for the next would-be coup plotters. The great danger to future transfers of power in the United States is not to be found only in the absurdity of the January 6 mob attack, or only in the halls of power. The future of the anti-democratic right is in the synthesis of those two factions. One year after the Capitol breach, that fusion appears to be all but complete.