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Opinion: Republicans Aren’t Changing Their Authoritarian Minds or Lying Ways

Anyone paying attention to the ongoing January 6 hearings has to be wondering what impact this ultra-compelling story of Trump’s murderous and seditious behavior, buttressed by mountains of evidence and testimony, is having on the American electorate.

I mean, it could hardly seem any clearer that Trump and his traitorous team worked for months—and are still working—to subvert American democracy and seize autocratic control of the U.S. government, whether it costs Mike Pence, Capitol police officers, or anybody else their lives.

The sane among us who hold out any hope and desire to create a genuine democracy in the U.S. are tempted to think Americans will care.

But, then again, we’ve been here before, right? Thinking this scandal, this misdeed, this violation of public trust, this hostile assault on Americans by Trump will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that finally causes Americans to recognize–and fear–the surging authoritarianism that threatens their freedoms and civil rights.  But no straw was ever heavier enough to break, seemingly even bow, the back of that proverbial camel.

When I saw a recent headline in The Atlantic that read “The January 6 Hearings Are Changing Republicans’ Minds,” I dove into the article with curiosity and hope.  Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark wrote the piece based on focus groups she had been conducting since the events of January 6, 2021. The Bulwark, of course, was created by anti-Trump conservatives, including Charlie Sykes and William Kristol, who insist they support democracy, put country over party, and claim the current Republican Party has departed from a formerly sane and meaningful past when conservatism was somehow a non-racist set of principles in line with principles of democracy.

Longwell opens the piece somewhat tantalizingly, claiming the sounds of the hearings are in fact beginning to change the minds of Republican voters, writing,

For Republican voters, the January 6 hearings haven’t so much broken through as seeped in, slowly changing opinions about whether former President Donald Trump should be the GOP nominee in 2024.

By the time, though, we get to the end of this sentence, though, hope is waning, if not lost.  The tell here is that these voters aren’t so much changing their minds about what the Republican Party has been up to, about the constant lying, the autocratic and repressive mentality—and behaviors—that undermine democracy; they’re just changing their minds about the viability of Trump as a candidate because he has become, in their view, damaged goods.

When Longwell talks about Republicans changing their minds, it has nothing to do with their recognition of Trump’s seditious behavior or of the fact that the election wasn’t stolen—that Trump was the one trying to steal it.

Indeed, Longwell chronicles the evolution of “thinking” in these focus groups before and after June 2022.

She sums it up like this:

I conducted dozens of focus groups of Trump 2020 voters in the 17 months between the storming of the Capitol on January 6 and when the hearings began in June. One measure was consistent: At least half of the respondents in each group wanted Trump to run again in 2024. The prevailing belief was that the 2020 election was stolen—or at least unfair in some way—and Trump should get another shot.

But since June, I’ve observed a shift. I’ve conducted nine focus groups during this period, and found that only 14 percent of Trump 2020 voters wanted him to run in 2024, with a few others on the fence. In four of the groups, zero people wanted Trump to run again. Their reasoning is clear: They’re now uncertain that Trump can win again.

So, we need to underline this point: Republican voters are turning on Trump only because they think he can’t win.  They haven’t given up on what he stands for or even comprehended anything about his presidency—and post-presidency—as damaging to American lives and democracy.

It’s simply that Trump has become too “divisive” and “controversial,” and thus a threat to Republicans’ ability to hold power. The goal, Longwell makes clear, is still for Republicans gain power at any cost; it’s not about preserving and protecting, much less strengthening, democracy.

As one participant in the focus groups put it:

“I feel like there’s too many people against him right now. He’s never gonna make it … So I feel like somebody else needs to step in that has similar views, but not as big of an ego—who people like, I guess.”

They simply want another Trump, and Longfellow indicated these voters were excited by Trump clones like Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, and Kristi Noemi.

So, in reality, the hearings have not changed their minds about reality, only about Trump’s viability, as Longwell writes,

These voters have roughly the same attitude toward the January 6 hearings that they did to both impeachments (during which I also regularly conducted focus groups). They believe they’re a witch hunt and a “dog and pony show.” They believe they are designed to make Trump and Republicans look bad. Only a few had watched some of the hearings before turning them off in disgust.

I wrote recently in the pages of PoliticusUsa that it’s not so much that the Republican Party is the party of the Trump, but that Republicans used Trump to execute their agenda—and they can now dump him, having packed the Supreme Court, passed their tax cuts for the wealthiest, and so forth.

The Republican Party and their loyal voters haven’t changed their mind about autocracy. They don’t seem to find the lying, deceit, and sedition distasteful at all. They don’t seem to care that democracy is under threat—as long as they get their way.

They seem to agree with Trump’s strategy of maintaining power at any cost and through any means.

And even Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger supported Trump’s policies. They want their agenda. They don’t care about rights for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, working-class folks or anybody.

As I wrote some time ago, the Republicans now, including those associated with The Bulwark, are about making authoritarianism palatable to Americans. The major worry is that Trump will make it distasteful.

Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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