Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is refusing to give ground on the effort to investigate the January 6 insurrection. After the House voted to establish a new select committee to investigate the attack on the US Capitol, McCarthy threatened to strip Republicans of their committee assignments if they agreed to join it, according to a CNN report that cited to GOP sources. (He denied the reports on Thursday, saying, “I’m not making any threats” about committee assignments.)
But that threat did little to stop Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who defied McCarthy and her party by accepting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offer to join the panel. McCarthy, who responded by saying he was shocked, took the opportunity to knock Cheney. “It would seem to me, since I didn’t hear from her, that maybe she’s closer to (Pelosi) than us,” he said. McCarthy, of course, backed the effort to oust Cheney from her leadership role in May after she repeatedly spoke out against former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
McCarthy’s approach, along with the Republican response to January 6, serves as a powerful measure of where the party stands. Despite a few outliers including Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Sen. Mitt Romney, the GOP seems determined to embrace Trumpism, seeing it as the best path forward to take back the House and Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. Party leaders know a closer look at the January 6 insurrection will be damaging to both Trump and the many Republicans who backed his election lies for months. By sweeping the insurrection under the rug and trying to rewrite history, the GOP is willing to ignore serious threats to our democracy in pursuit of partisan power.
It’s important to look back on the days that followed the January 6 attack, when a number of Republicans – including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – condemned Trump for stoking the violent mob. Even McCarthy himself said on January 13, “The president bears responsibility…He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
But it didn’t take long for Republicans to change tack. When the House voted to impeach Trump for the second time, the vast majority of Republicans in the lower chamber stuck by him. And because the Senate trial didn’t start until February, many Republicans diverted the conversation away from the Trump’s culpability and argued that it was unconstitutional to convict him after he had already left office.
Over time, more Republicans started to reframe what had happened. Some have stopped using the word “insurrection.” Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde went so far as to compare the attack to a “normal tourist visit.” And when the time came to decide whether to form an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the attack, Senate Republicans said no.
Now that the House has created a new select committee, it’s not surprising that McCarthy has threatened to punish members of his own party for signing on. And while he has the power to appoint five Republicans to the committee “in consultation” with Pelosi – meaning she can veto his selections – it remains to be seen whether he’ll select anyone. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama said, “I don’t think any Republican member should participate in this Democrat controlled ‘Sham Theater.’”
This response, of course, is utterly predictable. It’s a strategy Trump used repeatedly during his time in office, and there was never much daylight between the former president’s agenda and that of his party. Republicans have been drumming up allegations of voter fraud for over a decade to justify voting restrictions in the states and Trump, wielding the power of the bully pulpit, used it to great effect in 2020.
Trump’s election lies were repeated and amplified by prominent Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. It didn’t help that Trump’s support among the Republican electorate remained strong even after January 6.
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It’s undeniable that Trump is entrenched in the party establishment and figures like McCarthy are loyal lieutenants who champion his smashmouth approach to politics. It’s clear Republican leaders are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to hold on to their power even if this means tearing down the pillars of our democracy along the way. Rather than seek to correct what happened on January 6, the GOP is hoping the memory of the attack fades into the distance by 2022.
Democracy deserves better than this. If we can’t get bipartisan support for an investigation into January 6 and agree on the facts, there is little chance members of Congress can accomplish anything else.