WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 18: Supporters of those charged in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol attend the 'Justice for J6' rally near the U.S. Capitol September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protestors gathered in Washington, DC on Saturday to support over 600 people arrested and charged in connection with the January 6 attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
CNN reporter at DC rally: Police clearly outnumbering protestors
01:38 - Source: CNN

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 on CNN.

CNN  — 

The so-called “Justice for J6” rally, a right-wing protest Saturday to support the insurrectionists facing criminal charges in the January 6 attack, was smaller than expected. It also lacked the mayhem and violence the Department of Homeland Security feared might break out.

Julian Zelizer

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous.

The rally in Washington, DC, was part of a dangerous attempt to rewrite the history of that dark day in America.

For months, Trump spread baseless lies about widespread election fraud, claimed the election had been “stolen,” and urged his followers to take action. It didn’t help that many Republican members of Congress repeated those lies. Fueled by the false belief that they were defending democracy, members of the mob stormed the Capitol building while Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, chanting, “Stop the steal,” and “Hang Mike Pence.”

Now, it seems the organization behind “Justice for J6,” which is led by a former Trump campaign operative, wants to free many of the insurrectionists of responsibility and cast them as victims. A permit application the organizers submitted to the US Capitol Police Board said the event was supposed to “bring awareness and attention to the unjust and unethical treatment of nonviolent Jan. 6 political prisoners.”

Trump has already given credence to this narrative in a statement that repeated the Big Lie. “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said on Thursday. Although the claims being made about the legal process don’t match the facts, this narrative has already taken root.

Shortly after January 6, many Congressional Republicans condemned Trump and distanced themselves from the violence. In February, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.” He went on to add, “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

The sense of outrage didn’t last long. Republicans soon embarked on an effort to rewrite the narrative. Many downplayed or denied the violence, and Rep. Andrew Clyde went so far as to compare what happened to a “normal tourist visit.” Many other Congressional Republicans stopped talking about January 6 altogether while others worked to prevent a bipartisan commission from being established. The goal was to move on, with an eye toward the 2022 midterm elections.

Meanwhile, former President Trump continued to distort the facts by falsely claiming that the crowds in Washington that day were peaceful. The rioters, he said, were “hugging and kissing the police and the guards.” False suggestions that Antifa or Black Lives Matter were responsible for the riot picked up steam on social media and right-wing radio shows.

According to a newly released poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, those lies have taken hold among the right. While most Americans blame Trump, White supremacists and the conservative media for January 6, a majority of Republicans, see it differently – and place most of the blame on liberal or left-wing activists.

This is incredibly dangerous – not only because these are distortions and lies but also because they diminish what little chance our elected leaders have to hold Trump and his enablers accountable.

To be sure, some Republicans, such as former President George W. Bush have pushed back. On the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attack, Bush delivered a speech in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, comparing domestic extremists to international ones. “They are children of the same foul spirit and it is our continuing duty to confront them,” he said.

But those voices are all too rare. More common are the Republicans who remain silent as Trump and others spout lies about the January 6 attack and who was really involved.

We live in an era of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Trump could be on the cusp, as Jonathan Chait argued in New York Magazine, of transforming this disaster into “a glorious uprising behind which he could rally his adherents.”

As the midterm elections heat up, it is important that Americans are not fooled. The implications of the attack on Congress – which was directly connected to a presidentially-led effort to overturn the election – can’t be forgotten or excused.

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    Reckoning with January 6 must be a paramount issue on the ticket in 2022 as voters decide which party is best suited to control the House and Senate. The twisted stories about what happened must be continually challenged and the government must do more to ensure that accountability in our democracy won’t go by the wayside. The country needs a thorough, nonpartisan investigation to connect the campaign to delegitimize the 2020 election to the violence that unfolded on January 6.