The president pinned blame on the former president Thursday for causing the J6 insurrection. His speech was part of events marking the one-year anniversary of the day the United States Capitol was sacked and looted for the purpose of installing Donald Trump as fuhrer-king.
“Biden came out swinging this morning,” wrote Jim Wright, “and put the blame for this insurrection squarely on those responsible and it's about goddamned time. He should have done that a year ago. There is no compromise with those who would murder us for their own profit.”
Even if it were desirable to compromise, however, it would be hard to when the opposition party refuses to even acknowledge that the assault happened at all. Not one Republican in either chamber of the Congress participated in yesterday’s memorial. Their absence is part of a larger project of whitewashing the J6 insurrection out of existence.
To understand more about how the Republican Party is doing that, I interviewed Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University and the author of Demagogue for President The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. Our conversation was like a crash course in understanding what’s often incoherent.
Many of us know the Republicans are whitewashing the J6 insurrection, but most of us don't know how. Can you tell us?
One way to understand this is through the rhetorical form of apologia (self-defense). The common apologia strategies are denial (“it didn't happen”), differentiation (“it happened, but it's not what you think”), bolstering (“patriots love what happened”) and transcendence (“we should look at the bigger picture about what happened”).
You can sort of see the right going through all of those strategies as they've tried to revise our understanding of what happened on January 6, 2021. I see several important strategies being used.
- Conspiracy theory is being deployed as a differentiation strategy by people like Tucker Carlson. His Patriot Purge "documentary" claims what we think we know about J6 isn't the real story.
- Denial has been used since J6. We've seen minimizing strategies (they were just "tourists," they were peaceful, etc)
- Bolstering has been used as an ad populum (“appeal to the wisdom of the crowd”) by the elite to claim that Donald Trump's base loved that Trump fought for them.
You see transcendence being used when the right tries to minimize what happened while claiming that Trump was a great president and that's what is really important about his legacy.
Those are all standard apologia tactics to try to shape the narrative. You see the right attacking the media, Democrats and anyone who seeks to hold them accountable. It's a real shame, because in so doing they are permitting and facilitating the erosion of democracy.
Why do people believe the Big Lie?
The Big Lie is easy to believe, to be honest. The Big Lie folded into the even bigger lie. We've had years of the right saying, "Politics is war and the enemy cheats." When you hear that enough, you believe it. Also, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and media bubbles work against people even hearing disconfirming information.
We have historic levels of distrust, polarization and frustration. Trump ran in 2015 using strategies designed to take advantage of all of those negative qualities in the electorate, and make them worse. He attacked our public sphere, attacked America. He's been attacking it since.
There's a chicken-and-egg question here. On the one hand, people blame Trump and the right-wing media for misinforming supporters. On the other hand are people like me, who believe they are not misinformed so much as given permission to do and say things publicly what they're already doing and saying privately. In other words, they are not radicalized. They are licensed. Thoughts?
If they want to believe it and Trump gives them permission to believe it, that's confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.
Confirmation bias is when we look for information that confirms what we want to believe. We will hang on to the slightest bit of evidence, from the shadiest sources – even if it contradicts the general consensus – if it confirms our prior commitments. It's one way we resolve cognitive dissonance (the unpleasant experience of holding two incompatible opinions or facts).
Motivated reasoning is the bigger picture of how our thought process works. We think that we think like scientists, impartially looking for evidence and testing carefully, but in fact, we think more like lawyers building a case for our side.
Here's the thing that interests me: none of us have direct, first-hand experience with what is going on in politics. So if we want to know anything about politics, we have to trust a news source. Those sources "cultivate" political reality for us. None of us really know. We know only through these media frames.
There used to be a consensus about what political reality was because there was a common agenda set via consensus media organizations. But we've been in the agenda-setting wars for a long time now. The once unified political spectacle has fractured into several political spectacles. But it's all still spectacle.
Why do we allow these political spectacles to divide us?
I think it started after Barack Obama won.
The financial collapse/Obama’s election/War on Terror-era certainly was a conjuncture. The disaffected left and the disaffected right have a lot in common. Both are frustrated by neoliberalism, by corruption and cheaters, and feeling stressed and disempowered.
But the powerful point to the things that divide us more than the things we agree on and use them as a wedge. Or, even if we agree on the problems, we don't agree on the solutions. And we don't have a common reality that can help to mediate those differences.
Can you identify ways the powerful wedge us?
The first example that comes to mind is the spectacle of "critical race theory" and what we teach our children. I have a school-aged kid and I can tell you that everyone is unhappy with the schools, including the people who work in them. It's a hard job! And parents are so concerned about their kids. But we don't fund our schools and our classrooms are overcrowded and kids are difficult to control and the whole thing is a mess and frustrating. But we don't talk about it from that perspective. Instead, the right has riled up parents about "crt."
We could have a serious conversation about what's not working well in our schools, what our kids need, how to fund that kind of education and how to produce really smart, happy kids, but instead we have a pro/con moral panic about something that isn't even real.
That's what I'd call a wedge being used to divide people.
In a recent post, you said the Republicans want people to focus on “everyday Trump supporters who wandered in” during the J6 insurrection, not the “militia and other well-trained and organized people who sought to overturn the election by force.” What’s going on here?
Yes, that's a form of eulogistic covering, a term coined by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in which something negative is covered over with something acceptable or positive.
There were paramilitary operatives in the January 6 crowd. They were well-trained and organized. They worked together to get through the crowd. There's video evidence of this. They knew what they were doing and they were determined to get into the Capitol to stop the certification (or worse).
But they were not the bulk of people who attended the rally. Those people were there because Trump told them to be. They got swept up in the crowd and the insurrection. The Republican leadership wants us to focus on the average Trump supporter who was there to exercise their "free speech" rather than on the militia. They're using the average Trump supporter as a shield (eulogistic covering) for the militia.
Can the truth compete with lies?
Lies are really seductive, especially when they tell us what we want to believe. But I want to believe that the truth can not only compete, but that it's what we prefer. (I have motivated reasoning too!)
I think we'd really rather know than not know to face reality. It's Plato's Allegory of the Cave. We're deluded by shadows. If we learn that truth, it hurts us. When we try to tell others about the delusion, they try to hurt us. It's easier to pretend you don't know about the delusion.
But knowing is powerful. If you can know about the delusion, you can fix it. If you can see, it doesn't have power over you. I don't think we want to feel helpless. So you have to give people the truth in a way that makes them feel powerful and in control. So much of our political discourse is about disempowering people.