The idea that Republicans are embracing Trump because of the insurrection sits uneasily with the growing popularity of conspiracy theories and denialism about what happened on January 6. But while these are not reconcilable, they don’t have to be reconciled. As Thomas Edsall recently wrote, many people who buy into conspiracy theories believe in multiple, mutually incompatible theories. Hence someone could believe that the election was stolen, that the riot was righteous, and also that “antifa” was responsible for fomenting violence.
The notion that antifa was behind the insurrection, with which Trump’s lawyers flirted during the Senate hearings, serves another purpose. The invocation of antifa is an effort to convince voters who backed or are sympathetic to Trump that however bad he might be, the other side is more of a threat, from which he’s keeping his supporters safe. (The former president’s attorneys pointed out that a self-described liberal activist was arrested and charged over the events at the Capitol; that person seems to not be a member of any antifa group, nor does his presence show he organized them.)
Not all Republicans are willing to accept or even defend the insurrection. Seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump. (Many are now facing censure from GOP groups at home.) Others, like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, tried to have it both ways, by blasting Trump’s conduct but voting against conviction on a (rather unconvincing) constitutional technicality.
But politicians’ careers depend on being able to see where the party’s voters are. The senior senator from South Carolina is a good case. His embrace of Trump occasioned scores of “What happened to Lindsey Graham?” inquiries, but Graham has a good nose for where Republican voters are. When it seemed like GOP voters wanted a stiff-spined statesman, he emulated John McCain. When Trump took over, he became a sycophantic Trump backer.
Trump’s loss hasn’t broken the bond. Graham helped Trump’s election-theft effort, placing a call to the Georgia secretary of state in which Graham allegedly pressured him to help overturn the election. Graham emerged as a defender of the president during last week’s impeachment trial, and is now warning that Republicans will impeach Vice President Kamala Harris for supporting Black Lives Matter protests if they take the majority. (Never mind that the BLM/January 6 analogy is nonsense, or his implication that Republicans are powerless to stop themselves from taking actions they think are bad.)
Read: The hole where Donald Trump was
While this sort of positioning can help Republicans in primary elections, and will not harm them in red states like South Carolina, it is probably bad for the GOP in swing states and in national elections. Being forced to choose between a militant base and a horrified broader populace places politicians in an untenable spot. Trump twice lost the popular vote for the presidency, and under him the GOP lost control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. Nonetheless, the imperative to appeal to core Republican voters gives us Representative Jim Jordan insisting that “cancel culture” is the most important issue facing the country, even as barely half the country has heard of the concept.