Why They Still Support Trump

What began as a reluctant willingness to defend the former president soon became an ingrained habit.

Supporters of Donald Trump hold up a sign at a "Save America" rally.
Brandon Bell / Getty

About the author: Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, and the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

The seven public hearings by the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, have made the task of dot connecting easy: America’s 45th president oversaw and directed a multipart plan to violently overturn the 2020 election. Texts and testimonies of those in Donald Trump’s inner orbit have shattered every excuse that the former president’s supporters had publicly broadcast since that awful, searing day.

Which raises an important and intriguing question: How are those supporters responding now?

It depends on the Trump supporter, of course. For some right-wing zealots, who have an enormous stake in keeping the Big Lie alive, the reflex is to attack the committee as “crazed and media-enabled” and “abusing Constitutional rights.” For those somewhat less delirious, the reaction is to mock and dismiss committee members, most especially Representative Liz Cheney. Still others have avoided watching the January 6 hearings. They have other, more important things to do, as one person put it to me. Hear no evil, see no evil.

Almost all of Trump’s supporters want to cast their gaze elsewhere—on some other issue, on some other hearing, on some other controversy. They’ll do anything to keep from having to confront the reality of what happened on January 6. What you’re very unlikely to see, except in the rarest of cases, is genuine self-reflection or soul-searching, regret or remorse, feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Why?

Trump supporters have spent much of the past half dozen years defending their man; their political and cultural identity has become fused with his. Some of them may have started out as lukewarm allies, but over time their support became less qualified and more enthusiastic. The unusual intensity of the Trump years increased their bond to him. He was the captain of Team Red. In their minds, loyalty demanded they stick with him, acting as his shield one day, his sword the next.

What began as a reluctant willingness to defend Trump soon became an ingrained habit. They ignored or excused his moral and legal transgressions; each time they did, the next excuse got a little easier. They could not bear to acknowledge to themselves, and certainly not to anyone else, that they were defending a seditious scoundrel. The cognitive dissonance was overwhelming; their self-conception would not allow them to admit they were complicit in a corrupt enterprise. This was particularly the case of those who insisted for decades prior to the Trump era that high moral character mattered in political leaders. And so they twisted themselves into knots, downplaying Trump’s maliciousness, hyper-focusing on the sins of the left. They rather liked that Trump would bring a Glock to a political and cultural knife fight.

But something else, something even more powerful, was going on. Many Trump supporters grew to hate his critics even more than they came to love Trump. For them, Trump’s detractors were not just wrong but wicked, obsessed with getting Trump, and hell-bent on destroying America. Former Republicans who turned against Trump—“Never Trumpers,” as we became known—were particularly loathed. We were viewed as disloyal, even traitorous, having turned on Trump to win the praise of the liberal elite. For Trump supporters to admit that they were wrong about him—and especially to admit that Trump’s critics had been right about him—would blow their circuits. If they ever do turn on Trump, they will admit it only to themselves and maybe a few close intimates. I’ve said before that asking Trump supporters to focus on his moral turpitude is like asking them to stare into the sun. They can do it for a split second, and then they have to look away. The Trump years have been all about looking away.

We saw two exceptions to the rule during yesterday’s hearings. One was Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesperson for the Oath Keepers, which he described as a violent militia and a threat to democracy. (The leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, has been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol attack.) Van Tatenhove left the group in 2018, over its denial of the Holocaust.

“I think we saw a glimpse of the vision of what the Oath Keepers is on January 6,” Van Tatenhove said about the group’s vision for America. “It doesn’t necessarily include the rule of law. It includes violence. It includes trying to get their way through lies, through deceit, through intimidation, and through the perpetration of violence.”

Van Tatenhove added that groups like the Oath Keepers thrive on propaganda, particularly “the swaying of people who may not know better through lies and rhetoric and propaganda that can get swept up in these moments. And I’ll admit, I was swept up at one point as well.”

Another person who was swept up in lies and propaganda was Stephen Ayres, an Ohio man who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct related to the attack on the Capitol. Ayres, who was radicalized but not a member of the Oath Keepers, told the committee that he had gone to Washington at Trump’s direction and marched to the Capitol when the president told him to. Ayres said he would never have gone in the first place had he known that Trump’s election-fraud claims were false.

“We basically were just following what he said,” Ayres told the committee. “I was hanging on to every word he was saying.”

In describing what happened to him, Ayres said, “I felt like I had, you know, like horse blinders on—I was locked in the whole time.” He added, “The biggest thing for me is, take the blinders off; make sure you step back and see what’s going on before it’s too late.”

To their credit, Van Tatenhove and Ayres—for all the mistakes they’ve made—broke from the cultlike spell that had gripped them. They eventually chose truth over political tribe. Most of the Republican Party cannot say the same thing.

During yesterday’s hearing, the committee revealed an exchange that took place the evening of January 6 between Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Katrina Pierson, who had been a Trump adviser and fierce Trump defender. At 7:14 p.m., several hours after the attack on the Capitol, Parscale texted Pierson:

Brad Parscale: This is about trump pushing for uncertainty in our country

Parscale: A sitting president asking for civil war

Parscale: This week I feel guilty for helping him win

Katrina Pierson: You did what you felt right at the time and therefore it was right

Parscale: Yeah. But a woman is dead

Pierson: You do realize this was going to happen

Parscale: Yeah. If I was trump and knew my rhetoric killed someone

Pierson: It wasn’t the rhetoric

Parscale: Katrina.

Parscale: Yes it was

Parscale may not believe now what he said then. (On February 6, 2021, he tweeted that Trump should “run again” because “history remembers those who didn’t conform.”) But for at least one brief moment in the early evening of January 6, Parscale, like Van Tatenhove and Ayres, saw who Trump truly is, in all his depravity. And Parscale admitted that he felt guilty for having helped Trump win. If other Republicans would express the same sentiment given what we now know—if they would finally summon the moral courage to embrace truth rather than lies; if they would acknowledge the grave damage Trump has done to so many lives and institutions—then healing and reconciliation could begin. Republicans should take the blinders off at last.