Why voters don't blame Republicans for the Capitol riot — no GOP leaders have been arrested yet

As long as Trump and other leaders walk free, low information voters will conclude that January 6 was no big deal

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 18, 2022 12:52PM (EST)

US President Donald Trump speaks at "Save America March" rally in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks at "Save America March" rally in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Over the long weekend, Gallup released a poll that sent a shock wave through Democratic circles: There's been a 14 point swing in party preference from Democratic to Republican in the past year. While 49% of Americans leaned Democratic and 40% leaned Republican in January 2021, at the beginning of 2022, the parties have nearly reversed positions. Now 47% of Americans prefer Republicans while a mere 42% prefer Democrats. 

From one angle, it makes sense. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be the dominant political issue, and President Joe Biden is getting blamed for it, even though the real cause is Republican pundits and politicians convincing their followers to be disease vectors in order to sabotage Biden's presidency. The ongoing failure of Democrats to pass any of Biden's political priorities can't be helping, either, especially as the result is a drumbeat of headlines about Biden failing. 

But it still is stunning to see this dramatic swing, for one major reason: The Republicans are actively trying to destroy democracy. Worse, there was a high-profile assault on the Capitol a mere year ago that should, by any reasonable measure, illustrate the profoundly fascistic leanings of the current GOP.

RELATED: One year later, mainstream media still doesn't see Jan. 6 attack as racial

The implicit and sometimes explicit support for the insurrection by Republicans is obvious to the politically aware. Not only does the Republican Party continue to cover up Donald Trump's role in inciting the riot, but the party nationwide is acting on Trump's demands to help him steal the 2024 election through voter suppression and election interference. Meanwhile, prominent Republican figures continue to promote political violence, while Trump is the strong favorite for the GOP nomination 2024, with an overtly insurrectionist campaign built around his Big Lie. 

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The problem is that the voters who are swinging hard to the GOP know basically none of this. Instead, they assume that the Republicans are a normal political party. There are lots of people to blame for this, of course. Biden and Democrats didn't do themselves any favors by spending the past year talking up "unity" and "bipartisanship," instead of focusing like a laser on the fact that the GOP is actively conspiring with Trump to cover up for January 6 and perpetuate his war on democracy. The media also plays a role, exhibiting an unwillingness to challenge Republicans directly about their anti-democratic ideology

But, ultimately, the biggest problem is the utter lack of accountability for any of the prominent Republicans involved in Jan. 6. Neither Trump nor any Republican leader has been arrested for their efforts to steal the election that led up to the Capitol riot. So far, the only people who have been arrested for the Capitol insurrection have been the people who actually stormed the building or far-right militia types who coordinated their actions that day. So that ends up reinforcing the impression, especially with people who don't follow the news very closely, that the riot was a result of a bunch of self-directed fringe characters, and has nothing to do with the mainstream Republican Party. Unless the cuffs start coming out for Trump and his fellow elite Republicans, it will be hard to convince these voters to see the insurrection as anything but an anomalous event, instead of part of a larger anti-democratic conspiracy. 

RELATED: Democrats hit the panic button. Is it too little too late for Joe Biden?

Focus group data confirms this. As McClatchy reporter Alex Roarty explained last week in a tweet thread, swing voters simply don't see January 6 as a "big deal" and talk about it as a "tragedy," as if it was a weather event, instead of what it was, a partisan political effort to overthrow an election. Participants in the focus groups repeatedly talked about the Capitol riot as if Democrats were exaggerating when they talk about that day or its implications. 

In one focus group, however, one participant linked the attack to the larger assault on democracy and, crucially, expressed concern that the people behind the attack weren't facing justice. After that, the tone of the group switched to genuine concern for democracy. Participants, Roarty explained, then expressed "a desire to find person responsible for attack." Without that, however, connecting the attack to the GOP didn't make sense to them. 

This comports with findings of other focus groups. One conducted by Axios found that swing voters think the jury is still out on who is to blame for the Capitol insurrection, though they repeatedly expressed interest in finding out through legal investigation. Another, held by the New York Times, found that even though the Democratic voters took the Capitol insurrection seriously, they expressed frustration "that those responsible for the events on Jan. 6 had not been brought to justice." Even some Republicans called the event "scary," but again, as the only people being arrested for it are the small-timers, they can tell themselves a story about how it has nothing to do with the mainstream GOP. 

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The logic of the typical low information voter isn't all that hard to parse: If Trump and other Republicans had actually tried to commit a coup, then why aren't they in jail for it? It's a serious crime, after all. The lack of arrests sends a strong signal that it must not be that important. Most people tend to consume a lot more "Law and Order" than they do investigative pieces by the Washington Post. They likely won't read the umpteenth investigative piece on this complex coup. They would, however, notice Trump and GOP members of Congress getting arrested. 

Last week, there were some high profile charges of Stewart Rhodes and other members of the Oath Keepers for "seditious conspiracy" for their part in the January 6 riot. As some commentators pointed out, this undermines efforts from Republican pundits to deny that the attack was an insurrection. However, it does little to dissuade swing voters from viewing the events of that day as driven by an otherwise powerless right-wing fringe. Rhodes has a past as a congressional staffer and a judicial clerk, but he deliberately dresses like he's a wild-eyed militiaman, helping reinforce the false narrative that he and his fellows have no real relationship to mainstream Republican politics. 

RELATED: Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes charged with seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6 role

Democrats can make speeches blaming Trump and other Republicans for the insurrection, but they can't make skeptical swing voters believe them. On the contrary, such voters tend to be the first to ascribe cynical and self-serving motives to political speech, and see such sentiments as empty rhetoric — if they aren't backed up by action. In political media, there tends to be a lot of hand-wringing concern about how charging GOP leadership that was involved in the coup with crimes could be read as "political." For ordinary voters who pay little attention to politics, the opposite is true: The lack of charges reads as evidence that there's nothing to charge Trump and his coup conspirators with. They see political rhetoric blaming Republicans as therefore partisan hyperbole. 

To be certain, things could change. There are some hints that the Department of Justice(DOJ) is not ignoring the role of Trump and other high-level Republicans in the insurrection, and Salon's own Brian Karem reports that sources in the DOJ suggest there's even a conspiracy investigation into Trump. The January 6 committee, meanwhile, keeps turning up more information that could, in theory, lead to Trump's prosecution. 

But, by definition, low information voters aren't going to get into the weeds on this sort of thing. They glance at the headlines, see Trump is still free, and assume therefore that he didn't do anything worth arresting him over. They continue to view him as a jackass and not a criminal. Unfortunately, "jackass" is someone that a lot of people will vote for, as previous elections and current polls showing Trump neck-in-neck with Biden demonstrate. Without the public perp walk, a significant number of people won't see Trump as the mastermind behind Jan. 6. So Democrats will continue to fail to paint Republicans as the authoritarian insurrectionists they actually are. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Capitol Riot Commentary Department Of Justice Donald Trump January 6 Joe Biden