Donald Trump is done pretending. He is now openly celebrating the Capitol riot

Trump's instincts were always to valorize the insurrection — and he's no longer letting GOP worrywarts stop him

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 3, 2022 1:06PM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

To anyone who was watching the events of January 6 unfold live on television, one thing was quite clear: Donald Trump was excited and proud about the violence he incited.

As the timeline of his actions that day shows, he was so wound up tweeting invective at Congress and his vice president, Mike Pence, that he barely slept the night before. Once the riot was underway, Trump spent hours resisting the pressure to call off his dogs, instead tweeting more invective and ass-covering calls to "stay peaceful" that the crowd knew not to take seriously. He was also reportedly gleefully entranced by the footage of the insurrection. After three hours of rioting, he finally told the crowd to "go home" — but only after it was clear that the riot wasn't going to overturn the election.

The blood was still being mopped off the floors when the great GOP gaslighting began. Republicans fell in line behind this narrative that the riot was not incited by Trump, but that it was an entirely self-directed action of a few thousand kooks and that it was only a wild coincidence it started after Trump's incendiary speech. Trump has always clearly chafed at the expectation that he go along with this narrative, wanted to instead publicly gloat about this demonstration of the power he has over people. Now, a year after the riot, Trump appears to be done with pretending to disapprove of the riot. He's circling back to his initial instinct, which was to celebrate it as the glorious MAGA revolution he always wanted it to be. 

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This was most obvious in Trump's promise over the weekend to consider pardoning the January 6 rioters if he regains the White House in 2024. Politico soon reported that this was hardly some new urge of Trump's. He spent the two weeks between the riot and Joe Biden's inauguration asking advisors if he could issue a blanket pardon for everyone involved. He was waved off the idea, because it conflicted with the GOP's strategy of denying Trump's role. Trump, forever the coward, went along with the demands, even though it meant not getting to take the credit for the mayhem he unleashed. But, by making this promise of pardons — to a cheering crowd of thousands of supporters — he is sending a strong signal that he's done pretending to feel anything but beaming pride over inciting an insurrection. 

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Which isn't to say that Trump is no longer torn between wanting to celebrate the insurrection openly and worried about the legal jeopardy that might flow from that stance.

Over the weekend, he released an unhinged statement in which he outright said that he had wanted to "overturn" the election. But when members of the January 6 committee pointed out that was tantamount to a confession, Trump tried to walk it back with another statement about how he meant to say he just wanted to send "back the votes for recertification or approval." 

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The pardon promise also could create legal problems for Trump. As January 6 committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told MSNBC Wednesday night, the rally speech is "very important evidence as to his intent" that Trump desired and condoned the violence. No doubt Trump's lawyers are advising him of the same danger. And yet, he can't or won't stop trying to publicly recast the insurrectionists as heroes. In a Newsmax interview this week, Trump falsely insisted "nobody died on Jan. 6" except Ashli Babbitt, who he described as "one young, fine woman." Making a martyr of Babbitt, who was shot because she was trying to lead a charge to run down fleeing members of Congress, is central to the pro-insurrection narrative. 

Trump may feel hemmed in by legal concerns, but his political instincts clearly tell him that recasting the Capitol insurrection as a glorious revolution is the right move. Certainly, the cheers he got for promising pardons underscores that the base is with him. But many other Republican leaders aren't so sure, and really want to stick with the B.S. story that the riot was just a random thing that happened and Trump had nothing to do with it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been surprisingly outspoken about this, telling reporters that the riot was "an effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power" and insisting that people who participated should be punished. Even Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. — who is always trying to be on the vanguard of right-wing nuttery — has been queasy about celebrating the riot itself, preferring to hide behind conspiracy theories blaming the violence on the FBI instead

But Trump's instinct to simply come out in favor of the storming of the Capitol sadly makes a lot of sense, politically, if not legally. The current GOP position, which amounts to disapproving of the rioters while supporting their larger anti-democratic aims, is incoherent. The vast majority of Republicans, both voters and leaders, have decided to embrace the Big Lie, largely because it creates the pretext to pass a bunch of laws and seize electoral offices in such a way that the next coup, in 2024, is successful. Trying to be for the Big Lie, but against the violence that flows from it, is too delicate a needle to thread. It's easier and simpler to stand for the whole kaboodle — the Big Lie, the insurrection, the ongoing coup. And Trump understands better than anyone that "easy" and "simple" are huge advantages in political messaging. 

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Plus, as Heather "Digby" Parton has been arguing at Salon, Trump is clearly worried that the walls are closing in and that it will be impossible to successfully hide the evidence that he was both attempting to overturn the election and that he deliberately called on a violent mob in order to make that happen. This is a fairly standard Trump strategy when he realizes he can't cover up a crime. Instead, he simply owns it, says it was a good thing, and dares anyone to do anything about it. So far, that's worked beautifully for him, and the continued inability of Attorney General Merrick Garland to arrest Trump for one of his many public crimes suggests it will continue to work for Trump. 

The only question is how long it will take for the rest of the GOP to fall in line?

They also have a pattern when it comes to Trump's crimes, from his admitted sexual assault to his efforts to steal the election: First, there is resistance and disapproval, but soon they give in and either excuse or, in most cases, outright defend Trump's behavior. There's growing political pressure within the Republican ranks to go along with the "January 6 was good, actually" narrative. A proposal to formally kick Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois out of the party has 50 Republican House co-sponsors already. It's not because these two support free and fair elections, as they are fully on board with the voter suppression efforts going on at the state level. It's just that they sit on the January 6 committee and are appalled with the violence of the riot that has put them at odds with their party. Kicking them out amounts to a symbolic vote of confidence for the the insurrection itself. 

For most Republicans, it would probably be easier to "move on" from the insurrection, which is to say talk about anything else while quietly supporting legislative efforts to make the next coup stick. But Trump isn't going to let them. As long as the January 6 committee and media keeps pushing out evidence of how deeply involved Trump was and how extensive the coup efforts were, Trump is going to keep circling back to the idea that every action he took, no matter how violent or criminal, was justified and noble. As long as he does that, Republicans are going to be forced to choose between pandering to the Trump base and trying to distance themselves from the violence that turns off moderate voters. But we always know how this story ends. Republicans always cave to Trump. And so it will be when it comes to the story of whether the riot was bad or good. It's just a matter of time. 

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 Donald Trump January 6 Mitch Mcconnell