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Kevin McCarthy won’t let Republicans “move on” from January 6

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., seems committed to a philosophy of governance by trolling.

On Wednesday, McCarthy granted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., the chance to be speaker pro tempore, despite — or likely because — the congresswoman rose to fame by harassing survivors of school shootings and hyping the QAnon conspiracy theory. Handing Greene the gavel likely got the desired response of widespread liberal outrage, with folks deeming the move “vile” and “shameful.

Provocations like this help with Republican fundraising, no doubt. Nothing opens MAGA wallets faster than success at “triggering the liberals.” Still, the move is a puzzling one, from a political standpoint. However much money it makes is overshadowed by the incredibly bad optics of McCarthy pandering to the most radical elements in his party. Republicans performed well under expectations in the 2022 midterms, precisely because the voters turned against people like Greene, who has been calling for a “national divorce” and celebrating the January 6 insurrectionists as if they were unjustly detained activists. One former aide of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., griped that it was a “[f]ree campaign commercial for Democrats.”

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It’s especially strange that McCarthy went there after what was, at best, an underwhelming attempt earlier in the week at empowering the insurrectionist right by working with Tucker Carlson at Fox News to rewrite the history of January 6. McCarthy had showily given Carlson access to previously unreleased footage of the Capitol riot, no doubt with the full understanding that Carlson would put out flat-out lies about what happened that day. But even a propagandist as talented as Carlson can’t turn the Capitol riot straw into gold.

It’s not just that Carlson fell flat at pretending the riot was either peaceful or justified. By making a big honking deal out of these efforts to rewrite reality, Carlson and McCarthy ended up making January 6 — which is a major political albatross for Republicans — top headline news all week. Even the January 6 committee was often less successful than Carlson at putting the insurrection front and center in American political discourse.

Even a propagandist as talented as Tucker Carlson can’t turn the Capitol riot straw into gold.

Many Republicans are starting to get miffed at Carlson. As Axios reported, many Senate and even some House Republicans are griping that they want to “move on” and put January 6 in the “past.” As one anonymous House Republican told Axios, “this is not a winning issue with swing voters.” Smart Republicans want to shove January 6 down the memory hole, instead of constantly reminding voters that Donald Trump attempted to overthrow democracy.

But House GOP leadership clearly has gone all in on the effort to recast January 6 as a glorious day that Republicans should be celebrating. Giving Greene, who is the most famous apologist for the riot in Congress, the gavel for a day was just the beginning of McCarthy’s insurrection-friendly gestures this week. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., was announced as the head of a new “investigation” into the January 6 committee. The choice is a pointed one, as Loudermilk was caught on camera giving Capitol tours to people who subsequently stormed the building. (Loudermilk denies intentionally helping insurrectionists to case the joint.) House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky. and Greene also announced an upcoming congressional visit to the January 6 prisoners. 

McCarthy will still pull faces and pretend to disapprove of the insurrection, but all these gestures taken together paint a clear picture: House Republican leadership is backing the “January 6 was good, actually” narrative. And McCarthy is doubling down on this revisionism, even though the splashiest move in that direction — giving footage to Carlson — seems to be backfiring spectacularly. 

It’s worth remembering that one of the biggest questions of 2022 was how Democrats were going to be able to keep January 6 fresh on voters minds, knowing as we all do how the mainstream media has short attention spans. The January 6 committee was a triumph not just because they made a persuasive case for Donald Trump’s guilt. They overcame what was believed to be substantial odds against them, in order to get the media talking about January 6 all over again. Post-election polling suggests it had a huge impact, in that voters cited concerns about saving democracy as a reason they turned out to vote. 

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Now McCarthy, Greene, and other far-right Republicans in the House seem determined to do Democrats’ work for them, and make sure that people are talking about January 6 throughout 2023. Democrats are definitely capitalizing on this moment. Wednesday, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who sat on the January 6 committee, gave a barnburner of a speech in Congress, declaring that Republicans want people “to disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes and our own ears,” and reminding viewers, “We saw them come and descend upon this chamber, this Congress, wounding and injuring 150 of our police officers, breaking people’s noses, breaking people’s fingers, putting people in the hospital.” The speech got widespread coverage. 

Smart Republicans want to shove January 6 down the memory hole, instead of constantly reminding voters that Donald Trump attempted to overthrow democracy.

President Joe Biden’s White House took the rare step of calling Carlson out directly, issuing a statement condemning “this false depiction of the unprecedented, violent attack on our Constitution and the rule of law — which cost police officers their lives.” And when Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tried to use his subcommittee to portray January 6 rioters as innocent victims of federal overreach, Democrats released a widely-covered report exposing the GOP witnesses to be far-right operatives who traffick in conspiracy theories. 

It’s a genuine mystery, however, why Republicans are so eager to write their opponents’ campaign ads for them. It may just be hubris. McCarthy and his far-right cronies often exist in the same right-wing media bubble as their followers. They may not know that these stunts are alienating to anyone who isn’t already a devoted Fox News junkie. It may about money. The House GOP has been sending fundraising emails hyping Carlson’s propaganda efforts because while most Americans are alienated, the kind of people who give them money love this sort of thing. It may just be the ongoing faith that McCarthy and his fellow travelers have that Trump has serious political mojo, a belief that seems impervious to the fact that Trump keeps losing Republicans otherwise winnable elections. 

The grimmest possibility: These Republicans may not care about electability at all. Voters are grossed out by the relitigating of January 6. Potential domestic terrorists, however, are energized. As Barton Gellman chronicled this month at the Atlantic, election officials are being terrorized across the country by bloodthirsty MAGA devotees. If the goal is not to win elections, but to steal them, there’s value in keeping the most unhinged members of the MAGA base keyed up and ready to threaten anyone who protects free and fair election systems. If your belief that January 6 was just the beginning of a violent revolt to end democracy, well, you would be behaving exactly how Greene, McCarthy, and Carlson are now. 

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