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Trump's foolish Jan 6 campaign gamble

A bizarre spectacle unfolded over the weekend in which Donald Trump’s proponents and adversaries alike engaged in biblical exegesis in their analysis of the former president’s forecast that a “bloodbath” would follow his loss in November’s elections. The whole affair had the feel of Trump’s first term, but it came at the expense of litigating his intentions for his second. As the intoxicating high of that nostalgic exercise has subsided, however, the press has begun to parse elements of that same rally more relevant to current political circumstances. Among them, the president’s conspicuous effort to create a martyrology around the January 6 rioters.

The Associated Press is on the case today. Its belated dispatch from Trump’s Ohio rally over the weekend detailed what has become the former president’s stock opening bit: apologia for the rioters. Trump raises his hand “in salute” as “a recorded chorus of prisoners in jail for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack” sing the national anthem. An announcer appeals to the crowd’s empathy “for the horribly and unfairly treated January 6th hostages,” which the audience eagerly provides. “They were unbelievable patriots,” Trump insisted, having previously vowed to pardon the rioters on his first day in office. And he seems to mean it. “President Trump will restore justice for all Americas who have been unfairly treated,” said campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt when pressed.

Semafor reporter Shelby Talcott’s journalism indicates that the Trump campaign has been persuaded to devote some of the campaign to crafting hagiographical portraits of the rioters, praising their zeal and condemning their treatment at the hands of U.S. law enforcement. Talcott’s piece notes that there are some internal divisions in Trump’s orbit over whether the rioters deserve blanket amnesty, but those divisions are not yet especially pronounced. One advocate for the January 6 defendants who has Trump’s ear told Talcott that their cause should feature prominently in the campaign to come, including a “presence” for the “January 6 movement” at the Republican National Convention this summer.

Much like the manic news cycle around Trump’s “bloodbath” remarks, the press can be expected to succumb to the temptation to emote over the danger inherent in rhetoric that glorifies violence. That’s not an unfounded concern. Indeed, it’s one many Americans appear to share. But high dudgeon crowds out opportunities to note with all due dispassion that Trump’s instincts aren’t just reckless. They’re also incandescently stupid.

As I’ve had to write far more often than I should, Americans do not approve of what happened on January 6. What’s more, there are many indications voters do not want to invite the circumstances that could lead to a repeat of those events. With little in the way of a popular record on which to run a reelection campaign, Joe Biden’s team has elevated the “threat to democracy” posed by Trump and his movement to a place of prominence in its appeals to voters. Making the cause of the January 6 rioters into a central feature of Trump’s campaign plays directly into Biden’s hands. His movement’s addiction to revisionist narratives around that day’s events creates news cycles Democrats can and will exploit to their benefit. Relitigating a traumatic episode most Americans would like to move beyond creates the conditions Democrats would otherwise have to rely on the courts to introduce into the national bloodstream.

More accomplished political tacticians than Trump have tried to make a nuanced case for distinguishing January 6 convicts who received heavy sentences from the event’s ringleaders convicted of vandalism, obstruction, and assaulting police officers. They’ve tried to advance the non sequitur that the 2020 rioters convicted of participation in that summer’s violence weren’t treated as harshly and, therefore . . . well, it’s not entirely clear what follows that assertion. That might help explain why the Republicans who committed themselves to that rhetorical project have reaped precisely no rewards for their efforts.

You would need a private investigator to find the voters who will head to the ballot box in November intent on clearing the January 6 rioters’ good names. If the GOP elevates that cause to a campaign theme, it will be a self-inflicted wound aimed only at retroactively conditioning the public into believing the riots and Trump’s association with them, however adjacent that association may be, weren’t as big a deal as the press maintains. Best of luck with that.

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