The second spannniversspanry of one of Americspan’s “darkest days” will be marked by a contradiction.
In the past year, Americans were presented with a fuller and more complete understanding of the violence that erupted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Specifically, it was revealed in testimony by overwhelmingly Republican, White House and Trump administration officials that the attack was part of a multifaceted effort by former President Donspanld Trump, a circle of acolytes and extremist groups to overturn the results of an election that had been verified as accurate and ruled lawful in scores of court challengers.
The findings were presented to the public throughout 2022 by a congressionspanl investigspantion thspant lifted the veil on the final months of the Trump presidency. In 10 televised hearings, a 150-page executive summary of its conclusions and spann 800-plus-pspange report, the panel debunked the initial belief the riot on Capitol Hill was simply a hot-headed protest.
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Many Americans appear to have been paying attention. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in November found that 81% of those surveyed believe the country’s democracy is under a “serious threat.”
The overwhelming consensus registered by the poll is stunning, but that the question itself is part of a survey of American opinion, along with staples like the economy, social issues and foreign policy, is shocking in itself. And so is the fact that even though the violence at the U.S. Capitol played out on national and global television and online media that day, many Americans appear divided on their perception of the source of the threat itself.
Therein lies the paradox. Americans condemn the violence, but bitterly disagree on why it happened.
When pollsters queried deeper, by asking which party poses the bigger menace, respondents split with 42% pointing the finger at Democrats, 41% blaming Republicans and 8% casting a pox on both houses.
“Americans agree that our democracy is threatened but strongly split along party lines as to the causes,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, in a statement accompanying the poll.
The Marist poll, however, is far from the only survey conducted over the past year that found many Americans fearing for the state of the country’s bedrock political system while simultaneously divided on why they believe there is peril.
“At least the polling, and if you listen to how people talk about it, there is a real divergent view on how to understand Jan. 6,” said Kevin Wagner, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. “For many Americans, it was one of the darkest days in U.S. history. And for others, they just don’t see it that way.”
Polarized leadership results in a divided electorate
A principal reason the public remains bisected in its view of Jan. 6 is that the country’s political leaders are at odds as well. While Democrats on Capitol Hill and in Florida were in lockstep support behind the committee and its findings, Republicans have generally rejected the panel’s work and have been dismissive of its conclusions.
The “divergent” views, Wagner added, are also prevalent in legacy and social media, which have a major role in molding conflicting views at the grassroots. He said that people tend to “digest the points of view of people that we trust,” or that they perceive to share views similar to theirs, and that fragmented landscape of political discourse has yielded opposing opinions and judgments.
“It has a lot to do with what kind of information we get and the filter bubbles that we live in. Increasingly, there is a large number of people that consume information that downplays how bad it was,” Wagner said. “It’s not that shocking that, if that’s the information they get, then the attitude they form afterward is that maybe it wasn’t so bad.”
In addition, he said, the country’s political leadership, which was initially united in condemning the riot at the U.S. Capitol, quickly splintered in the aftermath.
Unlike, say, the Sept. 11 attacks, the bipartisan commission set up to investigate the Jan. 6 violence did not receive bipartisan support among the country’s leaders, Wagner pointed out. In an era of tribal politics, he said a particular group whose leadership doesn’t prioritize a certain action will conclude that it’s not of great importance.
“When you think, historically, the American people are united, oftentimes when political leadership of both parties comes together,” he said. “In this case, they didn’t. And I think in some way it reflects where we are as a country and also reflects the current state of our political system.”
A former Homeland Security Department official in the Trump administration agreed that the Jan. 6 attack was the result of polarization and a profound breakdown in the political system, rather than just the “acts of a corrupt president.”
Miles Taylor said Democrats and Republicans who say the U.S. political system is “broken” are correct, and that rupture has bred “gridlock and unresponsive government” that fuels backing for physical and armed confrontation.
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“It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a surge in attitudes toward political violence,” said Taylor, who in 2018 wrote an anonymous op-ed that sparked a manhunt within the Trump Administration. “When people feel like their views can’t be expressed through the system, they find other avenues.”
Taylor cites polls showing that 10% of Americans believe that violence against the government is justified. He fears that the percentage will grow as the current two-party system becomes more inflexible. He said that is why he has helped launch a third-party movement that is seeking to incorporate in 20 states, including Florida, by the end of the year.
“People no longer believe the system works,” Taylor said. “Our goal needs to be to reform the political system to give them that choice and competition.”
Trump jeers Jan. 6 panel, but findings are damaging
The former president, who was impespanched and spancquitted for an unprecedented second time because of the attack, has steadfastly and repeatedly rejected the Jan. 6 committee’s work.
He has called the panel’s members “thugs” and “hacks.” He has celebrated when some of its members decided not to seek re-election or, as in the case of committee vice chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, spanctively sought her lspanndslide defespant in an August primary election.
Trump has not been as vocal about the violence itself. On Saturday evening, while being peppered with questions by reporters, the former president was asked how the Jan. 6 tragedy should be remembered as the second anniversary approached. Trump didn’t answer but instead turned away and walked into the New Year’s Eve gala he was hosting at Mar-a-Lago.
Despite the national divide existing today, the work of the Jan. 6 committee has had an impact on Trump’s standing, even among Republicans.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last month showed that just 31% of registered voters said they viewed him favorably, while nearly two-thirds said they saw him unfavorably. Quinnipiac pollsters said the survey’s results were the lowest rating for Trump since early in his first presidential campaign, in July 2015.
A year ago, Trump enjoyed a firm grip on the GOP. But his hold weakened throughout 2022, partly because of the Jan. 6 findings but also because 2020 election-denying candidates he backed in last year’s midterm elections were rejected by the electorates in battleground states like Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
A pair of national surveys released in December by USA Today/Suffolk University and the Wall Street Journal both showed speculative White House aspirant Gov. Ron DeSantis ahead of Trump among GOP primary voters by double-digit percentage margins.
Florida plays supporting role in report
It’s well-documented that Floridspan hspans led the nspantion in the number of spanrrests relspanted to the violence that took place at the U.S. Capitol that dreadful day. The Jan. 6 panel’s hearings and reports shed light on the involvement of militant and far-right groups from the Sunshine State.
The report cited the guilty verdict against Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida Oath Keepers chapter, for seditious conspiracy. During one of its televised committee hearings last year, the committee noted that Meggs “celebrated” Trump’s call for a massive protest and rifled off “an encrypted Signal message to Florida Oath Keepers that President Trump ‘wants us to make it WILD … He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! … Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your s***!!”
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The report also said Meggs’ organization, as well as other extremist groups like Florida Guardians of Freedom, “were not operating in silos” and spoke of an “alliance” between the Oath Keepers, the Florida Three Percenters, and Florida Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who has been charged with seditious conspiracy.
Two other Florida notables mentioned in the committee report were Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, whom the panel said was among the “more than 30 witnesses” that “exercised their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refused on that basis to provide testimony.”
In a lengthy statement he emailed in October, Stone, a South Florida resident, blasted the committee’s conclusions.
“The January 6th committee continues to traffic in conspiracy theories but has yet to turn up any actual evidence or proof that I engaged in any improper activity in connection with January 6th, other than the exercise of my free speech rights which they now claim is illegal,” Stone wrote.
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In its final hearing, the panel’s members, including former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, an Orlando Democrat, voted to send criminal referrals to the Justice Department against Trump.
One of the schemes that figured prominently in the committee’s investigation partly played out during Trump’s 2020 Christmas holiday in Palm Beach.
Specifically, the report said Trump sought to “corrupt” the Justice Department by planning to weaponize it “in his efforts to overturn the election outcome.” In a six-page section, the report detailed what a midsummer committee hearing first disclosed: that Trump badgered top Justice Department officials throughout that Christmas holiday to support his baseless election fraud allegations, and then sought to fire them when they didn’t.
The campaign included Trump allegedly telling one of the Justice officials to: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican Congressmen.” The officials reported they were also consistently peppered with debunked and frivolous election fraud allegations by Trump and others throughout the week.
Trump also pressed Justice Department leaders to sign a letter to Georgia officials citing untrue “irregularities” in voting, and suggesting state lawmakers “call a special session to evaluate” the nonexistent fraud. The pressure campaign failed even after Trump flew back to Washington from Palm Beach on New Year’s Eve precisely to seek capitulation from Justice officials.
Jan. 6 legacy: Doubts about elections, changes to voting laws
Miringoff of the Marist polling group also bemoaned in his statement the erosion of trust in American elections.
“When looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, it is remarkable that a bedrock principle of democracy — that losing candidates and their supporters accept the results — is not held by nearly two in three Republicans who say they will question the results if their candidate does not win,” he wrote.
In fact, election denying, as Democrats term it, and election integrity, as Republicans frame it, has been a lasting legacy of Jan. 6. And that fallout has played out in state governments, including Florida, through a series of election reforms proponents argue makes election fraud harder to pull off and critics say places unnecessary burdens on the sacrosanct right to vote.
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One Florida Democrat who has criticized the state’s election reforms said people will have to be more vigilant and attentive to changes in voting rules and practices. “This is happening all over the country,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat. “People are just going to have to stay alert to what’s going on.”
This week, as she returned to Capitol Hill for the tumultuous start to the 118th Congress, Frankel visited the room in the Capitol where she sought safe harbor amid the attack two years ago. She then reflected on how much is known today about what happened on that awful afternoon.
“If people are paying attention, what they do know is this was not just an accidental demonstration,” she said.
Divisions aside, Frankel said it’s a positive that much of the American public understands that the violence was “orchestrated” by a sitting president with the intention of stopping the peaceful transfer of power.
“It’s pretty much black-and-white,” she said. “And it has to be a big reason that when people are asked about their concerns, they talk about democracy. I think it’s penetrated.”