The shadow Jan. 6 still casts: ‘James Madison’s ultimate nightmare’

January 12, 2022 12:02 am

Two men stand near the scene of the Jan. 6 riot the U.S. Capitol. (Alex Kent/ For the Tennessee Lookout)

It was not unlike the formulaic false ending in a horror movie.

You could have been forgiven for thinking the worst was over when the mob of MAGAns had been repulsed from the halls of the U.S. Capitol and Congress resumed its duty of certifying the presidential election returns last year.

But the spectacle of scores of Republicans — including our lily-livered Virginia GOP delegation of Ben Cline, Bob Good, Morgan Griffith and Rob Wittman — voting last year against certifying the election results despite the chaos and violence they’d all just witnessed was the real-life equivalent of Michael Myers rising zombie-like from the floor.

We really should have seen it coming.

After all, what had the Trump years been for Republicans except a long, inexorable exercise in trading principle for political expediency? And though for a handful of them Jan. 6, 2021, was a bridge too far, for most of the others it was just another occasion for dissembling, dodging and whatabouting that continues to this day.

Rather than the pull-back-from-the-brink moment many of us hoped Jan. 6 would be, instead it has only become another fault line in our bitter polarization. And it’s reverberated in our national and state politics ever since.

Witness the delicate dance our new governor, Glenn Youngkin, had to perform, tiptoeing around “election integrity” until he was declared the winner of the Republican convention, a method the party had decided on because it could not, in fact, trust primary voters to select an electable candidate. Witness Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, a conservative who had been in the House of Delegates for 13 years, felled in a primary by a lawyer named Wren Williams who was Trump’s deputy legal counsel during the recount in Wisconsin, which cost the Trump campaign more than $3 million and ended up boosting President Joe Biden’s margin of victory. Williams deemed Poindexter insufficiently supportive of Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him.

“I guess the final straw for me is November came and went, then December, then January, and we didn’t hear a peep out of my delegate,” said Williams, who is joining the House of Delegates when it gavels in today. “Nothing about the election, nothing about Donald Trump, nothing about election integrity.”

There’s also new Del. Marie March, R-Floyd, who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Capitol riot, though she says she didn’t march to the Capitol. March has introduced legislation permitting local school boards “to display on the sides and rear of public school buses decals containing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ or the phrase ‘One Nation Under God,'” the better, apparently, to identify the commies at the General Assembly who will presumably out themselves by opposing her bill.

U.S. Capitol police officers point their guns at a door that was vandalized in the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. when Trump supporters breached the building. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

They will join incumbent Dels. John McGuire and Dave LaRock, who also attended the Stop the Steal rally, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who is perennially on the outs with her GOP colleagues in the Senate and was censured by the body for her comments lending support to the attack on the Capitol. Collectively, they are sure to up the nonsense level in the oldest continuous legislative body in the western hemisphere and cause headaches for their leadership.

Last week, I asked George Mason University political science professor Mark Rozell, who talked with me last year on the eve of the Capitol riot, what the intervening year has taught us about politics. Here’s what he had to say:

On the Democrats’ wall-to-wall Jan. 6 anniversary speechifying and moralizing and whether it was effective: 

Rozell: “How can they be so naive a year later to think any minds would change at all on the other side? There they were expressing absolute astonishment that the two Cheneys were the only ones on the floor. … They were speaking to their own support base primarily… to an audience of those who rightfully are astonished, dismayed, scared for the future of this country and wanted powerful voices to reflect those very strong sentiments held by many Americans.”

On Trump’s shadow still looming over GOP politics:

“Trump’s hold on the Republican base remains secure and the incumbents recognize that they will get a primary going against him if they are not loyal to him. …Political scientists have said for generations that the first rule of Congress is to get reelected. …For those folks asking for profiles in courage, there’s a reason why those people are considered extraordinary in history and there are several, not hundreds, of chapters in that book.”

On a Virginia Republican Party that has become moderate enough to unify behind Youngkin but also is putting some majorly right-wing lawmakers in office:

“That’s a feature of very different electoral constituencies. … The House of Delegates candidates are running from relatively small districts, oftentimes with very like-minded constituencies. It is possible to run as a strong, unyielding Trump Republican in a rural conservative legislative district and win. … Statewide, Youngkin had to walk a tightrope act. He had to hold the rural Trump voting base while at the same time appealing to moderate swing voters in the urban crescent, and, remarkably to some, he did. And by the way he was helped by Terry McAuliffe in that regard.”

On where Jan. 6 belongs in the pantheon of low moments in American history: 

“This brings me to (Vice President) Kamala Harris’ speech. She invoked the three horrible days in American history. … For the former two, this country unified, that’s the big difference. There’s no debate about what happened at Pearl Harbor and 9/11, leaving aside some real outlier conspiracy crazy stuff. … But, on Jan. 6, … are we really gonna argue about what’s right there for everybody to see? And yet you hear these conspiracy theories about Democrats and antifa followers posing as Trump followers. People will believe what they want to believe. Facts don’t seem to matter. … It is without a doubt a dark day in American history. … In some ways Jan. 6 stands alone as a uniquely dark episode in our history in that this was as a domestic assault on our government.”

On how this gets better in a deeply divided nation: 

“That’s the most difficult one to answer. For me I don’t feel optimistic that there’s any short-term or medium-term solution to what’s bedeviling our democracy. This is going to be an ongoing battle. Can anyone challenge Trump in the Republican Party? And who’s he going to be running against? An 82-year-old incumbent with low popularity? … We have come out of periods of intensified polarization in our past, none more so than the Civil War, but even in my lifetime, during the American war in Vietnam. It gives me hope that the country can similarly move into a different posture than we are right now. Maybe it takes a different kind of crisis, a unifying leader, someone who can define a common vision for the country. But right now we have two sides that are firmly set in their own camps and it’s all about what color jersey you’re wearing.

“It’s the zero sum politics that’s so damaging to this system, a system that’s predicated on the notion of moderation and compromise. No one group gets to win everything, but there are a series of compromises among competing interests that bring about some measure of the public good ultimately. … That’s not the mindset right now. This is James Madison’s ultimate nightmare right now.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]