Why the RNC’s Embrace of Trump and the January Sixers Will Backfire

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It was entirely natural for Washingtonians to have spent a good bit of their weekend gaslighting themselves, questioning whether the Republican National Committee had actually passed a resolution on Friday to censure two House members for participating in the congressional investigation of a failed insurrection plot on Jan. 6 of last year.

And did we get it right that the RNC—with no debate or recorded vote—also said in the resolution that Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger engaged in the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” simply by looking into the details of the deadly attempt to keep Donald Trump in power?

But yes, all of that happened. The RNC voted on Friday to censure Cheney and Kinzinger for accepting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s invitation to join a House panel looking into the events that led to and took place during the siege of the Capitol for the first time since the Brits set fire to it in 1814. In the aftermath of the attacks, Senate Republicans effectively killed any hopes of a bicameral probe and shut-down talk of work on a Senate query. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is working aggressively to keep Trump on his side and perhaps deliver him the Speakership next year, sought to gum up a House probe by naming two hostile members to the panel. Pelosi nixed his choices, prompting a GOP boycott of the House investigation, but Cheney and Kinzinger ignored McCarthy and accepted Pelosi’s invitation.

The RNC also branded those being investigated, tried and sentenced for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as victims—despite their roles in scaling the marble walls, smashing windows, occupying members’ workplaces and sending Capitol Hill into hiding. Trump has dangled, if he wins the White House in 2024, pardons to the more than 700 people arrested so far for their roles. And the RNC seems, at least in their resolution, to have sided with Trump that those facing consequences remain in a crouch of victimhood.

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel tried to clean up the mess after the RNC vote, arguing the resolution was not about the violence at all. “Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger crossed a line,” McDaniel said. “They chose to join Nancy Pelosi in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.” That, to be clear, was not the resolution that passed with very few audible nays.

The RNC’s actions once again left GOP lawmakers in a frenzied sidestep to avoid siding with anything that could leave them cross with Trump. “Why are we talking about this resolution?” said Rep. Michael McCaul, a former prosecutor who has previously defended Cheney, during an appearance on ABC News’ “This Week.”

Separately, the RNC members also changed their rules to allow the committee to fund and work with Cheney’s primary challenger, a major shift in how the party’s central committee traditionally avoids messy primary fights. In other words, national Republicans were opening the floodgates for pro-Trump dollars to flow into Wyoming to defeat Cheney, the daughter of a former Vice President and Defense Secretary during Republican administrations.

It’s tempting to cast these decisions, made Friday in Salt Lake City, as outliers—to argue that this is a small slice of the contemporary Republican Party that lives in partisan fundraisers and away from the realities of Washington. After all, the RNC is a parochial and byzantine organization made up of 168 members, three each from every state and territory. And without the largesse available to super PACs and dark-money groups, the RNC may have less power than it did during the pre-Citizens United rulings.

That’s where things get tougher to square, at least for anyone who watched the Jan. 6 attacks in real time. At the one-year anniversary mark, a majority of Republicans—52%—told ABC News/ Ipsos pollsters that the rioters were “protecting democracy.” A staggering 61% of Republicans told The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that the riot was “somewhat” violent or not violent at all. Neither is true. The day itself was deadly and the aftermath continued to bring with it fatalities. Rioters used flag poles to smash windows, deployed chemical agents to choke the police trying to stand in the breach and brought the zip ties to be makeshift restraints for lawmakers the mob could find.

In other words, the RNC wasn’t striking out on its own here with the resolutions. Fealty to Trump is now the position of the contemporary party. And it may well help push the Republicans back into the majority this year, much as the Tea Party helped it swing 63 House seats to the GOP. A full 71% of Republicans believe Trump to be the winner of the 2020 election, ABC’s polling found last month. Pew’s polling last year said roughly two-thirds of Republicans said the party should not accept criticism of Trump.

But in the long run, the RNC’s all-in-for-Trump position may come at a cost, especially among mainstream conservatives who, before Jan. 6, delighted in Cheney’s perch as the third-ranking Republican in the House and saw Kinzinger as the future of the party. Demographics are not trending in Republicans’ favor and a generation reset of politics should favor those unaligned with either major party but yearning for a pragmatic posture to the nation’s challenges. Those mainstream voters may be on the fringes now, but movements often fade when a charismatic leader leaves the spotlight. And one day, he will.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com