The Republican Code of Silence

The Republican Code of Silence

With an election on the horizon, Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump. But there’s no guarantee the strategy will work in their favor.


As the fight for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination slowly takes shape, January 6 is the elephant in the elephant’s room. The party of militant right-wing grievance would just as soon the American electorate put that whole plotting-a-coup-to-install-an-authoritarian-dictator thing firmly in the national memory hole. That’s why Florida Governor Ron DeSantis omitted all mention of the unfortunate episode in his recently published campaign memoir—and why, per a recent Politico dispatch, the assembled movement worthies at the Conservative Political Action Conference only spoke of the failed Trump coup as still another occasion to elevate their own pet narratives of political victimization. The real culprits, you see, were the Deep State agents forever conspiring to keep their virtuous Great Leader away from the machinery of federal power.

As my Nation colleague Joan Walsh has written, the GOP’s great wall of silence concerning the insurrection is yet one more study in political cowardice among the would-be leaders of the American right. Yet it’s also a brand of cowardice born of political calculation, with Trump already the presumptive front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination—and a primary field and donor-led establishment still largely at a loss to confront the core dogmas of Trumpism without also drawing away a significant segment of the GOP’s base.

Would it be possible to have an open discussion of this trauma now if prior interventions had been successful? If, say, the GOP Senate had voted to impeach Trump the second time for fomenting the insurrection, or if Kevin McCarthy hadn’t returned to high quisling form after the belated discovery that he possessed an actual human spine? These are, of course, counterfactuals—but they would be the sign of a major party that might be capable of wielding national power once more. “If they were going after Trump on everything but January 6, that’s a very valid point,” says former Republican National Committee communications director Douglas Heye. “But they’re not. People in the media will say, Gosh, these guys won’t talk about Trump at all and they don’t mention January 6 at all. Well, if you’re not talking about the one, you’re definitely not talking about the other.” The GOP field’s collective defensive crouch is thus “smart and strategic,” in Heye’s judgment: “If they denounce Trump and January 6, well, they’ll get the golf clap from the New York Times editorial page, and Trump will eviscerate them.”

The notorious CPAC gathering, which has long been a forum for the most extreme and bellicose factions of the American right, was also not a venue for sober reconsiderations of Trump and January 6. Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN representative, drew boos from the Trump-loving audience when she ventured even mild criticisms of the GOP’s recent electoral fortunes. “The vibe was anti-anti-January 6,” says Tim Miller, the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid, who was in attendance at CPAC. “The closest thing you got to a comment about how maybe the party should reconsider the trajectory they’re on was Hayley talking about how they lost seven of the last eight elections, and they were all like, No, we didn’t.”

Indeed, January 6 plotters enjoyed prime billing at the confab—together, of course, with the master plotter Trump himself. “Scott Perry [R-Pa.] was there, and he was helping with the Department of Justice coup to overturn the election,” Miller says. “Ralph Norman [R-S.C.] spoke, and talked about how [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Mark Milley was a traitor—when it was Norman who had asked Trump to declare martial law to keep himself in office.”

Such command performances are all-too-plain reminders that insurrection-speak is now just the dominant business model for right-wing political leaders. “If there’s something that doesn’t suit them to talk about, they won’t talk about it,” Miller adds. “The problem is you can’t really be too pro- or anti-January 6. If you’re too far out on the limb with pro-January 6 talk, you’re in [Douglas] Mastriano territory”—the insurrectionist zealot on the Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial ballot in 2002 who lost badly to Josh Shapiro. “And if you’re too far anti-January 6, you’re out there with Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger”—two Republican members of the select House committee investigating the attempted coup whose participation cost them their political careers.

What appears to be happening, in lieu of any frank acknowledgment of the GOP’s principal role in the insurrection, is a flurry of coded appeals to dissenting political sentiment. “The interesting thing in Ron Desantis’s speech yesterday in California is that he was basically referring to Trump without doing it outright,” Heye says. “He didn’t say the word ‘Trump’—again, just denying him the oxygen. He was discussing chaos—and if you’re talking about chaos there, you’re clearly talking about one person, and January 6 is part of it…. even if you don’t say it specifically, it will still land. There are some Republicans who are fine with a lot of Trump’s agenda who are just weary of Trump.”

For his part, Miller is less sure whether the strategy is effective. Sizing up DeSantis’s samizdat-style “chaos” pitch, he says, “That’s a flashback—we called him the chaos candidate in 2016.” Another DeSantis lurch into campaign code was simply baffling: “I saw DeSantis at his stump last week. He did an extended thing for two minutes about how there were no leaks, ever, under his administration in Florida. Watching him, I was like, Who cares? Why is he emphasizing this so much? But when I got onto Twitter, someone observed, well, that’s his dig at Trump, and then I realized what was going on. So you’re basically in the position of criticizing something without actually criticizing it. If your attacks are so subtle that people aren’t sure what you’re talking about, that’s not the best path to success.”

It may well take some dramatic outside development to stir this air of ghostly quiet, and spur the GOP opposition to mention Voldemort and his evil works outright. Perhaps, after seeing his shadow last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland will eventually stir from hibernation with a Trump indictment. But would that loosen more tongues on the right to speak more freely? It’s far from a sure thing, Miller thinks. “Maybe that happens,” he says. “But a lot of them are insulated in their bubble. So if Trump were indicted, you get into Matt Gaetz’s agenda, defunding the DOJ and the FBI as politicized institutions.”

Trump, for his part, has already vowed to continue running under indictment, and since the American system has never had an indicted former president vying for reelection, it’s difficult to game out an outcome. But it does seem like the present conspiracy of silence blanketing the great coup conspiracy of January 6 won’t change things for the better. “Part of the GOP is pro-insurrectionist; the other part is anti-anti-insurrectionist,” says former Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. “And in that kind of dynamic, the unabashed extremists usually prevail over the timid extremist-adjacent faction.”

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