By Amy Fried, John M. Nickerson Professor of Political Science, University of Maine; and Douglas B. Harris, Professor of political science, Loyola University Maryland
The Republican National Committee has legitimized the January 6, 2021, Capitol attacks. The RNC declared on February 4, 2022, that the insurrection and preceding events were “legitimate political discourse,” an assertion that Senator Mitch McConnell soon after countered, saying that it was a “violent insurrection.”
The Justice Department is investigating former President Donald Trump’s involvement on January 6, when several thousand rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The attacks resulted in the deaths of at least seven people and the injury of 150 police officers.
Meanwhile, Trump says he will consider pardoning January 6 rioters if he is reelected in 2024, while continuing to lie that the 2020 election was stolen. It is the latest step in a long-standing, systemic effort of the Republican Party to sow and capitalize on public distrust.
As political scientists who study the politics of public opinion and congressional rhetoric, we have chronicled American conservatives’ decades-long strategic use of distrustful rhetoric in our book At War with Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump.
How distrust can help in politics
There are a few clear benefits to leveraging distrust as a political tool. Over the past several decades, Republicans have used distrust to caution voters against opponents in election campaigns and to argue that Democrats’ policy proposals would hurt Americans. Republicans have also sown political distrust toward institutions they did not control – like the presidency – while seeking to empower the same institutions when they were in power.
Our research shows that distrust has been a particularly powerful resource for Republican politicians as they work to galvanize the conservative base and attract the independent voters they need to win elections.
History of distrust
In the 1950s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy conducted a series of high-profile probes into U.S. government officials’ potential Communist Party affiliations. McCarthy and others used smear tactics to delegitimize political opponents, painting them as untrustworthy.
Public trust in government dropped precipitously, from 77% in October 1964 to 36% in December 1974.
Democrats began championing civil rights in the early 1960s. Republicans then adopted an electoral plan known as the Southern strategy around 1968, wooing white Southerners who opposed Democrats’ progressive direction on civil rights and social issues and who championed states’ power.
Various presidential administrations’ secrecy about the Vietnam War, as well as former President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, furthered political distrust.
Left-wing American politicians have also capitalized on government distrust, especially regarding national security. Historian Paul Sabin attributes distrust in government to such liberal reformers as Ralph Nader, who criticized cozy relationships between government and business.
But it is largely Republicans who have strategically promoted political distrust. Republicans have also used distrust to rally against Democrats’ health policy proposals.
Working for the American Medical Association in 1961, 20 years before his election, for example, former President Ronald Reagan said that the proposal that would become Medicare was “one of the traditional methods of imposing socialism or statism on a people.”
Newt Gingrich’s 1990s fight against former President Bill Clinton and House Democrats marked a turning point, as Gingrich encouraged his fellow Republicans to use hyperbolic and highly personal attacks against Democratic colleagues, casting them as undeserving of citizens’ trust.
An early 1990s campaign memo from Gingrich advised candidates to define “the Democrats as the party of radical left-wing activists, unionized bureaucracies, and corrupt political machines.”
When arguing against Clinton’s proposed health reform, Republicans used phrases like “Gestapo medicine” to elicit fear of a destructive government.
In 2009 and 2010, opponents of the Affordable Care Act raised the prospect of government “death panels” making life-and-death decisions for citizens. A Republican strategist urged Republican leaders to characterize the health care plan as a “government takeover” which “like coups … lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.”
‘He had everyone enraged’
The echoes of more than a half-century of anti-government rhetoric spilled over on January 6. Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric, along with his claim that elections are rigged, fueled people’s long-held suspicions toward government.
In a New York federal district court in January 2021, one of the accused January 6 insurrectionists defended his participation in the attack, saying that he had “tired of the corruption of government.”
Some protesters present on January 6 were involved in far-right anti-government groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes wrote on the messaging app Signal two days after the November 2020 election that the group’s members shouldn’t accept the election results, saying, “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.”
Other insurrectionists rationalized their actions by citing Trump’s false claims in court. Some rioters, for example, defended themselves against trespassing charges by saying that Trump “invited” them to the Capitol.
One accused insurrectionist, Zachary Wilson, said, “I was caught up in President Trump telling everybody the election was stolen. He had everyone enraged.”
Trump’s promotion of distrust about the election results proved legally dangerous to citizens who were moved by his rhetoric.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta told one January 6 defendant that he was “a pawn” of those who lied about the 2020 election results. The people who believed the lie “are the ones paying the [legal] consequences,” Mehta said
Distrust in the American election system has grown since the January 6 attacks. More than 3 in 10 Americans believe the nation’s system is fundamentally unsound, according to a November 2021 Monmouth University poll, up from 22% in January 2021. That finding fits with the longer-term GOP effort to weaponize political distrust.