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Barrels of ink have rightly been cracked this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the violent attempted insurrection in the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6, when rioters sought to change the results of the 2020 election and keep then-President Donald Trump’s in power.
But no scene more completely captured just how much has changed on Capitol Hill in the last year than the one that unfolded midday on Thursday on the floor of the U.S. House. There, in his old stomping grounds, former Vice President Dick Cheney stood patiently—and masked—next to his daughter, current Rep. Liz Cheney. He gamely greeted his daughter’s colleagues, who were introduced to him simply with a “this is Dad.” Though Democrats despised him during the eight years he was President George W. Bush’s governing partner, likening him to Darth Vader, four years of Trump recalibrated their contempt.
When members of the House took a moment of silence to honor the Capitol Police officers who likely saved scores of lawmakers’ lives during the attack and to remember those who lost their lives that day and after, the two Cheneys rose from their front-row seats. They were the only Republicans in the chamber. The other 211 House Republicans declined to participate, and across the Capitol, not one of the 50 Republican Senators went to the floor for remarks.
It was the perfect illustration of how two very different Washingtons marked the anniversary. Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, held vigils and spoke of defending democracy against threats like the one Trump agitated a year earlier when he told a rally near the White House to head to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to stop Congress from affirming Biden’s victory. Republicans, meanwhile, engaged in a total rewrite of history that Soviet leaders would have found inspired, pretending the Jan. 6 events represented little variance from democratic norms. They even resorted to the favorite Cold War tool of whataboutism to compare the violence to the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
In the span of one day, the divisions in this country were manifest for all to see. And it perhaps is the clearest opening paragraph of how the next three years of politics may unfurl.
During morning remarks in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, Biden previewed a stiffened criticism of his predecessor. Biden has typically avoided any direct criticism of Trump, telling advisers that he prefers to look ahead and not back. When asked about Trump, the President usually dodges, as he did when asked in December about Trump having tested positive for COVID-19 before the first debate. “I don’t think about the former President. Thank you,” Biden said flatly. If Cheney was Vader, then Trump was Voldemort: he who must not be named.
By Thursday, though, Biden had clearly decided to pivot. In Biden’s new framing—echoing the central argument of the 2020 campaign—Trump represents a threat to democracy and a strain of illiberalism that must be silenced. “The former President of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said. “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” Biden said during his speech in the Capitol.
The messaging was a throwback to Biden’s work with historian Jon Meacham to describe on the campaign trail the choices American voters faced as “a battle for the soul of the nation,” borrowing themes from Meacham’s 2018 book. Meacham reprised that role in helping Biden and his team tee up the rhetoric this week.
Republican leaders were largely absent from the speech as well. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—along with several colleagues—was in Georgia to attend the funeral of former Sen. Johnny Isakson. (Ironically, Isakson was beloved by both parties and famously a bridger of divides.) In a statement, McConnell described Jan. 6 as “a dark day for Congress and our country” before adding Democrats were trying to “exploit this anniversary to advance partisan policy goals that long predated this event.” House Minority Leader Keven McCarthy was also out of town. His deputy, Whip Steve Scalise, appeared on Fox News to argue that Democrats “want every day to be about Jan. 6.”
In their absence, two of the more outspoken Republican firebrands filled the gap in D.C. They didn’t show up at the moment of silence on the House floor, but Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia did join Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast to push unfounded claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump. They then appeared at their own event to push unproven conspiracy theories about the Capitol siege, including the suggestion that federal officers were actually behind the events and a Republican-led Congress would find out the truth.
Greene later joined the mother of Ashli Babbitt at an event outside the Capitol where Babbitt was fatally shot while trying to climb through the window of the House chamber. Micki Witthoeft demanded that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi release surveillance footage of her daughter’s death, which she described as murder.
By nightfall, about 20 conservatives had made their way to the D.C. jail where they demanded “justice” for the 39 inmates still being held in the problematic site as they await trial for their alleged roles on Jan. 6. Witthoeft joined in what also became a memorial for Babbitt and Rosanne Boyland, who died during a trampling episode that day. They were treated as martyrs, as has been the case since the days immediately after they joined the mob on Capitol Hill.
Dick Cheney, for his part, did little to contain his obvious disgust. “It’s not a [GOP] leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years,” said Cheney, surrounded by reporters for his return to the Capitol, where he served in the House GOP Leadership before stepping down to be Defense Secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration.
For those outside of the Beltway, the anniversary played out on social media and cable news in primetime. MSNBC’s graphics declared “Democracy in Peril.” CNN anchored special coverage from the same stage where Biden spoke in the morning.
And at Fox News, the ratings chief that pushes some of the most truth-poor coverage? A round of mocking of the day, with Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana calling it January 6th: The Musical on Sean Hannity’s hour and Tucker Carlson pushing unproven arguments from his three-part series so laden with bogus claims that some of the network’s contributors called it quits. Laura Ingraham opened her hour by describing “a Washington drowning in melodrama” and noting how Cheney left office with record unpopularity.
Well, after some time out of Washington—and with Trump as a new measuring stick—the former Vice President seemed plenty popular on Thursday. It shouldn’t be shocking, but acting on conviction can still earn even begrudging respect from across the aisle. The problem for American democracy is this: one party bothered to show up for the solemn day and the other made it into a mockery. And, for millions of each group’s followers, they both were logical responses. That should be a warning for what this year’s midterms and 2024’s presidential race could become.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.