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The year political tribalism proved toxic

Violent rioters storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Violent rioters storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press )

For a long time, many Americans viewed partisanship with bemused detachment: Every few years, some of their neighbors would plant signs on their lawns, perhaps slap bumper stickers on their cars or, in extreme cases, put on T-shirts or wear funny hats to advertise their favored candidates.

In more recent years, as political divides widened, we began to realize how much partisanship colored people’s worldviews. Political scientists, for example, pointed to data showing that perceptions of reality — like whether the economy was good or bad — would abruptly flip when control of the White House changed parties.

The past year has brought a grimmer understanding of partisanship, or tribalism, to give the phenomenon a more accurate name. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol have acted like vast experiments conducted by some cosmic researcher, with the entire country as a test of how much tribal norms would shape not only beliefs, but also actions.

The results: Tens of thousands — likely well over 100,000 Americans who would otherwise be alive — have died because of tribal opposition to taking a safe, effective vaccine to prevent an infectious disease. At the same time, millions of members of that same tribe have embraced the people who stormed the Capitol, deeming them patriots.

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And because that tribe forms a significant part of the Republican Party’s electoral base, and GOP leaders have put party unity ahead of other values, those views have hardened into a serious threat to American democracy.

Party unity over democracy

It’s important to keep in mind that hard-core backers of the Jan. 6 attack form a minority of Republicans, which is also the case with hard-core vaccine refusers. A large majority of Republicans disapprove of those who forced their way into the Capitol, and similarly, a significant majority of Republicans have been vaccinated.

Both topics — the response to the attack and the response to the virus — provide case studies of how a committed minority can shape a party’s positions by exploiting the reluctance of the party‘s leaders to risk an intramural split.

Republican ambivalence toward COVID started with the earliest days of the pandemic, as then-President Trump first endorsed lockdowns urged by his health advisors, then backed away from them after protests from the right.

Similarly, some Republican leaders strongly endorsed vaccines, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose childhood experience with polio helped shape his view.

Many others, however, took more equivocal positions. Some have focused their public statements on attacking the Biden administration over vaccine mandates. Others, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have embraced vaccine skeptics. Trump has occasionally urged people to get vaccinated, most recently in an appearance last month in which he was booed after saying he had gotten a booster shot. He has also urged supporters to “rise up” against mandates.

Perhaps even a concerted, early pro-vaccine push from Republican leaders would have had no impact on the roughly 1 in 4 Republicans who have consistently opposed the vaccine. Since they never tried, we’ll never know if such an effort could have saved lives.

We have a clearer picture of the political dynamics regarding Jan. 6: Many Republican leaders did strongly condemn the attack at first and blamed Trump for his role in instigating it, but they backed off after encountering resistance from the ranks.

McConnell, for example, initially declared: “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield, speaking in the House a few days after it had been evacuated during the attack, said the “violent attack on the Capitol was undemocratic, un-American and criminal.”

The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way .... From my point of view, he’s been a consequential president, but today, first thing you’ll see. All I can say is a count me out. Enough is enough.”

Before long, however, such statements abruptly stopped. McCarthy flew to Mar-a-Lago to make up with the former president. Graham moved on to other topics, and McConnell reverted to a sphinxlike silence, despite repeated verbal attacks from Trump.

With the former president and his allies insistently repeating their false claims of widespread election fraud, and no counter from other Republican leaders, Trump’s lies have now become dogma on the Republican side.

The result: a softening of GOP disapproval of the attacks and a potentially dangerous level of tolerance for political violence.

A new survey by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center found that 57% of Americans say that Trump bears either a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of the responsibility for what happened on Jan. 6.

Among Republicans, however, just 1 in 5 say Trump bears such significant responsibility.

A poll by YouGov for CBS News found a shift in how Republicans view the attack. Large majorities in both parties continue to disapprove of the Jan. 6 rioters, but the intensity of disapproval on the Republican side has softened.

Right after Jan. 6, a majority of Republicans said they strongly disapproved of the rioters. In the more recent poll, strong disapproval had fallen to 34%, while 42% said they “somewhat” disapproved, up from 7% in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The share who at least somewhat approved of the rioters had risen to 18%, from 9% in the earlier survey, and 6% strongly approved, compared with 3% earlier.

Asked how they viewed Jan. 6, 85% of Democrats called the events an “insurrection.” Only 21% of Republicans did likewise, and nearly half, 47%, said they viewed the events as “patriotism.”

The more dangerous, potentially longer-term impact of the last year is a shift in how Americans think about political violence.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans — 64% — called the Jan. 6 attacks “very violent,” according to the AP/NORC survey. Another 22% called them “somewhat” violent. Just 14% said they were “not very” or “not at all” violent — the view propagated by Trump and his supporters.

Among Republicans, however, the share who view the Jan. 6 events as not violent was significantly larger — 22%.

The CBS poll found that 62% of Americans expect to see violence by the losing side in future elections, and a disturbingly high share said that if the violence came from people on their side, they might find it acceptable.

Roughly 1 in 10 Democrats and 2 in 10 Republicans said there might be circumstances in which they would favor violence from their side. The share with that view was higher among those who see voter fraud as a big problem — a widely held belief on the right and those who don’t accept the fact that Biden won the election.

That doesn’t mean millions of Americans are about to join a mob or assault their fellow citizens. It does mean that the pool of potential recruits for violent acts is big. And it appears to be growing, according to surveys by academic researchers. That, more than anything, may be the lasting legacy of Trump’s presidency.

Violent rioters storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

On Jan. 6, 2021, an insurrection unfolded at the U.S. Capitol when a mob stormed the building while lawmakers voted to certify the electoral college results and Joe Biden’s victory.

One year after Jan. 6

Even after a year of discussion and investigation, there’s more to be learned about what happened in the Jan. 6 attacks. One good place to start: this video, with never-before-seen footage from the GoPro camera that Los Angeles Times photographer Kent Nishimura wore on his helmet in the Capitol that day.

That’s just one part of a comprehensive set of articles, photographs, commentaries and podcasts Times journalists prepared for the anniversary.

Among the highlights:

House Democrats who were locked together in the gallery of the House chamber during the early part of the attack created a text chain to share their traumas. Out of that has grown a support group for members of Congress. Jennifer Haberkorn interviewed several of them.

A D.C. police officer who battled the rioters talked with Erin Logan about what he experienced.

Among the most recognizable members of the mob was Klete Keller, a former Olympic gold medalist in swimming. Nathan Fenno traced the long, strange tale of how Keller ended up there.

And Chris Megerian looked at how the long-term fight for the health of American democracy continues.

That fight was very much on President Biden‘s mind on Thursday when he delivered a powerful speech in the Capitol denouncing both the rioters and the former president who inspired them. As Noah Bierman wrote, the speech marked a notable shift for Biden, who, until then, had mostly avoided talking directly about Trump.

Throughout the past year, Vice President Kamala Harris has ducked questions about where, exactly, she was when the Jan. 6 attack began. Thursday, a White House official confirmed that Harris had been at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and had to be evacuated when a pipe bomb was found near the building. Bierman reported that Harris had previously said only that she had attended a Senate hearing earlier in the day and was working elsewhere when the riot started.

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The latest from Washington

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland pledged in a speech on Wednesday to hold to account those involved “at any level” in the Jan. 6 riot, whether they were present during the melee or not. Garland carefully avoided specifics about where the Justice Department’s investigation is heading, but noted that 725 people already have been charged, Logan and Anumita Kaur wrote.

The Supreme Court holds arguments Friday in a case that challenges the Biden administration’s rule that large companies must require workers to be vaccinated or tested for the coronavirus. As David Savage reported, the 27 Republican-led states that have joined the case challenging the mandate could find a receptive audience from conservative justices who are skeptical of federal regulations.

December’s jobs report showed that the pace of hiring slowed sharply last month, Don Lee reported. Still, the unemployment rate dropped to 3.9%, down from 6.3% at the start of 2021 and near the low point reached before the start of the pandemic.

House GOP leader McCarthy came to the defense of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia after Twitter permanently suspended her account this week. McCarthy’s backing of Greene — threatening to retaliate against social media companies — shows his willingness to abandon principle in the hope of gaining the House speaker’s office after the next election, Mark Barabak wrote in his column.

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The latest from California

California would enact a sweeping, first-in-the-nation universal healthcare plan under a proposal unveiled Thursday by a group of state Democratic lawmakers, John Myers wrote. The plan faces significant hurdles in the Legislature.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) and several other legislators are in quarantine and will miss floor sessions until next week after attending a colleague’s going-away party where they may have been exposed to COVID-19, Hannah Wiley reported.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to target the gun industry through private lawsuits is coming together in legislation unveiled this week that would allow gun violence survivors and other citizens to sue firearm manufacturers and dealers, Wiley reported.

And Larry Elder, who became the lead Republican candidate in the effort to recall Newsom last year, announced he will not run against the governor again this year, Phil Willon reported. Newsom handily defeated the recall, and by most accounts, Elder’s unpopularity helped the governor.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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