January 6 and the Awesome Power of Republican Cognitive Dissonance

If GOP voters believe 'Republicans don't riot,' they'll alter the facts to fit their belief.

It’s happening with almost metronomic regularity. First, we see yet another poll demonstrating that Republicans have extraordinary outlying views about the events of January 6. This week it was a Morning Consult poll demonstrating that a decreasing percentage of Republicans hold Trump “very” or “somewhat” responsible for the Capitol attack. In fact, Republicans now hold Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress more responsible for January 6 than Trump. 

Second, given the posture of the GOP base, it’s completely unsurprising that the vast majority of Republicans in Congress seem indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the idea of thoroughly investigating one of the worst individual acts of insurrection in American history. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has even threatened to strip Republican members of Congress of their committee assignments if they joined the House select committee investigating the attack. 

(Rep. Liz Cheney was undeterred, of course, and accepted Nancy Pelosi’s invitation on the committee.)

Third, the continued Republican denial and Republican resistance leads to a constant question from folks who are distant from the Republican heartland. “What is wrong with Republican voters? What is happening?” Media coverage is often little help—after all, reporters tend to cluster around the most hard-core Trump supporters, the rally Trumpists, for example, who exhibit devotion to Trump that’s extreme and weird even to most Republicans. 

In reality, there is nothing weird or strange about the responses of many millions of Republicans to January 6. It’s deeply human. It looks a lot like cognitive dissonance, and it’s rooted in the sheer extent to which the events that Republicans watched on television contradicted core elements of their own identity. 

Angry men and women from the law and order party stormed the Capitol. Protesters from a movement that “backs the blue” beat police officers with flagpoles. Remember, this is a party that once bragged that its events left the Capitol Mall spotless. It’s the Democrats, Republicans like to say, who make up the party of disorder and chaos and violence. Indeed, that dichotomy—law and order versus chaos and rage—was hammered into the Republican psyche every day during the long, violent summer of 2020. 

At the risk of indulging in a bit of pop psychology, I really enjoyed this short little video explanation of cognitive dissonance.

Essentially, the theory maps out how we deal with contradictory thoughts—or actions that contradict our thoughts. The video, for example, discusses a person who believes 1) that smoking is bad for you; and 2) smokes anyway. 

We don’t like to live in the tension between thought and action, or between contradictory thoughts. There’s even evidence that cognitive dissonance can sometimes be so profound that it creates physical discomfort. So we deal with the tension. We can change the thought to match the behavior. We can change the behavior to match the thought. We can add thoughts or rationalizations to resolve the tension. Or, we can simply trivialize the tension and decide that it’s so insignificant that it doesn’t really matter. 

Let’s walk through the problems presented by January 6. The disconnect is clear. Republicans don’t riot. The commitment to order and constitutional processes is foundational. Yet Republicans rioted. They tried to defy and disrupt a constitutional process. Thus the cognitive dissonance. Republicans beliefs clashed with Republican actions. Something has to give. 

What should give is that foundational belief. Republicans did riot, and they did so in response to truly deranged conspiracy theories. That’s what Republicans need to wrestle with. That’s the uncomfortable reality. But Republicans aren’t willing to go there. They’re maintaining the foundational belief, and then warping the facts to fit the belief. They’re 1) deflecting blame; 2) trivializing the riot; or 3) rationalizing the riot. We see all of those responses in the dominant GOP narrative. I see all of those responses in my daily life.

The core method of deflecting blame is to blame alleged outside agitators (antifa, mostly), but one doesn’t have to travel all the way down the conspiracy rabbit holes to blame others for the Capitol attack. The far more credible method is to simply distance yourself from the Proud Boys or the Oathkeepers or any of the other fringe groups that were at the tip of the insurrectionary spear on January 6. Thus, while it might have looked like a Trump riot or a Republican riot, it was really the actions of an isolated fringe. Why do we know that? Republicans don’t riot.

In my experience, deflecting blame is by far the most common response of the average everyday Republican.

The next most common response (in my experience) is that the Capitol attack simply wasn’t that significant. This is the dominant talking point in much of right-wing media. In fact, it wasn’t much of an attack at all. People “wandered in.” They “walked around and left.” They were “never going to stop the count.” In some quarters, the real story isn’t the insurrection, it’s the overreaction to the insurrection. Even calling it an “insurrection” is a symbol that you’re taking the entire event way too seriously. After all, Republicans don’t riot, and if they don’t riot they certainly don’t attempt insurrections.

A sure tell of this mindset is more focus on the law enforcement and government response to the attack than on the attack itself. The investigation they’re most interested in is the investigation of Ashli Babbitt’s death. 

Least common (but most dangerous) is the subset of people who reconcile the conflict between the belief that Republicans don’t riot and the fact of the Republican riot with a transformation that matches the identity to the action. Yes, it was a riot. Yes, it was thoroughly Trumpist. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Republicans don’t riot, you say? Well, they do when Democrats steal an election. 

Many folks I know migrate from one thought to another in a kind of confused jumble. Arguments that it wasn’t serious will turn to claims of outside agitators and then sometimes finish with a question: “But don’t you think there was something wrong with the election?” 

I’m not walking through Republican thoughts to rationalize them, but to explain them. I had been sounding the alarm about the possibility of Trumpist violence—including in a piece I published a few weeks before the attack. I had experienced the hatred and vitriol of Trump’s most dedicated supporters. Yet even I had trouble processing what I watched on screen. 

Imagine if one of the things that got you to the polls to vote for Trump was the shock and horror of the violence you’d seen all summer, the leftist violence you’d seen all summer. Imagine if you had a Blue Lives Matter sticker on your truck or if you shared stories years ago about the incredible politeness of the Tea Party (especially compared to the filthy and wild activists from Occupy Wall Street).

You’re just not prepared to process what you watched. And you’re certainly not prepared to dwell on that event, to investigate it, to dissect it, and to not just prosecute its participants but to banish from public life all who inspired it, including Donald Trump himself.

But there’s a better response to cognitive dissonance than deflection, trivialization, or rationalization. It’s possible to truthfully match the belief to the action—to resolve the tension by helping people to understand that, indeed, their political movement had changed, and the riot was an expression of what it was becoming. This is the honest space—one that asks Republicans to take a hard look at who they supported and who they admire even now, months after a mob tried to stop the count. 

Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. It must be resolved. For now, Republicans are mainly resolving it in all the wrong ways. They can’t yet face what their party has become. 

One more thing …

This has been an extraordinary week in American courts. SCOTUS issued a number of key constitutional rulings, Bill Cosby walked free, a federal court dismissed an antitrust case against Facebook, a different federal court blocked enforcement of Florida’s social media law.  

Do you want to make sense of it all? Have I told you about a certain podcast named Advisory Opinions? Now is the perfect time to check it out, beginning with today’s episode which features a deep dive into the incredible, disheartening, and disappointing Bill Cosby case.

One last thing …

What am I watching now? I’ve pulled my wife into The Expanse. I’m loving Loki. Oh, and I’m also definitely watching this. Review to come: