Column: The lesson of Jan. 6: Jan. 6 still isn’t over

WASHINGTON — 

Lucky countries have celebrations that remind their citizens of what binds them together — think Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.

Unlucky countries do the opposite: They commemorate the divisions that drive them apart.

In Northern Ireland, Protestant militants march noisily on July 12 to remind the Catholic minority which side won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbs march on Jan. 9 to assert their independence from the groups they fought in their country’s war.

After the U.S. Civil War, Southern states celebrated Confederate Memorial Day on a different date than the North’s Decoration Day; the holidays didn’t merge until World War I.

Last week, with the anniversary of the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, the United States slipped onto the list of unhappy countries.

The day turned into a festival of national division — not a single, unifying commemoration but three very different observances.

President Biden gave an unexpectedly fiery speech, blaming Donald Trump for inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol and for continuing to stoke the poisonous myth that the 2020 election was stolen.

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies,” Biden said. “He’s done so because he values power over principle … and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy.”

Predictably, Trump rose to the bait, issuing four angry statements from his exile in Mar-a-Lago, all renewing his spurious claims.

“The Big Lie was the election itself,” he wrote. The election outcome was “the real insurrection,” he said. And he accused the Biden administration of “appalling abuse of political prisoners,” an apparent reference to defendants held on federal charges after the riot — a favorite cause of his fringiest followers, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Caught in the middle were Republican leaders who know Trump lost the election but don’t want to say so because it would enrage the vengeful former president.

They observed Jan. 6 by offering muddled statements that disapproved of the riot but blamed Democrats for “politicizing” the issue — as if there were any way to avoid connecting the invasion of the Capitol to politics.

“The actions of that day were lawless and as wrong as wrong can be,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said. The problem now, he complained, is that Democrats “are using it as a partisan political weapon.”

It’s a difficult straddle to execute, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) discovered when he incautiously described the riot as “a violent terrorist attack,” a phrase he has used in the past.

Heresy! Cruz, who ran against Trump for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, was assailed by Trump supporters and subjected to interrogation by Tucker Carlson of Fox News. “It was not a violent terrorist attack,” Carlson insisted.

In a scene reminiscent of the show trials of Mao Zedong’s China, Cruz promptly recanted his deviation from party doctrine.

“It was a mistake,” he said, referring to his statement, not the riot.

Lesson to other Republicans who seek reelection: Don’t deviate from Trump’s views, or you may be a victim of the GOP’s own form of cancel culture.

Trump, who gloried in watching the mob rampage through the Capitol, doesn’t appear to want the battle to end. And that’s the chief obstacle to getting over the division that remains. It’s not about whether sacking the Capitol was right or wrong; even McCarthy can answer that question accurately. It’s whether the myth Trump used to rile up the mob — his infinitely debunked claim that the election was stolen — should be embraced or repudiated.

That’s not a debate that offers ground for compromise. Either Trump is right, and the current president of the United States is illegitimate — or Trump deliberately set out to overturn a democratic election and is bending the rest of the GOP to his will.

So far, he appears to be succeeding, at least when it comes to radicalizing his party.

That’s why Biden, after months of pretending that Trump was no longer there, escalated last week.

“We are in a battle for the soul of America,” he said, reviving a slogan from his 2020 campaign. “I did not seek this fight … but I will not shrink from it, either.”

Trump’s continuing campaign to deny the president’s legitimacy — no ground for compromise there, either — left him little choice.

For a few weeks after Jan. 6, 2021, it was possible to hope that the trauma of the day might unify the country. That didn’t happen; the ensuing year only confirmed our division.

The lesson of Jan. 6, 2022, is that Jan. 6 isn’t over.

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