This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
When the Republican National Committee last week dubbed the Jan. 6 insurrection “legitimate political discourse,” the criticism piled in from all directions, including from Republican Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the minority leader, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the uncle of the RNC chair. Critics deemed it a shameful attempt to curry favor with former President Donald Trump, who continues to whip supporters into a frenzy with his lies about the 2020 election. But the RNC’s statement was also self-serving revisionism given the committee’s own role in stoking the insurrection.
Acknowledging the truth of what actually led up to and occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, after all, might expose the RNC to genuine civil penalties.
Indictments from the U.S. Department of Justice and evidence from the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 are painting a fuller picture of the attempted heist of our democracy. While a handful of former President Donald Trump’s aides and allies face legal liability for their false claims of election fraud, and a few hundred alleged violent rioters and seditious conspiracists sit behind bars, a wider set of individuals and institutional actors so far have escaped any accountability at all.
A plot to overturn democracy requires countless abettors. These are, to extend the “heist” metaphor, the getaway drivers. These abettors aren’t waving guns at the bank, but they’re helping the gang get there. Without the drivers’ help, the crime doesn’t happen. And the RNC as an institution has repeatedly abetted spreaders of the Big Lie.
Consider the public unveiling of one of the Big Lie’s most incendiary stem-winders: lawyer Sidney Powell’s Nov. 19, 2020 speech falsely framing Dominion voting machines as the mechanism for electoral fraud — in conjunction with Cuba, dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, liberal donor George Soros, and the nebulous movement “Antifa” — to flip Trump votes to his opponent and the winner, now-President Joseph Biden. The claims lacked any basis in fact — Powell has already been sanctioned for filing frivolous litigation based on these evidence-free claims — but nonetheless poured fuel onto the Big Lie’s fire, further consuming Americans’ faith in their own democracy and harming Dominion’s bottom line to the tune of millions of dollars.
Had Powell merely stood upon a soapbox in downtown Washington, few might have heard her. But she was on the stage at RNC headquarters, benefiting from the Grand Old Party’s seal of approval and considerable promotional muscle on social media.
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel eventually expressed regret about the press conference, suggesting that she knew better.
“When I saw some of the things Sidney was saying, without proof, I certainly was concerned it was happening in my building,” she said, according to The New York Times. “There are a whole host of issues we had to deal with — what is the liability of the R.N.C., if these allegations are made and unfounded?”
A whole host of issues, indeed … especially considering that the RNC never even bothered to take down the tweet hyping Powell’s fictions, and continues to claim that the Jan. 6 rioters were engaged in “legitimate political discourse.” The RNC’s language is now driving a wedge through the party, too. Following the RNC’s announcement, McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, told reporters that “we were all here [on Jan. 6]. We saw what happened. It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent a peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election, from one administration to the next.”
Until DOJ issues indictments, the most serious consequences facing promoters of the Big Lie for their efforts to overturn an election are currently found in civil actions — defamation cases filed by two major voting machine manufacturers, Dominion and Smartmatic, as well as other suits filed by my organization, Protect Democracy, on behalf of election workers in Fulton County, GA, and a postmaster in Erie, PA. But courts have also held that those who help others engage in defamation can be liable for substantially assisting that defamation themselves.
Whether the RNC will be named in any future civil suits is an open question. Less of an open question is the notion that the party’s behavior demands some kind of accountability — from its voters, donors, and electeds who still believe in democracy. The RNC was instrumental in helping some of the worst promoters of the Big Lie flood the zone with falsehoods, distract voters from reality, and secure a nation’s angry attention. Our democracy is built on the rule of law, and one can’t simultaneously demand “law and order” while seeking to overturn the will of the voters.
As with a bank, there is money in the Big Lie and, like any self-respecting get-away driver, the RNC got a cut of the take. Let us not forget that vast sums were raised by amplifying and recirculating the claims of election fraud. Tucked within the attack on our democracy was a cynical money-making machine, as misled supporters continue donating to fund this destructive lost cause. By driving anger in their base against our democracy and the valid winner of the presidential election, Big Lie flamethrowers like Powell raised millions of donor dollars for themselves as well as Trump and the RNC, as the RNC received 25% of the post-election WinRed donations to Trump.
The RNC helped create this monster, raised money off of it, and shares responsibility for the damage done. The question is whether the party will face any true accountability for its actions.
Jon Steinman is a communicator at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to prevent American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.