‘It Sends the Wrong Message’: Inside the GOP Civil War Over the Jan. 6 ‘Martyrs’

Credit: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Credit: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Cobb County, Georgia’s Republican party will gather for a candlelight vigil—not to condemn the attack, but to recognize “J6 Patriots held in DC prison.”

The event will feature a speech by the founder of “Women for America First,” the group that secured permits for the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the deadly riot. And the Cobb County event will begin with a livestreamed Donald Trump speech, in which the former president is expected to double down on his lies about winning the 2020 election.

The local Republican party’s event is among more than a dozen Jan. 6 anniversary events that valorize the Capitol attackers as “patriots,” “political prisoners,” or “martyrs.”

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“It sends the wrong message,” Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County GOP told The Daily Beast. “It goes to the heart of what the Republican party's having to deal with, and that is: do we believe in the core values of the party, the principles of the party that are in our platform, or are we simply following one person?”

The Jan. 6 commemorative events come amid a national reckoning over the riot, which saw thousands of Trump supporters march on the Capitol, many breaking into the building following a speech in which Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election to have been stolen. In the attack’s immediate aftermath, Republican leaders issued loud condemnations of the riot, even rebuking Trump for his role in stoking the attack, leading to speculation that the former president had finally lost his grasp on the GOP.

But Republicans soon adopted a more forgiving stance on the Capitol attack, said Brian Hughes, cofounder and associate director of American University’s Polarization and Extremism and Research Innovation Lab.

“There has been an evolution,” Hughes told The Daily Beast. “The attack has been metabolized by the far rightwing media, such that the initial disavows that were seen as the necessary response have been able to evolve into this talking point of ‘political prisoners’ being because of their beliefs.”

Some of that messaging has been taken up by elected officials, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene whose newly redistricted constituency includes parts of Cobb County. In November, Greene and fellow Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert visited what Greene called the “patriot wing” of the D.C. jail, where some alleged Capitol rioters are being held pre-trial. Greene later described the defendants as “political prisoners of war.”

The sloganeering has also been promoted by fringe groups like “Look Ahead America" (LAA), which has organized past demonstrations at the D.C. jail, and is responsible for most of the planned Jan. 6 anniversary “vigils.”

LAA is the work of Matt Braynard, who worked on Trump’s first presidential campaign for five months before getting fired. Braynard previously made headlines for a September rally in defense of Capitol rioters. The event received little buy-in from Trump’s inner circles, and received paltry turnout. Undeterred, Braynard and LAA are advertising 16 anniversary events on Jan. 6, ranging from a “vigil” outside the D.C. jail, to demonstrations in seven states, the Daily Dot previously reported.

Many of those events take place outside courthouses or in parks. Another Jan. 6 event, organized by a far-right political candidate, calls for a “patriot martyr vigil” outside the Orange County, California FBI office.

The event’s organizer, Nick Taurus, is an outspoken fan of the white supremacist Nick Fuentes, and is currently running a longshot campaign to unseat Democratic Rep. Katie Porter in California. Taurus is a longtime participant in physical clashes with the left. This summer, two weeks after announcing his candidacy, he uploaded a video montage of himself ripping up a Black Lives Matter sign and repeatedly punching a man who was on the ground. The montage is set against an audio clip of Barry Goldwater proclaiming that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Other footage from the rally at which Taurus ripped the Black Lives Matter sign shows him punching and kicking people, and chanting “fuck that bitch” about Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed by police in 2020.

Shepherd, the former Cobb County GOP chair, linked the events to a rightward shift he observed in his party last year. (Shepherd resigned in October, after the Cobb County GOP moved to censure Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Trump foe. Shepherd objected, arguing that the censure was outside the group’s powers, and that it jeopardized the local party’s standing as a neutral voice within Republican politics.)

Trump’s loss inspired a wave of newly energized supporters to join the Cobb County GOP, to the chagrin of some older members, he said.

“One of the things I noticed in the purge has been a lot of the new people who came in after the 2020 election getting rid of the Trump supporters who joined in 2016,” Shepherd said. “That’s where the sort-of civil war comes.”

The Cobb County GOP has rejected accusations that its anniversary event “glorified” the Capitol attack.

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“The intent of the Cobb GOP January 6th Candlelight Prayer Vigil is to acknowledge Americans who lost their lives and to pray for those who have been denied justice,” the group said in a statement, referring to Capitol rioters awaiting trial.

But the statement hardly condemned the attack, only noting that “to those who have cast quick judgement concerning this event, under no uncertain terms are we condoning any form of violence nor the glorification of what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. This miscarriage of justice should concern ALL AMERICANS. It’s unfortunate that so many have issues with prayer. Everyone should be concerned when our Constitutional rights are being abused.”

Hughes, the American University researcher, said Republican talking points around Jan. 6 have always been contradictory.

Upcoming anniversary events are both “a celebration and a disavowal at the same time,” Hughes said. “These recognitions that come from the far right are going to be contradictory, and they’re going to be incoherent in some cases, but that’s not an impediment to the project. It’s actually central to the project.

“It’s very important that, on one hand, these rallies and commemorations continue to provide this ideological cover, that Jan. 6 was actually about ‘preserving democracy,’ which has to do with the lie that the election was ‘stolen.’ But then at the same time, there is this kind of avowal of violence that goes along with it.”

Some old-guard Georgia Republicans took issue with the Cobb County GOP’s Jan. 6 event, which was first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sam Olens, Georgia’s former Republican Attorney General, tweeted about the event, writing that “I yearn for the return of the Isakson / Coverdell Georgia Republican Party.”

Isakson, a former U.S. senator from Cobb County, was a moderate Republican who died last month: “someone who was able to build bridges, who could work with both Donald Trump and across the aisle with Senate Democrats,” Shepherd recalled.

Isakson’s memorial services will also be held on Jan. 6.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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