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Trump has embraced Jan. 6. The extremist message may alienate — or resonate

Police clash with supporters of President Donald Trump who breached security and entered the Capitol building in Washington D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Mostafa Bassim
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Police clash with supporters of President Donald Trump who breached security and entered the Capitol building in Washington D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

For the Trump campaign, Jan. 6, 2021 is not a moment of national shame but of celebration.

His campaign rallies include patriotic songs recorded by the J6 Prison Choir, a singing group of defendants accused of participating in the violent Capitol riot. He extolls Jan. 6 as a "beautiful day." And he lionizes those who have been jailed on charges connected with that day as "hostages" and "patriots." Since former President Donald Trump launched his 2024 presidential campaign one year ago, he has leaned hard into Jan. 6, using it as a rallying cry for his base.

To political scientists, that's been puzzling.

"It seems to me that he's got a base that is going to be there almost no matter what," said Michael Hanmer, professor of government and politics and the director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland. "But as a strategy to win over new voters or even Republicans who might be uncomfortable with either Trump's temperament or some of his policies, to me, doesn't seem like a strategy that's going to convince people who are reluctant to vote for him."

Hanmer said surveys conducted by the Washington Post and University of Maryland show that attitudes toward Jan. 6 have softened among Republican-leaning voters. But some continue to view what happened at the Capitol as a problem. Four people in the crowd died that day, and a police officer who was beaten during the riot died the next day; more than 1,330 people have been chargedfor their role in those events.

"I think the more Trump talks about Jan. 6 in a way that embraces it, he's putting at risk having Republicans stay home," Hanmer said.

While Trump's embrace of that day may not square with conventional political strategy, some worry that it may resonate in troubling ways with those among his base who increasingly see violence as form of legitimate expression. Concern that his messaging was perhaps tailored to those constituents heightened with the very launch his 2024 campaign, almost exactly one year ago, because of the location where he rallied: Waco, Texas.

Former President Donald Trump dances after speaking at a rally at the Waco Regional Airport last March in Waco, Texas.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump dances after speaking at a rally at the Waco Regional Airport last March in Waco, Texas.

Waco's powerful symbolism to the far right

Trump's campaign has said it launched his 2024 bid in Waco because of the city's proximity to "Texas population centers." But it's also close to the location where, in the early 1990s, the Branch Davidians and federal agents engaged in a long standoff, ending with a fire that killed nearly all members of that religious community. Trump's rally took place less than a month before the 30th anniversary of that grim event.

Since then, Waco has been a potent symbol of what the far right believes to be government overreach and federal tyranny. But Kathleen Belew, associate professor of history at Northwestern University, said the symbol of Waco has also fed a deeper vein of extremist violence.

"It's also a[n] event that ties directly to the Oklahoma City bombing," Belew said, "and for people in the white power movement, signifies not only sort of a softer, anti-government, smaller government kind of politics, but actually signifies a call to violence."

Exactly two years after the end of the Waco siege, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh, a white nationalist, was driven in part by his anger over what had happened with the Branch Davidians. As Trump rallied in Waco, extolling those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and repeating the lie that the 2020 election was "stolen" from him, there is concern that he was tapping into the same anger that has motivated deadly domestic terrorism in the past to frame his reelection bid.

"In order for all of this to sort of come together into a coherent politics, I think the Trump campaign is interested in making it part of ... something like a war on the government that is righteous," Belew said.

Embracing Jan. 6 may be "the only strategy he has"

Since the rally in Waco, Trump's invocation of Jan. 6 has become such a consistent feature of his campaign that news media may often filter it out. But some observers say that the regularity of the messaging itself may indicate that Trump has, in some ways, boxed himself into a corner on this issue.

"I think it's the only strategy has," said Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication and journalism at Texas A&M University.

Mercieca said that a key element of Trump's appeal to his base is that he portrays himself as always the winner, in a world populated by winners and losers. And so to keep that coalition voting for him in 2024, he must continue to claim that he won in 2020.

"The only hope he has of keeping his coalition together and motivating his voters, his voting base, is if he presents himself as a strong man. He cannot be a loser."

During primary season, Mercieca said this strategy worked.

"It allowed him to box out all of the competitors who also wanted to be president or run for the nomination in 2024," said Mercieca. "And so he was able to do a lot of things internally with his party. But I don't see it as a strategy for winning the election in 2024."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 25, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Officer Brian Sicknick died on Jan. 6, 2021. He died on Jan. 7, the next day.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.