Why did Trump cancel his January 6 speech?

AP Photo/Ben Gray

I’m glad he did, and I understand why Republican leaders wanted him to. What I don’t understand is why he went along. Since when does he put the party’s interests above his own?

Joe Walsh believes Trump is prioritizing his own interests by canceling the speech. “Trump canceled his January 6th presser for the same reason he told his supporters two weeks ago he got a booster shot: He’s running in 2024,” he tweeted. But if that were true, his endless ranting about a rigged election would have ended months ago. He’d be in full image-makeover mode now, moving on from 2020 and hoping that swing voters forget about the, er, unpleasantness of last winter.

As it is, he continues to put out statements claiming election fraud almost daily. Even his announcement that tomorrow’s planned event is canceled contains a teaser about more I-wuz-robbed propaganda to come next week. He’s not dropping the subject, he’s just avoiding public remarks about it on a particular day. And I’d bet good money that we’ll see at least a written statement tomorrow re-asserting that the “real insurrection” happened on November 3.

For Republicans, Trump running through his usual January 6 apologetics on live television on a day when the media will be engaged in saturation coverage of how disgraceful it was would be an optics nightmare. Lindsey Graham reportedly lobbied him privately to ditch the idea. Republican senators grumbled to reporters yesterday, before he canceled, that it was a mistake. Even Laura Ingraham nudged him to rethink it, asking Rep. Jim Banks on her show, “Some things were horrific that happened and shouldn’t have happened that day. … Is it smart for President Trump to do a rally on that particular day, versus next week or the week before?” (Banks, a top MAGA crony, didn’t dare agree with her.)

The congressional GOP’s messaging strategy tomorrow, per Axios, is to “narrowly condemn the rioters, avoid criticizing Trump or assigning any responsibility to him and quickly pivot to attacking Democrats over their handling of the Jan. 6 investigation.” Having Trump ranting on Fox News about voting machines and missing ballots would have stepped all over that and showed swing voters in the starkest possible way that “stop the steal,” which inspired the insurrection, is ongoing. it never ended. Imagine a CNN split-screen of Trump crying crocodile tears about the imprisoned rioters paired with footage of violent goons in red hats on January 6 battering cops with flagpoles. That would be what we might politely call “a bad look.”

But it’d be an accurate look at where the GOP is. The party’s leader, who’ll win the 2024 nomination by acclamation if he wants it, is palpably obsessed with convincing the public that he couldn’t have lost fair and square. Disagreeing with him about that is grounds for a primary challenge for any Republican politician. Republican voters also view toeing the Trumpy line on the subject as important:

Having Trump stand down about “stop the steal” on the anniversary of January 6 after a year of promoting it is essentially false advertising. And since he’ll spend the next three years chattering about the subject to anyone who’ll listen, what’s ultimately to be gained from him going dark for 24 hours? He’ll revisit this subject endlessly on the campaign trail in 2022 and 2024. Swing voters who regard his conspiracy theorizing as disqualifying will get ample reminders about it before they go to the polls again, even if Trump keeps quiet tomorrow.

It’s worth noting that local GOP leaders recently whispered to NBC that they wouldn’t mind if he backburnered the 2020 stuff. From their perspective it already served its purpose, energizing Republicans to vote and to get involved in local politics earlier this year when Biden was polling well. Now that everything’s gone to hell for Democrats, GOPers no longer need “stop the steal” to keep people engaged. They have inflation, the supply chain, and the White House’s COVID failures to do so.

“People here have turned to the future,” Hai Cao, a member of the Gwinnett County GOP in Georgia, said in an interview.

Fellow members of the local Republican Party “don’t dwell and talk about” 2020, he added, because “we’ll just lose opportunity for future advancement — wins.”…

[North Carolina Republican leader Michele] Woodhouse said that earlier this year, anger over Trump’s loss was driving new participation at the local GOP level. Not so much anymore.

“There’s been this uprising to say Biden’s policies are failing us so miserably,” said Woodhouse, who is running for a U.S. House seat in North Carolina’s newly drawn 14th Congressional District. “And it’s been a very issue-driven enthusiasm. I really think the issues are driving it.”

No one interviewed for that piece objected to Trump continuing to push rigged-election propaganda because it’s false or bad for the country. It’s a pure power calculus. A pernicious lie became less useful to Republicans politically; then and only then did local officials’ interest in it wane.

There may be another reason that Trump canceled tomorrow’s speech:

There would have been tremendous pressure on the media from the left not to give him airtime to spread lies about January 6 on tomorrow of all days. It’s bad enough for him to do it at some randomly scheduled political rally carried live on Fox, but for him to do it on the anniversary would amount to counterprogramming the truth with a revisionist history in which most of the rioters were Antifa, Ashli Babbitt is a martyr, the insurrectionists at the D.C. jail are political prisoners, and Trump is the rightful president. In that context, it’s anyone’s guess how many non-Fox outlets would have showed up to cover his speech. And maybe even Fox would have been iffy about going live with it: Two months ago Rupert Murdoch joined the chorus of those urging Trump let the 2020 election go.

Maybe Trump feared the media would ignore him and canceled the speech to avert that humiliation.

I’ll leave you with this, a text from the days following the insurrection sent by Sean Hannity. Trump has crossed the line Hannity drew here many, many times since he drew it, and of course Hannity’s loyalty is as strong as ever.