This article is the result of a focus group we held with Republican voters about the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and the health of American democracy. You can also read the article about our Democratic voter focus group on the same issues here. Patrick Healy, the deputy Opinion editor, expands on the takeaways from the focus groups and the intent behind them here in the Opinion Today newsletter.
Former President Donald Trump may be popular in the Republican Party, but his conduct during the attack on the Capitol last Jan. 6 earned poor marks and stood out as a troubling memory during a discussion among eight G.O.P. voters in a Times Opinion focus group this week.
This transcript of the discussion — part of a new series of Opinion focus groups exploring Americans’ views on issues facing the country — offers a more nuanced portrait of Republican voters and their concerns about American democracy than the typical image of the pro-Trump party base in lock step with the former president. The Times convened this focus group, as well as a separate focus group with Democrats, to pose the same questions in hopes of showing how different voters see the events of last year and where they disagree or overlap.
Some of the Republicans said Mr. Trump could have stopped the attack on Jan. 6 sooner and others blamed him for egging on his supporters. At the same time, several of the Republicans repeated Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about election fraud and traded in other unfounded claims, including about the Jan. 6 riot, news coverage and a Democratic push for Covid-related restrictions to supposedly ensure more mail-in balloting in future elections.
As is customary in focus groups, our role as moderators was not to argue with or fact-check the speakers. Listening to some of the Republicans rationalize their support for the president, and in some cases justify the mob violence at the Capitol, may offer insights into what makes them vote the way they do, and believe what they believe. It’s only by understanding that can we move toward a better, clearer understanding of our fellow citizens.
Two veteran focus group moderators, Kristen Soltis Anderson and Margie Omero, led the Republican and Democratic discussions respectively. (Times Opinion paid them for the work; they do similar work for political candidates, parties and special interest groups.)
This transcript has been edited for length; an audio recording and video clips of the session are also included. As is common with focus groups, the speakers’ last names are not included.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What are some of the biggest things that you remember happening in 2021?
Gayle (from Florida): The vaccine. More and more people getting vaccinated.
Judi (from Oklahoma): The economy started to go bad.
Barney (from Delaware): The price of everything going up, and we’re back to $50 fill-ups.
Matt (from Tennessee): Betty White was the final thing that 2021 was able to take from us.
Lorna (from Missouri): A lot of the concerts were canceled. They managed to pull off the Rolling Stones coming here, though. I didn’t go. I didn’t want to be around all them people.
Joshua (from Ohio): The social justice movement growing from 2020, definitely.
Judi: The great divide our country is in. With our new president and with issues with the vaccine. There are people that are all for it. There are some that will not even talk about it or take it, even look at it.
Sandy (from California): The vaccinations — you have to show your card. It’s almost like we’re having our civil rights taken away.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: When I say “Jan. 6,” I want to hear from each of you what the first word is that comes to mind.
Barney: Way overblown.
Lorna: One of the guys that was arrested, my mom worked with. It’s ridiculous the way they came out and searched his house.
Gayle: Definitely Trump and MAGA and CNN.
Sandy: Blowing out of proportion.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: In your own words, what happened on Jan. 6? How would you describe what happened?
Matt: I would say civilians stormed the Capitol building in an unwarranted fashion.
Gayle: Many people that were upset with how the election turned out and didn’t feel that Biden won fairly and wanted to, I guess, do some damage.
Jill (from Maine): People trying to take control because they felt like somehow they were wronged with the election.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I want you to think about how you felt when you first heard about what had happened on Jan. 6, how you felt. A show of hands, did anybody feel angry?
[Matt and Jill raise their hands.]
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What about upset?
[Jill, Matt, Lorna, Judi and Barney raise their hands.]
Kristen Soltis Anderson: What about ashamed?
[No one raises a hand.]
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Ambivalent?
[Gayle raises her hand.]
Gayle: I kind of feel like, on one hand, you had a few bad apples in there, and then you had other people who truly were just trying to express their feelings of the election, and they didn’t feel that the outcome was right. So I don’t know what the intent was initially.
Patrick Healy: How important do you think Jan. 6 was in American history? Just thinking about other major events in American history, Sept. 11, Pearl Harbor.
Jill: I think it’s very important, and it’s much different than the other Pearl Harbors and stuff because it was Americans turning on Americans. It wasn’t somebody else doing damage. It was us doing damage to ourselves.
Sandy: It doesn’t really faze me. I mean, these Black Lives Matter people back in 2020 — that was the whole summer. You don’t hear anybody talking about that.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Barney, I believe when I was going around and asking people to give one word, I believe you said “overblown.” Where do you see something like Jan. 6 in the scope of American history?
Barney: I’ve lived in Washington. And if you do like you’re supposed to do and get your permits and get security, there’s very peaceful demonstrations with millions of people, and nothing happens. And nobody listened to the warnings saying there’s people coming. So it’s not a Pearl Harbor. It’s not a 9/11. It’s Jan. 6, 2021, and it’s just another day. Every day, if you live in Washington, you turn on the news, you hear “Jan. 6” 100 times a day. And if you go out to Oklahoma, you don’t hear it. So it’s where you are and what you hear.
Gayle: People don’t talk about it. The issues that we’re dealing with right now, it’s Covid and inflation and the supply chain issues. It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican. So I don’t know if it’s something that might eventually be in history books.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Were there any things that anybody was saying or doing that made what happened on Jan. 6 more likely to occur the way it did?
Judi: People were saying that the states wanted to recount the votes because they saw fraud.
Jill: I would say Trump. Trump saying he lost the election, it was stolen from him, over and over and over again. And I think a lot of people were just getting very angry about it, feeling like the election was stolen.
Joshua: Trump’s speeches and his Twitter.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I want to know if you think there’s anything that President Trump could have done or should have done to prevent the escalation and what happened on Jan. 6?
Judi: I don’t think you should have had that rally with all the people, with all the protesters. I think he just got everybody more ticked off.
Gayle: I think he could have stopped it earlier somehow. I remember watching it on TV and going, ‘What the hell is going on right now?’ And I was like, ‘Where is Trump during this?’ And that was the only thing that kind of came to mind in that moment, was Trump’s got to come in and do something about this. But he wasn’t, and that was a concern of mine.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Based on what you’ve heard and your impressions of President Trump, what do you think was going through his mind when he was seeing all of this on television?
Barney: He wasn’t very happy. For sure. Because Trump’s people don’t act like that. A lot of these people were professional antagonists. I’ve lived in D.C. my whole life. They like to do it.
Sandy: People coming in there and storming and causing a ruckus didn’t achieve his goal.
Judi: His followers were not like that.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I want to show you — this is a text from Donald Trump Jr. when he was texting with chief of staff Mark Meadows, where he said: “He’s got to condemn this ASAP. Capitol Police tweet is not enough.” Laura Ingraham: “Mark, the president needs to tell the people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He’s destroying his legacy.” Sean Hannity texting about this as well. Does this surprise you at all or not so much?
Gayle: That is very surprising to me because they’re saying what you would think almost a Democrat would say or a liberal would say.
Lorna: Kind of shocking to me. You’d think they’d back the president.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: How do you think Vice President Mike Pence handled everything on Jan. 6? Is there anything that you wish the vice president had said or done differently that day?
Sandy: I think he could have postponed the verification of the votes. To this day, there’s still recounts going on.
Judi: No, I think he was stuck in the middle. I think he didn’t want to make waves, and I think he really didn’t have a choice.
Gayle: He was stuck. I’m sort of stuck, myself, in thinking maybe he could have done more. But I don’t know what else he could have done other than to back Trump up.
Patrick Healy: A show-of-hands question: How many of you believe Joe Biden won the election fair and square?
[Jill raises her hand.]
Patrick Healy: And how many of you believe Trump really won the election?
[All but Jill and Matt raise their hands.]
Patrick Healy: Judi, you made a point at the beginning about your concern about the great political divide in the country. Do you think that Jan. 6 contributed to that political divide, or do you think other factors contribute to that divide?
Judi: I think it has a lot to do with the divide. Because there’s people like us. We feel that Trump should have won. Trump won the election. And there are others that will say no, Biden won fair and square. And that’s what’s dividing this country between the Republicans and the Democrats. I mean, even more so. I mean, really, really dividing us.
Gayle: I think the country has been divided especially since Trump went into office in 2016. It didn’t matter about his policies anymore. It just had to do with his personality that people hated so much. I never heard of it in such an extreme manner than I did — until 2016 — throughout his presidency. And I’ll be quite frank with you. I don’t think he should run again. It’s a mistake for him to run. If he runs, every Democrat is going to just vote Democrat just to not keep Trump in.
Patrick Healy: Can I ask for a show of hands: How many of you would like to see President Trump run again in 2024?
[Judi, Joshua and Lorna raise their hands.]
Joshua: Under Trump, for most of his term — having our economy be great. Getting back to that.
Patrick Healy: Barney, could I ask you why you didn’t raise your hand?
Barney: His show’s over. We definitely need some new blood at the head of the country and different types of leaders. I mean, this divide among the parties is getting really crazy, crazy. And living where I do, I mean, it’s just every day. And I used to think it was really bad when George Bush II was president. I mean, no matter what he did, he got criticized. If you got a flat tire, it was Bush’s fault. Trump, no matter what, he couldn’t do anything. The Washington Post food critic, because [Trump] likes his steak well done, criticized him for that. What he likes.
Patrick Healy: How many of you voted for President Trump in 2020?
[Six raise their hands; Joshua and Jill do not.]
Kristen Soltis Anderson: In the days that followed Jan. 6, a number of prominent Republicans came out and said they were upset with what had happened and that they were upset with the way Trump had handled the situation. You had Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy say, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” You had some members of the White House staff and some members of President Trump’s cabinet who resigned in protest. Why do you think they came out and said that?
Matt: Absolutely save face with their constituency.
Judi: I don’t think they were honest, and I think they should have backed him regardless. I mean, you’re Republican or Democrat. You should back your president, and they didn’t. They didn’t back him. And that’s why I’m kind of — I’m going independent now.
Barney: Politicians don’t do anything unless it’s for their own best interests. They don’t do it for you or me. They do it for them. So they’re always covering their butt all the time.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I think, Barney, you may have mentioned people coming in from other places. Who is antifa? Where are they coming in from, in your view?
Barney: I think there’s groups around the country that just — they’re professional hell-raisers, and they like to poke the bear. And they’re funded by, maybe, other countries. I’m not sure. I don’t know. Or maybe by Soros. But they’re always there, and they’re always in front.
Gayle: From what I understand, a lot of them are on college campuses, and they recruit that way. So they’re recruiting young folks, people that are new to — are very open-minded, and maybe they’re just looking for some sort of community, some sort of group that they can be a part of.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I want to take a step back. How would you characterize the health of our democracy? Healthy? Fair? Poor? Critical condition? I want to get a show of hands. How many of you think our democracy is “mostly healthy”?
[Sandy raises his hand.]
Sandy: Shake it off. Things happen in life. Quit being a wuss.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Any hands for “fair” condition?
[Barney and Jill raise their hands.]
Barney: You can make a lot of things happen, if you have the right influence and the right amount of cash. I don’t think it’s good, but the way our country was set up is not like it is today. We’ve gone way, way, away from that.
Jill: I think the basic theme is still there. I think people are still good, whether Republican or Democrat, and they’re still looking to work towards the good. They want to make things better.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: How many of you would say you think our democracy is in “poor” condition?
[Five raise their hands.]
Gayle: We still have rules and laws that we have to abide by. However, we do have freedom of speech, although sometimes I don’t know about that anymore.
Judi: So far.
Gayle: So far. Who knows? It’s more about the mandates and the lockdowns and these requirements that the federal government is now making us do, as opposed to giving more of that freedom back to the people or to the states. To me, democracy was based on having the constituents make decisions. It’s not about the federal government taking over and controlling everything. That’s why you see a lot of people now leaving their jobs, because they don’t want to get the vaccine, and yet they’re mandated to do it. So it’s a problem. I’m very happy and very fortunate to be living in Florida, by the way, because I didn’t go through a lot of these mandates and lockdowns that were required.
Joshua: I would say that the government looks for events like Covid-19 as ways to usher in the “New World Order” and just have everything be more socialist.
Patrick Healy: I want to ask specifically about the next presidential election, the 2024 presidential election. Are you concerned at all about the losing party, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, trying to steal the election after the fact?
Barney: I think every election from now on is going to be like that.
Lorna: They’re already talking about the mail-in ballots with Covid. You know where that’s going to go.
Sandy: Yeah. It’s like they’re coming up with these — the right to vote thing. I’ve never been turned down to vote. Just show up and go vote. But this whole mail-in ballot thing? I think that should end right away.
Gayle: I’ll be quite frank: I think that the reason that they push Covid so much is because they’re going to try to keep the mail-in ballots. I think that they are putting the fear in people so that they can push Covid as long as possible for 2024. It’s all about control, and they’re keeping Covid as one of their biggest weapons.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: I have one final question. It’s probably the case that 100 years from now a historian is going to be writing a book about the 2020 election, and they’ll have a chapter on Jan. 6 and what happened. What would you want those historians, 100 years from now, to know about how you think about Jan. 6?
Matt: They would hopefully write that the process still stood strong. It did what it was supposed to do. Regardless of whether or not it was tested — the process was still the process, and it didn’t need to be rewritten because of some hurt feelings.
Joshua: About how the news was just trying to get out the story as fast as they could have and not worrying about the facts, just changing everything as they went on.
Barney: I hope they include both sides of the story and all the players involved.
Lorna: How the Democrats invaded the White House.
Gayle: I guess it would come down to what is a fair election. People just didn’t feel that the election was fair. What is the proper way to vote, I think, is really what I would say to write about.
Jill: It started off to be people expressing their opinion in a peaceful way, got out of hand, turned into a little bit of mob mentality, and things just got out of control in a way that normally wouldn’t happen.
Sandy: Yeah. It was no Boston Tea Party, so I don’t think it’ll be a big event in a history book. But people stood up for what they thought.