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Trump is the most powerful figure in the Republican party, despite lies and Jan. 6

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the hours after rioters were cleared from the U.S. Capitol one year ago today, there was a striking moment on the floor of the Senate. One of Donald Trump's closest allies, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, stood up and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Trump and I, we've had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way. Oh, my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he's been a consequential president. But today, first thing you'll see - all I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.

CHANG: Well, for most of the Republican Party, including Graham, January 6 was not enough. Trump remains the most powerful figure in the party as he continues to spread lies that undermine American democracy. To talk about why, as well as where the GOP goes from here, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I mean, it was hard to miss the fact that almost no Republican lawmakers took part in today's commemorations on Capitol Hill. Can we just start there? What does that tell us, you think?

LIASSON: Tells us that January 6, like everything else in American politics, much to the surprise of people on both sides of the aisle back then, is completely polarized. You know, there was a fleeting moment right after the insurrection when many Republicans felt - and you heard it in Graham's statement back then - that this was the moment that would be a clean break from Trump - maybe not his conservative policies, but certainly his attitudes towards democracy. You know, remember - Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, said Trump bears responsibility. But I guess no one should be surprised at how fleeting that moment was because on that same day, just shortly after the insurrection was put down, a majority of Republicans in Congress voted later that night to do exactly what the insurrectionists were sent by Donald Trump to Capitol Hill to do, which was to make them vote to overturn a free and fair election.

CHANG: I mean, yeah. So many Republicans condemned what happened on January 6. So what do you think has changed since then?

LIASSON: Well, what's changed is that three-quarters of Republican voters believe Trump's lie that he was the true winner of the 2020 election - you know, 7 million more votes for Joe Biden notwithstanding. And, you know, that was a lie that Trump started telling months if not years before the election, that the only way he could lose is if the election was stolen from him. And it's now become the defining belief of the Republican Party, a litmus test for Trump support, kind of the definition of Republican identity. Today, you have Lindsey Graham tweeting attacks on Joe Biden for politicizing January 6. You have Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, saying, quote, "January 6 allows Democrats to create narratives that are negative about people who like Donald Trump." In other words, it's all conflated. January 6, Donald Trump and the lie and the Republican base - it's all one and the same thing. And today, again, you have Trump issuing a statement calling the 2020 election rigged, saying the big lie was the election itself.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what would you say the implications are for the Republican Party going forward when lies about the election and January 6 persist?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's going to be very hard because the lie is now existential for Republican success. It's what motivates their base, it - what turns them out to vote. It helps them raise money. It's also a permission structure for passing all sorts of laws in states that will make it easier for Republican legislators to overturn or disqualify legal elections next time. In other words, if you believe an election was stolen from you, it justifies doing all sorts of things to win the next one. It also tells you that the Republican Party has the mindset of a minority party. At least in national elections, it hasn't won the popular vote - only twice since 1988. It doesn't have the confidence in itself to win a majority of voters fair and square.

CHANG: What do you think, Mara, it would take to break this hold that these election lies have on the GOP right now?

LIASSON: I think the party has to heal itself. You need Republicans inside the party. There's a lonely few right now - Adam Kinzinger, Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney. The party has to heal itself. And right now, there are just too few Republicans who see it in their own political interest to stand up or see their own political interest as the same as the interest of preserving American democracy.

CHANG: That is NPR's Mara Liasson.

Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.