The deadly riot that took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, drew widespread attention and condemnation from the American public. But Democrats and Republicans differed sharply over key aspects of it, both in its immediate aftermath and in the months that followed.
A year later, here’s a look back at how Americans saw the events of Jan. 6 and how some partisan divisions grew wider over time. All findings in this analysis are based on Pew Research Center surveys conducted in January, March and September of last year.
This Pew Research Center analysis examines Americans’ initial reactions to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and how their views changed in the months that followed it. All findings in this analysis come from Center surveys conducted in January, March and September of last year. Everyone who participated in all three surveys is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The surveys were weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
For additional details about the methodology of each survey – including the field dates, sample size and questions asked – open the links for each report.
Americans expressed shock, horror and anguish over the riot at the Capitol, but partisan divides were clear even in the first days after Jan. 6. In a survey conducted from Jan. 8 to 12, 2021, around seven-in-ten U.S. adults (69%) said they had heard a lot about the riot, and another 28% said they had heard a little. In volunteered, open-ended responses to the survey from more than 2,600 adults, many Americans expressed strong negative emotions, such as shock and anger, as well as surprise and concern for the country.
“A slap in the face to democracy, something you would expect to see in a third world nation,” said one man in his 60s. “Shocked, horrified and sad for our country,” said a woman in her 60s. “We were there a few years ago and were awestruck. How could fellow citizens violently enter federal buildings intending to destroy property and possibly harm our leaders?”
While negative reactions surfaced in both parties, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were much more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to volunteer an emotion such as disappointment, disbelief or fear (48% vs. 27%). Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express doubts about who was behind the riot: Nearly one-in-five Republicans who volunteered a reaction (17%) said the destruction hadn’t actually been instigated by Trump supporters, instead saying it had been done by groups such as Antifa or Black Lives Matter.
Republicans were divided in the wake of Jan. 6 over whether then-President Donald Trump bore responsibility for the actions of some of his supporters that day. Overall, 52% of U.S. adults said Trump bore a lot of responsibility for the violence and destruction at the Capitol, while 23% said he bore some responsibility and a similar share (24%) said he bore none at all.
Around half of Republicans and GOP leaners said Trump either bore a lot (18%) or some responsibility (34%) for the riot. But nearly as many (46%) said he bore no responsibility at all.
An overwhelming majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (95%) placed at least some blame for the riot on Trump, including around eight-in-ten (81%) who said he bore a lot of responsibility for it.
Americans were also deeply divided by party over whether it would be better for the country for Trump to be removed from office in the days after the riot. Around eight-in-ten Democrats (83%) said it would be better for Trump to be removed and replaced by then-Vice President Mike Pence for the final days of his term. Nearly as many Republicans (79%) said it would be better for the country for Trump to finish out his term himself.
Overall, more than half of Americans (54%) said it would be better for the country for Trump to be removed and replaced by Pence, while 45% favored Trump remaining in office until the end of his term.
Between March and September 2021, Americans became less likely to say it was important to find and prosecute the Capitol rioters, with all of the decline occurring among Republicans. In a survey conducted in early March, 87% of U.S. adults said it was very or somewhat important for federal law enforcement agents to find and prosecute those who broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6. By September, that figure had slipped to 78%.
Around eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) said in the March survey that it was very or somewhat important to find and prosecute the Capitol rioters. By September, 57% expressed that view. Among Democrats, 95% said in both surveys that it was very or somewhat important to find and prosecute the rioters.
In both parties, there was a decline in the share of adults who said it was very important to identify and prosecute the rioters. But the decrease was much more pronounced among Republicans (from 50% in March to 27% in September) than among Democrats (from 86% to 80%).
While some GOP elected officials publicly rebuked Trump in the wake of Jan. 6, Republicans in the U.S. became less open to intraparty criticism of the former president in the months after the riot. In mid-January 2021, 10 Republican representatives joined all Democrats in a House vote to impeach Trump for his role in the violence at the Capitol. In February, seven Senate Republicans joined Democrats in a vote to convict him, though the effort still failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority for approval.
Nationally, the share of Republicans who said their party should be very or somewhat accepting of GOP elected officials who openly criticize Trump declined from 43% in March to 36% in September, according to the Center’s surveys. The share of Republicans who said their party should be not too or not at all accepting of such officials rose from 56% to 63%.
Democrats, too, became less likely to say their party should be accepting of Democratic elected officials who openly criticize President Joe Biden. Around two-thirds (68%) said in March that their party should be very or somewhat accepting of such officials, a figure that declined to 57% by September. Still, majorities of Democrats said in both surveys that their party should be accepting of officials who openly criticize the current president.
As of September 2021, there were wide partisan differences over the severity of the criminal penalties imposed on the Jan. 6 rioters and whether the House’s investigation of the riot would be fair or not. In the months after the riot – which led to multiple deaths, as well as injuries to around 150 law enforcement officers – the U.S. Justice Department arrested and began to prosecute hundreds of people who participated. A select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives launched its own investigation.
In the Center’s September survey, around half of U.S. adults (48%) said the criminal penalties that had been imposed on the rioters by that point had not been severe enough, while 29% said the penalties had been about right and 20% said they had been too severe.
Around seven-in-ten Democrats (71%) said the criminal penalties by that point had not been severe enough, while 21% said they had been about right and only 6% said they had been too severe. Among Republicans, similar shares said the penalties had been too severe (38%) and about right (39%), while 19% said they had not been severe enough.
In the same survey, a narrow majority of Americans (54%) said they were either not too or not at all confident that the House committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 riot would be fair and reasonable. Here, too, partisan differences were wide. Around eight-in-ten Republicans said they were either not too (37%) or not at all confident (40%) that the committee’s investigation would be fair and reasonable, while 63% of Democrats said they were at least somewhat confident that it would be.