Beware the Insurrection Whataboutists
Capitol Hill literally looked like a war zone for President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Thanks to the storming of the Capitol by a MAGA mob on January 6, over 20,000 armed troops guarded federal buildings. The entire perimeter of the Capitol was barricaded. Checkpoints went up on every road leading to the National Mall.
Nothing similar has ever been necessary before. So one would have thought this ignominious break from the country’s long history of the peaceful—and dignified—transfer of power would generate a collective “yuck” from conservatives against the outgoing president whose baseless claims of election fraud mobilized the marauders.
One would be wrong.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence, some conservative outlets and writers did indeed condemn Trump. But as the shock of images of lawmakers cowering under their benches while the mob tried to ram down doors has worn off, some conservatives have drifted back to their usual “whatabouting,” pretending that the Trump riots are no different from past “liberal” violence.
Even with Trump now gone, those whataboutist arguments require a response—not only because some version of them may be aired again when the Senate impeachment trial gets underway, but also because it is vital that the heinousness of what Trump wreaked is understood and remembered, lest it someday be repeated.
The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, a fine publication before it apparently started muzzling anti-Trump voices, ran a piece by William Voegeli on January 12 suggesting that “since riots are bad—utterly, always, and everywhere” only those who condemned last year’s “Antifa/Black Lives Matter violence” had earned the right to “condemn the Trumpist riot.” Every word of Voegeli’s piece reeks of false moral equivalence, including, to paraphrase the immortal words of Mary McCarthy, “and” and “the.”
Let’s start with his cheap conflation “Antifa/Black Lives Matter violence,” a phrase that unfairly taints BLM with Antifa’s extremism while also papering over the cause that propelled the violence: police brutality. In his 2,279-word essay accusing liberals of not playing fair, Voegeli manages to mention the name George Floyd—the black man whose brutal homicide by a white police officer triggered the summer protests—not once.
But if it’s the case that “riots are bad—utterly, always, and everywhere” then I look forward to his condemnation of the famous 1765 Stamp Act riots against British taxation on printed material, a cause laughably trivial compared to police brutality. And the 1942 Bombay riots after India’s British rulers arrested Mahatma Gandhi, who was fighting for independence. And the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising to dismantle the apartheid regime in South Africa. Clearly not all riots are made equal, but the advantage of such blanket statements is that they allow Voegeli to position himself on a moral ground so stratospheric that all relevant moral distinctions become invisible.
But there is a world of difference between riots and an attempted insurrection. In this case, the difference is even more poignant given that the former was the result of outrage against abusive law enforcement. The latter, meanwhile, was instigated by a delusional autocrat trying to hang on to power by overthrowing the results of a democratic election, with the backing of a majority of his party in Congress. Even if Trump supporters had not resorted to violence, they would have deserved scorn for the odiousness of their cause. But the fact is that violence was their only way forward since all other legal—and peaceful—options had already been exhausted. In other words, their cause and tactics were in perfect alignment. The violence of last summer, on the other hand, was an incidental—if lamentable—part of the protests against state violence toward persecuted minorities.
Voegeli’s exercise in anti-casuistry is easy to debunk. Far cleverer is a January 14 column by Marc Thiessen, a reliable Trump apologist, in the Washington Post, “Democrats were for occupying capitols before they were against it.” Thiessen compares the storming of the Capitol building by the pro-Trump mob with the occupation of the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, by pro-union activists a decade ago. At that time, thousands of them, some bused from out of town, forced through doors and windows to stop a vote on banning public-sector unions from automatically deducting dues from government employee paychecks, among other collective bargaining reforms. What’s more, far from condemning the hooliganism, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the “impressive show of democracy.”
Pelosi’s statement was shameful, but there are also vital differences between the two episodes, the most obvious one being that it is one thing for such a spectacle to transpire at the state level and quite another at the national. Indeed, the more local the politics, the more tawdry they get. It is a true Trump accomplishment that instead of draining the swamp, as he’d promised, he brought the tawdry style of city politics to the nation’s capital. Witness that one of his last acts was to pardon Detroit’s utterly corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was doing 28 years for perjury and obstruction of justice. (Kilpatrick fired a deputy police chief conducting an internal probe on his extramarital affair and then used taxpayer money to settle the chief’s lawsuit.)
More to the point, while the tactics that labor activists used to stop the collective bargaining vote were deplorable, their end wasn’t. They were certainly within their democratic rights to fight for the issue. While I strongly supported Wisconsin’s collective bargaining reforms at the time, it is understandable that unions would have a different view. But there was nothing legitimate about Trump’s mob trying to overturn democracy itself. There can be no two views about it, especially after 60-plus court rulings, some delivered by Trump appointees, rejected the fevered conspiracy theories floated by the former president that the election had been stolen from him.
Trump wanted to keep himself in power “by any means necessary”—to use a Trotskyite phrase. Conservatives need to repudiate Trump’s tactics—not dig into history for precedents and parallels to normalize them.