Is it possible to hold two ideas in our heads at once? If so, I should like to put forward a case study. That Donald J. Trump did something that makes him ill-suited for public office, and that the current January 6 hearings in Washington are partisan political theatre.
For anybody who was in outer space at the time, it is worth recalling that 6 January 2021 was the day Trump urged his supporters to join him in Washington to ‘Stop the steal’. The outgoing president could not accept that he was outgoing. He did not agree that he had lost the election two months earlier, and though it is now clear that some of his advisers told him that he had lost, he chose not to believe them. Instead he went down the path of believing that he had won and, with a dwindling number of his advisers, tried to prove that claim. He never managed it.
What did he expect to happen on 6 January? He wanted his loyal vice president, Mike Pence, to do something unconstitutional in voiding the election results. Pence could not and would not do it. Meanwhile, thousands of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol. Trump urged them to be peaceful, but he also told them: ‘You have to show strength.’ He probably didn’t expect them to breach the Capitol, because he was clearly shocked by the resulting scenes. We know that because it was only after they unfolded that he finally did what he should have done two months earlier and conceded the election.
America survived this huge stress-test of its democracy, but no thanks to Trump. He still maintains that the election was rigged and appears incapable of stepping down from that claim. It will be interesting to see what appetite remains for his view after the November midterms, when the Republicans are expected to do well.
There is no doubt the scenes from that day were disgraceful. Trump marched his supporters up to the top of the hill and did not hurry to march them back down again. It was an appalling, chaotic, embarrassing day.
But a coup? An insurrection? The worst attack on America since even before 9/11? All of these claims and more have been made by the Democrats and other opponents of Trump. CNN and other left-wing channels have spent the past 18 months presenting the events of that day as the worst thing to have happened to America since Pearl Harbor.
And here is where the bitterness of many Republicans and others comes in. For appalling as the scenes were, they did not constitute a serious attempt to overthrow American democracy. What were the protestors going to do? Sit in the Capitol for a few hours? Form a parallel government presided over by the QAnon Shaman (as one of the protestors became known)? A number of policemen and other law enforcement officers were harmed on the day, assaulted by people who apparently thought it ‘patriotic’ to attack American police officers. But the only person to be killed on the day was one of the protestors, a woman who was shot while trying to breach a door inside the building.
Here is where things begin to stick in the craw of many Republicans. In the summer of 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, there were riots in 140 cities across America. They caused billions of dollars of damage, led to more than two dozen deaths and the injuring of around 2,000 police officers. And whereas the American media and political class condemned the 6 January rioters, most of that same media-political class encouraged the protests of summer 2020. In the name of ‘justice’, those protestors were allowed to get away with murder.
To date there have been no Congressional hearings into those riots. Nobody has asked what the culpability might have been of television crews declaring the breakdown of law and order as ‘mostly peaceful’. Nor are politicians being questioned for encouraging the protests after they had already taken on a violent aspect. For instance, in June 2020 the now Vice President Kamala Harris was asked on a television talk show: ‘How important is it for these protests to continue?’ She replied: ‘Critically important.’
‘They’re not going to stop,’ Harris told Stephen Colbert. ‘They’re not going to stop. They’re not. This is a movement, I’m telling you. They’re not going to stop, and everyone, beware. Because they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop before election day in November, and they are not going to stop after election day. And everyone should take note of that on both levels – that they’re not going to let up. And they should not, and we should not.’
The double standard applies to those involved. Although some of those who breached the Capitol on 6 January have rightly been charged with assaulting police officers, damage to federal property and much more, others have been put through legal hell just for being outside the building, even on the opposite side from where people broke in. It cannot be said often enough that these people were deluded, led to the Capitol by a deluded man. But they are also deserving of the same rights as any other American. And in the comparisons between the pursuit of those engaged in the summer 2020 riots and those involved in the January 6 riots, there is clearly no equality of treatment. Some people say: ‘Well, January 6 was an assault on the nation’s Capitol.’ And that certainly does warrant a distinctive response. But federal buildings were assaulted across the country in 2020 with next to no consequences for most of those involved.
So here is the challenge. Is it possible to hold both these thoughts at the same time? Is it possible to walk this ledge without being pushed off into the dangerous valleys that exist on either side? Can we acknowledge that what Trump did was appalling and makes him unsuited for office and also that the hearings in Washington are partisan political theatre? We shall see. I would like to think it possible, but knowing the divisions in America today, I also doubt it.