A Division of the Republic

Today is January 6. I would love to say that is only noteworthy for those who celebrate Epiphany, those who, like my nephew, have a birthday today, or because of the historically significant events that occurred that day prior to last year. There are several of those by the way—Samuel Morse unveiled the telegraph, Theodore Roosevelt died, New Mexico joined the U.S. as the 47th state, and it is the day on which both George Washington and George H.W. Bush got married. For pop culture fans, it is the day on which “Wheel of Fortune” premiered. For sports fans, it is the day that Nancy Kerrigan got attacked in 1994. Hopefully in the long run at least some of those events will prove more memorable than what happened one year ago today.

On January 6, 2021, something happened in Washington, D.C. Sadly, what you think of the event, even what you call the event, seems to be heavily influenced by your political leanings. A riot seems to be the most frequently used term, as well as the term that I find to be accurate. Dictonary.com gives three definitions for the noun riot: “a noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, as by a crowd protesting against another group, a government policy, etc., in the streets; a disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons acting together in a disrupting and tumultuous manner in carrying out their private purposes; violent or wild disorder or confusion.” All three are fitting for what happened on that day.

History.com says that “a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters descend on the U.S. Capitol, attempting to interfere with the certification of electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. The rioters assaulted the Capitol police force and ransacked the complex, destroying property and sending members of Congress and their staff into hiding in officers and bunkers. A protester who was shot by police, died in the chaos, and more than 100 police were injured.” None of that is really debatable, though there are plenty of attempts being made to spin those events.

Mike Huckabee, writing yesterday, said, “Get ready for a surreal couple of days during which the Capitol Hill breach will be presented as ‘one of the darkest days of our democracy’ (quoting Colorado Rep. Jason Crow) and worse than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Combined.” Huckabee is noted for his wit and sarcasm, but trying to minimize what happened last year through hyperbole is not only ineffective, it smacks of disregard for the reality of what occurred. To be fair, Vice President Kamala Harris did say in her speech this morning, “Certain dates echo throughout history, including dates that instantly remind all who have lived through them where they were and what they were doing when our democracy came under assault. Dates that occupy not only a place on our calendars, but a place in our collective memory. Dec. 7, 1941. Sept. 11, 2001. And Jan. 6, 2021.” I don’t think last year’s riot rises to the level of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in its magnitude or long-range impact, but at the same time, January 6, 2021 was the act of U.S. citizens and cannot be minimized.

 At least Huckabee used the word riot when describing the events later in his piece. Just that word sets some people off. One of the commentors on Huckabee’s web site is a perfect example; he wrote, “it distresses me to the point of anger when anyone refers to what happened last Jan 6 as an ‘insurrection’ or ‘riot’ Both of those involve violence and destruction of property of which there was little if any… at least not at the Capitol building.” Such is the denial of reality we see among Trump followers.

But Huckabee took issue with Brit Hume’s comments two days ago. ““We are not living in normal times. What we need is for people to calm down. The bitter divisions that we see in this country are exacerbated by this tendency to exaggerate, and to do so grossly,” Hume said. Huckabee seemed okay with that part of it. But he took exception (his words) with Hume saying, “It was a cockamamie scheme by Trump that was bound to fail and did.” Huckabee countered that with, “He had called for a peaceful protest that was PRO-democracy. And we certainly can’t blame him for the riot.”

That, of course, is the recurring theme among Trump supporters—he cannot be blamed for the riot.

In An AP article by Jake Coyle, published yesterday, it was reported that a Quinnipiac poll found that 93% of Democrats considered the riot an attack on the government while only 29% of Republicans felt that way. A separate poll found that 40% of Republicans saw the riot as violent while 90% of Democrats did so. In what has to be the most idiotic statement I have come across about the entire event, Representative Andrew Clyde, a Republican from Georgia who is in the pictures of a door to the House chamber being barricaded by men with guns drawn against the mob, said last May, “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos, pictures. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.” Florida Representative Matt Gaetz has uttered plenty of baloney about that day, but then uttering baloney is what Gaetz does best.

I am not going to get into whether or not Trump provoked, or inspired, the riot. There are plenty of others out there who have commented on both sides of that. It is a fact, though, that as he concluded his speech that morning, Trump said, ““We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. So we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue – I love Pennsylvania Avenue – and we are going to the Capitol.” We do know that Trump did not act to deter the riot or to distance himself from it. His first tweet during the event was to say that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution….” Not until 4:17 p.m. did Trump release a video asking those in the Capitol to go home, while also calling them “very special.” That was more than two hours after the Capitol was breached and five minutes shy of two hours after Pence was escorted out of the Senate chamber. Trump’s tweet about Pence lacking courage went out, by contrast, two minutes after Pence was escorted out.

Albert Mohler, who has maintained his support for Donald Trump, opined about the riot in his WORLD Opinion piece posted today. He writes of three Americas revealed by discussions of the January 6 events and rightly suggests that “mainstream America” is probably in agreement that “the events were a national embarrassment, a riot against lawful order, a stark portrait of political violence, and a sobering vision of a crowd out of control.” I am pleased that Mohler has the courage to call the events “horrifying, and bizarre,” and to acknowledge the Capitol was broken into by force, that the lives of elected officials were threated and that the Capitol was desecrated. He said that American witnessed a mob “expressing total disdain for our constitutional order. A nation that tolerates this kind of behavior and lawlessness undermines its own legitimacy.” He even said that “the passions behind those events were incited and flamed by the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. The mob was encouraged by the president….”

Trump and others are trying to downplay the event even today. Conservative radio host Jesse Kelly tweeted that “All the January 6th stuff this week is a distraction technique….” Matt Braynard has asserted that “January 6th was America’s Tiananmen Square.” Trump himself said that President Biden’s speech this morning “used my name…to try to further divide America.”

In the midst of the riot I posted this on Facebook: “This nonsense in Washington, D.C. is not okay, folks…. Storming the Capitol is not a protest. This is no different, and no more excusable, than the CHOP foolishness in Seattle last summer. Anyone who really loves this country and really believes in the principles on which this country is founded should condemn this. Looking through the pictures of the hooligans inside the Capitol makes me sick…both angry and painfully sad.” I feel no differently now. The riot was exactly that—a riot. It was not a protest, it was not peaceful and it is nothing to be proud of, by any stretch of the imagination. I believe that there were peaceful individuals and events in D.C. that day, and I am sure that there were some people who got swept up into the crowd and even went into the Capitol who had no intention of defacing property, attacking anyone or engaging in criminal behavior. There is, though, a reason why “wrong place, wrong time,” is a cliché. The bottom line is that our nation is deeply divided. Donald Trump plays a considerable role in that division but neither he nor anyone else can bear the blame alone. Every one of us who truly cares about our country, about the ideals upon which it was founded and about basic, common decency must stand up for our convictions. We have to speak the truth and we have to demand the truth. We cannot allow ourselves to go along with unscrupulous individuals or to contribute to the division because it seems to be the best available option or the candidate most likely to win at the time.

Please note that I am not suggesting that we compromise on our convictions or beliefs. (Quite the opposite, in fact. Had more conservatives not compromised by deciding to support Donald Trump we would probably not be in this position right now). Convictions are good. The United States government was designed to allow for disagreement and to work slowly so as to prevent quick changes and knee-jerk reactions. Amy Gutmann, in the Fall 2007 issue of Daedalus, wrote, “In a democracy, controversy is healthy,” adding, shortly thereafter, “The public interest is well served by robust public argument.” She was absolutely right. But she was just as right when she said later, “when disagreements are so driven and distorted by extremist rhetoric that citizens and public officials fail to engage with one another reasonably or respectfully on substantive issues of public importance, the debate degenerates, blocking constructive compromises that would benefit all sides more than the status quo would.” That was published before Donald Trump was elected, indeed before Barack Obama was elected. And yet, in the fourteen years since it was published, we have seen her words come alive. Disagreements are distorted. Extremist rhetoric is used on both sides. Politics has become a zero-sum game, with both leading parties casting aside members who dare to hold to their convictions rather than party demands. Just look at Tulsi Gabbard, Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney as three recent examples or consider the opposition Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have faced for refusing to support the repeal of the filibuster or the passage of Biden’s bloated spending plan.

Last year, shortly after the riot, John Horgan, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Georgia State, said in an interview, “The United States is in a very precarious spot right now. We’ve witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms, with increased polarization and radicalization that has reached a boiling point.” He later added, “The country is now so polarized it will take years to heal. It will require positive, constructive leadership at many levels, bipartisan reconciliation and a very basic recognition that we came close to losing a sense of what it means to be a democracy. I don’t believe we realize just how perilous things are right now.”

Gutmann was right and so was Horgan. Sadly, President Biden has not brought positive, constructive leadership. Sadly, Donald Trump has not only continued to demonstrate the same kind of attitude he had while in office, but he is considered the front runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. We don’t need Joe Biden and we don’t need Donald Trump. Nor do we need political parties that pursue victory at any cost.

In 1780 John Adams wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”  Two hundred and forty years later, I think we have seen that he was right.

Photo credit: Blink O’fanaye, Flickr.

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