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Peaceful Sightseers at the Capitol!
The Fight Over the January 6th Riots
Yoda, the Jedi Master, once told Luke Skywalker that the future is difficult to see because it’s always in motion.
So too is the past. Always in motion it is. Its meaning. We can’t and don’t remember everything even as we construct narratives of meaning out of those things we can or choose to remember.
William Faulkner famously said the past isn’t dead — it’s not even past. That’s most certainly true of the now-infamous Capitol riot in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s defeat in November 2020.
America is yet again fighting for control over the past with respect to the January 6th riot in 2021. This week at Fox News, Tucker Carlson suggested the rioters were mostly peaceful respectful sightseers. They revered the Capitol! They took cheerful selfies! They even queued in neat little lines!
Even Republicans like Mitch McConnell have gone on record to denounce Carlson’s cherrypicking of the video evidence. Here’s what McConnell had to say: “It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks.” McConnell cited a letter by the US Capitol Police that described Carlson’s program as being “filled with offensive and misleading conclusions about the January 6th attack.”
To state the obvious: On controversial and politicized issues like this, the past doesn’t speak with one voice. Opportunists seek to polarize the past. To exploit it for their own purposes. This is true of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. It’s also true of many Democrats.
The January 6th riots were not an insurrection. They were not a coup. They were akin to mob violence. They most definitely were a collective temper tantrum incited by Trump that led to considerable chaos and violence. The person most responsible for them should be punished. That person, Donald Trump, walked away scot-free.
My immediate reaction to the Capitol riots (written on January 7th) still holds true, I think:
Once again, America will likely take the wrong lessons from these riots. The Capitol police will likely call for more money, more resources, more officers, more guns, more security cameras, more barricades, etc. There are already calls for more Internet censorship. Homeland Security funding will surely get a boost. And certain people will dismiss too easily the alienation and indignation of Trump supporters.
What I mean is this: Americans are upset. Angry. Alienated. Confused. And rightly so. And until our government serves the people instead of corporate, financial, and similar lobbyists and special interests, the potential for future mobs will remain. Donald Trump is a total buffoon, a shell of a man, a narcissist with ambitions centered always on himself and his self-image. But imagine a more skilled manipulator, one less narrowly focused on himself, one with a stronger work ethic, one with boundless ambition for power. Such a person could truly lead an insurrection or coup, and yesterday’s scenes suggest such a takeover would be easier than we think.
Predictably, in the aftermath of the riots, the Capitol police did indeed get more money and resources, with House Democrats approving $1.9 billion for added security. Democrats under Joe Biden now sell themselves as the party of law and order, of expanded police forces (along with exploding Pentagon budgets and unanimous support of war-related aid to Ukraine in excess of $100 billion). They paint Republicans as dangerous, as undemocratic, even as an enemy within. Trump, most recently at CPAC, gleefully returns the favor, using similar inflammatory rhetoric.
Meanwhile, as Trump angles and preens for another presidential run, supporters of his who bought the big lie of a stolen election and protested at the Capitol on January 6th are being hounded by prosecutors. Yes, some of the rioters were violent, broke laws, and merit prosecution and punishment. But in many cases the federal pursuit and prosecution of these “deplorables” has been over-the-top, notes Chris Hedges. Their punishment has been grossly disproportionate to their crimes.
This may help the Democrats politically, but it is unhealthy for our democracy, notes Hedges:
The cheerleading, or at best indifference, by Democratic Party supporters and much of the left to these show trials will come back to haunt them. We are exacerbating the growing tribalism and political antagonisms that will increasingly express themselves through violence. We are complicit, once again, of using the courts to carry out vendettas. We are corroding democratic institutions. We are hardening the ideology and rage of the far-right. We are turning those being hounded to prison into political prisoners and martyrs. We are moving ever closer towards tyranny.
Hedges is right here. The Democrats and Republicans have been twisting, manipulating, and polarizing the past for their own purposes. Two diametrically opposed versions of the January 6th riots have been presented to the American people, and they are both self-serving and dishonest.
Clearly, Trump was the inciter-in-chief of mob violence from which he casually walked away. The Congress impeached him but otherwise refused to act. The Capitol police profited from its ineptitude even as the “deplorables,” Trump’s foot-soldiers, paid the price for his lies and tantrums. And so the past is warped and twisted, bludgeoned and misused, to serve the needs of the already powerful.
Against the Dark Side of American politics and “justice,” even Yoda might lose hope.