The House hearings on the events of Jan. 6 have been devastating to Donald Trump and to those Republicans who downplay those events — which, whether you call them a riot or an insurrection, amounted to a mob assault on the United States Congress with the intent of overturning a presidential election, egged on by the president of the United States.
It is now crystal clear that Donald Trump was repeatedly advised of the falsehood of the election-theft claims he used to galvanize his supporters. It is equally clear that he did not, as he later claimed, try to deploy the National Guard only to be thwarted by Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi; he was cheering for the assault. And it is overwhelmingly clear that it was a violent assault, not a peaceful protest or Capitol Hill tour gone wrong.
So, since pro-Trump conservatives can’t tune out the hearings, the fallback tactic is the ploy known as “whataboutism.”
As in: What about the time the Democrats did something as bad or worse, such as the riots associated with the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020?
For the record, I think the 2020 riots were improperly minimized (and sometimes effectively excused) by many progressive activists and journalists. Talk of “mostly peaceful” protests often served to downplay the devastation riots caused to communities, including the toll in human lives.
But firstly, there is still a huge difference between trashing businesses or vandalizing an empty federal building and storming Capitol Hill while Congress is in session, chanting murderous threats against the Vice President of the United States, and intending to prevent the election from being certified. One is an assault on law and order. The other is an assault on a bedrock of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.
And second: No high-level Democrats cheered on the violence in 2020. President (then candidate) Biden repeatedly condemned the rioting and looting. Vice President Kamala Harris supported the protests, but condemned the violence. Yet on Jan. 6, even if we’re to believe that Trump meant only peaceful protest when he urged his followers to “fight like hell,” he repeatedly refused pleas to publicly call off the violent mob — and privately voiced approval.
Another “what about” argument concerns Democratic attacks on the Supreme Court, particularly with passions running high over a likely ruling overturning federal protections for abortion rights. Here, too, the Democrats’ critics have valid points. Calling the current court “illegitimate” — as Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) did the other day — is irresponsible, no matter what one thinks of Republican tactics to achieve the court’s conservative majority. The protests outside the justices’ homes smack of harassment, and a mentally ill man’s apparent plan to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh is a disturbing sign of a dangerous climate around the court. One can argue that Democrats should be more vocal in condemning all political violence.
But here, the parallels end. The closest conservatives can find to Democratic incitement of attacks on the Supreme Court is a two-year-old speech by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicting that conservative justices would “pay the price” for their “awful decisions” — intemperate rhetoric that was quickly criticized by fellow liberals, and which Schumer walked back the next day.
Are there examples of Democrats and progressives behaving badly? Plenty. But Jan. 6 was a wannabe coup, even if it had no chance of succeeding. There is no Democratic equivalent.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.