Some headlines would seem to state the obvious, with no further argument or distinction really required. You’d think the one at the top of this column would be among them. But even as an angry mob converged on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, assaulting police officers, beating in doors, and breaking through windows, there was a disturbing (but unfortunately not surprising) counter-narrative being shaped online in response to the horrific images and video being broadcast on news networks and the Internet.
The larger issue quickly picking up steam from many on the right was that there was a political double-standard at play in the appall over what we were witnessing. And that perceived hypocrisy prompted partisan snark.
“Mostly peaceful protest!” people tweeted, mocking mainstream-media sentiment from earlier in the year, when journalists bent over backwards trying to play down the violence the erupted at some Black Lives Matter protests.
“Where was your outrage over the summer riots???” they reflexively responded to those who were sharing the media reports of members of congress being evacuated.
In fact, I personally received a number of such responses as I weighed in online during the mayhem, pointing out that the violence was a result of Trump’s post-election conduct. Of course, it didn’t matter that I actually had condemned the other riots at the time. It was just assumed through a partisan lens that I hadn’t, and thus riot whataboutism was their natural, seemingly liberating response.
And it was hardly just random Twitter trolls spreading this sentiment:
So much of what’s happening now isn’t about what’s happening, it’s about WHO is protesting. Remember this? The MEDIA told us ARSON was part of a “mostly peaceful” protest. pic.twitter.com/6B7oFjKBBt
— Greg Kelly (@gregkellyusa) January 6, 2021
“At least its a mostly peaceful protest”
— Jack Posobiec 🇺🇸 (@JackPosobiec) January 6, 2021
The right-wingers storming the Capitol right now haven’t looted nearly enough Gucci stores to qualify them as a mostly peaceful protest. Riot it is!
— Michael Knowles (@michaeljknowles) January 6, 2021
Later that very night, after the violence had finally ended, rioters had been cleared out of the Capitol, congress had reconvened, and we knew that several people were in the hospital and at least one was dead, Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) felt compelled to defend President Trump’s belated and tangled tweets as being “far more explicit about his calls for peace than some of the BLM and left-wing rioters were this summer when we saw violence sweep across this nation.”
A number of Gaetz’s congressional colleagues clapped in concurrence. I’m sure many others watching at home did as well.
But why? Is an act of domestic terrorism, which is exactly what the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol was, somehow less serious or horrid in the context of individuals’ poor reactions to violence in the past?
To be clear, it’s perfectly fair and even appropriate to be making a separate argument that a number of liberal journalists and politicians downplayed the riots we saw over the summer in places like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and New York City. That absolutely happened. In some cases, it was because they believed in the underlying message of “social justice,” and were twisting themselves into pretzels to keep that message from being tarnished. In the case of elected Democratic leaders, some were initially afraid to unequivocally denounce the violence out of fear that it would offend their progressive constituencies.
Either way, it was shameful and cowardly, and those who partook in the effort absolutely deserved the criticism they received from the political right.
But how is evoking that behavior a defense of — or a valid response of any kind to — a mob whose active violence was incited by months of lies and conspiracy theories from a U.S. president and his enablers? How are any of those past examples an excuse for millions of Americans being conned into believing that their nation’s system of democracy was being overthrown by figures within the government, and that January 6th, 2021 was the last day to save it?
It doesn’t, but in the days that have followed, the narrative just keeps picking up steam.
So the journos tell us the Capitol Hill riot is “sedition,” but trying to burn down a federal courthouse in Portland, incinerating a police station in Minneapolis, and pointing lasers at the eyes of federal officers to blind them- that they say is “mostly peaceful protest”
— Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) January 8, 2021
Friends of mine, who I mostly keep in touch with on Facebook, are using their timelines to hammer this “point” over and over again, while not even addressing what happened at the Capitol. Nothing about the five people who died. Nothing about the elected representatives who were targeted. And certainly nothing about Trump’s role in it.
In fact, some of them seem far more upset that our president was de-platformed by social media companies than they are by the event that prompted those companies to consider such a measure.
Sadly, this seems to be an effort to minimize the seriousness of what happened Wednesday by many of the same people who were outraged (and justifiably so) when similar minimization was done by the left over the summer.
And now that serious consequences are being called on for President Trump’s role in Wednesday’s violence, a brand new round of whataboutism has begun. The view from a growing number of Trump defenders is that if the president is going to be impeached and removed for inciting the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris should also be impeached and removed for inciting violence.
In fact, in response to my column last week, in which I personally called for those measures to be taken against Trump, a regular reader decided that I was a “flaming deranged hypocrite” for not calling for the same actions against Harris.
So, what did Harris say or do, exactly? What the reader and other Trump defenders are increasingly citing is a popular Internet meme that made the rounds a few months ago. It highlighted a quote from Harris when she was a guest on Stephen Colbert’s show. The clip, which has been labeled with such mantras as “Kamala Harris advocates for riots” and “Kamala Harris wants the riots to continue,” features this statement:
“But they’re not going to stop. 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 problem with the framing, as multiple fact-checkers have pointed out (and is pretty common among political memes), was the omitted context. In the virtual interview, which took place on June 17 (months before she was Biden’s running mate, and weeks before the meme was circulated), Harris and Colbert had been discussing the broader topic of protest marches and how they have historically facilitated legislative change. There was no mention of anything related to riots or violence. Toward the end of the exchange, Colbert said that he hadn’t seen as much media coverage of the BLM marches lately. The now heavily focused-on quote from Harris was her explanation that they were still happening (which they were all over the country), along with her expressed passion for the movement and message.
Now, would the exchange have been an excellent opportunity for Harris to specifically call out and denounce the violence that had stemmed from at least two marches by that point in time? Yes! Instead, she waited until a few weeks later. Colbert should have also acknowledged the violence, and asked her about it, but he unsurprisingly didn’t.
The omission was negligent, cowardly, and worthy of criticism (and I have a long list of other gripes about Harris)… but did it amount to an incitement of violence? Of course not.
When people are inclined to defend indefensible behavior from their tribe, by identifying it in the other tribe, context and proportionality often gets tossed by the wayside in an effort to make the puzzle pieces fit.
There simply isn’t a good-faith equivalence between Harris’s impromptu answer and two months of a President of the United States stoking flames through conspiracy-fueled efforts to sell millions of passionately loyal Americans on the perverse lie that our nation’s democracy had been hijacked, that he had actually won the election, and that January 6th at the U.S. Capitol would be the day of reckoning.
Yet, the narrative is out there front and center because whataboutism is an effective deflection tool in escaping accountability. It also helps convince those who use it that their reflexive partisan sentiments are justified.
A couple of commentators I’ve respected over the years used to talk about the virtues of the political “mirror test,” a self-imposed exercise in which one asks themself if he or she would feel differently about a situation, based on which political party or figure was at the center of it. It’s basically a tool for instilling single-standard, self-reflective analysis.
Unfortunately, at this point in American history, there are millions of broken mirrors, especially when it comes to politics… and I don’t expect clear reflections to return anytime soon.
Note from John: I’ve been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I’ve been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d love for you to subscribe (it’s free).