Thursday, July 29, 2021


Last night, when I wrote about Christopher Caldwell's New York Times op-ed, I didn't quite realize that one of Caldwell's assertions -- that the January 6 Capitol riot was unpleasant but not a serious problem because the insurrectionists had no real plan for seizing control of the government -- is the right's new (poll-tested?) talking point, intended to be widely distributed to serious-minded, well-informed citizens who presumably aren't buying talk of bamboo in the ballots and satellite vote switching from Italy.

Caldwell's argument shows up in nearly identical form in a Wall Street Journal editorial today. The editorial attempts to lull well-informed readers by conceding that the 2020 election was fair and the 1/6 unrest was violent:
The House inquiry on the events of Jan. 6 held its opening hearing Tuesday, and it showed why no Republican should try to brush aside the ugliness of the Capitol riot. The perpetrators who assaulted police that day weren’t overenthusiastic tourists, and the mob was not all a “loving crowd,” as Donald Trump characterized the audience for his pre-melee speech.

... President Trump urged his supporters to stop the supposed steal. On Jan. 6 some of them took his words seriously, literally, or both, and Mr. Trump dallied instead of rushing to Congress’s defense. The GOP would be better off ceding weak ground by admitting that the election wasn’t stolen and Mr. Trump was wrong.
But insurrection? Don't be silly!
The falseness in the Democratic story line is the idea that America’s constitutional order was hanging by a lone thread. The chairman of the Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, claimed in his opening remarks Tuesday that “the rioters came dangerously close to succeeding” in their effort to “upend American democracy.” This is in service of Mrs. Pelosi’s political narrative that Mr. Trump conspired with a mob to stage a coup d’├ętat. She wants to run against Mr. Trump again in 2022.

This gives the mob far too much credit. Rioters believed Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about a stolen election, and some of them apparently thought they might stop Congress’s certification of the electoral votes. But that was an impossible fantasy. The Electoral College had already voted. Vice President Mike Pence had concluded, correctly and bravely, that he had no authority to reject the results. The rioters had no apparent leader and no coherent plan.
If there was no chance that the coup could succeed, why say that Pence "bravely" rejected it? A reader might conclude from that word that Pence and the rule of law were both at risk.
Even if they’d managed to steal or destroy the official Electoral College certificates, do Democrats think some knucklehead in face paint and a fur hat could have simply declared the election void? The public and the courts wouldn’t have stood for a rabble overturning the 2020 result. Mr. Trump didn’t have the military on his side, or even most of his own Administration.
What if the mob had succeeded in hanging Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi? What if, after that, they'd taken hostages? What if this inspired other wingnuts to march on D.C. in support of the hostage-takers?

No biggie! It would be business as usual, wouldn't it? Surely there'd be a peaceful transition of power two weeks later with no hiccups, right? That seems to be what the Journal ed board is telling us.

But does it matter how close the coup came to succeeding? Left-wing radicals in the 1960s and 1970s had dreams of bringing down the government with a few bank robberies and bombings, on the assumption that The People would rise up in response. Right-wing terrorists in subsequent decades have had similar thoughts. Should we have shrugged these people off because their revolutions were unlikely?

Conservatives used to harrumph that America was becoming dangerously lax in its tolerance of bad conduct. We were lowering our standards for what was considered pathological, they said -- in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's phrase, we were "defining deviancy down."

Now right-wingers are urging us to do just that.

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