The president of the United States incited a mob. It was a disgraceful, inexcusable, impeachable act.
Donald Trump’s defenders offer any number of excuses in order to shave off the shame. The media didn’t condemn riots last summer by left-wing groups, and therefore this was inevitable or just desserts or something.
Others simply spread more lies. The people waving Trump flags and shouting “Fight for Trump” who ransacked the U.S. Capitol were actually members of Antifa, they claim with no evidence. Some even argue that most of the intruders were peaceful tourists who simply didn’t realize that bum-rushing the police and breaking down doors isn’t how you visit the Capitol.
It’s an insult to our collective intelligence. But there is one argument worth engaging: Trump supporters just want to be “heard.”
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” Trump told the throng he invited to Washington on Wednesday. “I know everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building. To peacefully, patriotically make your voices heard.”
Trump’s praetorians ludicrously claim that the word “peacefully” lets the president off the hook for the violence that followed. First, the whole protest was premised on a mountain of lies about the election being stolen. Convincing people they need to prevent a coup when no such coup exists is a recipe for violence.
Second, this was all foreseeable. After Joe Biden won the election, the rhetoric from many elected Republicans and Trump-aligned goon squads got more and more bellicose. The Arizona GOP’s Twitter account, borrowing a line from Rambo, asked whether people would be willing to die for Trump.
Before Trump spoke at the Wednesday rally, his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, called for “trial by combat,” and Trump’s sons whipped up the crowd with exhortations to fight.
Even if the mob had been peaceful, it still would have been a grotesque affront to democracy. Trump’s intent, explicitly stated over and over, was for the crowd to pressure the vice president to unconstitutionally overturn the election.
That is what he meant by “make your voices heard.”
But the idea that “real Americans” haven’t been heard—hammered by the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and countless right-wing populist pundits—has deeper resonance on the right.
What these rationalizers mean by “real Americans” is often left gauzy and ill-defined. The great unheard are variously described as Trump voters, the working class, Christians, conservatives, MAGAs, residents of “flyover” country or simply those opposed to the left-wingers running things. But the common assumption is that being a real American isn’t a question of citizenship or even nationality, but a shared sense of right-wing grievance and identity.
Pete Hegseth of Fox News insisted that what unified the pro-Trump crowd was a “feeling” that their voice has been “censored and silenced.”
Fox’s Tucker Carlson told viewers: “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason. It is not your fault. It is their fault.”
“Millions of Americans sincerely believe the last election was fake.” Carlson explained, without mentioning that they believe this because those millions have been lied to by the president and his defenders. “‘Listen to us!’ screams the population. ‘Shut up and do what you’re told,’ reply their leaders.”
As a lifelong conservative, I think the culture war is real, and many conservative complaints about cancel culture, censorship, anti-religious bigotry, etc., have merit. But the people on the other side of those arguments are Americans, too.
Moreover, it’s bizarre that so many have convinced themselves that no one listens to people who feel this way. Most conservative media is on the “unheard” beat 24/7. Carlson himself has the highest-rated cable news show on the highest-rated network (where I am a contributor). Trump was elected in 2016, albeit with a minority of the popular vote. Since then, the GOP has contorted itself into a full-time listening operation, and conservative intellectuals have fallen all over themselves to redefine conservatism as a constituent service operation for “real Americans.”
In a democracy, the essential way people make themselves heard is by voting. The GOP actually did quite well on Election Day. But Trump lost.
It’s not hard to hear the people saying the election was stolen, starting with the president himself. But just because lies are all too audible or sincerely believed that doesn’t make them truths. Nor does it mean they were “silenced.” It means they were heard but failed to persuade enough Americans—and that’s no excuse to riot.