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Two Visions of Lafayette Square
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Two Visions of Lafayette Square

Impunity for me but not for thee.

Protesters gather near the Rochambeau Statue in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 8, 2024, after pro-Palestinian demonstrators vandalized the base of the statue. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s nothing amusing about a pro-Hamas rally, or so one might assume.

But idiocy is often amusing even when it’s malevolent. Good luck suppressing a giggle at the sight of American progressives waving “F—S 4 HAMAS” signs in solidarity with an outfit that treats homosexuality as a capital offense.

The most amusing thing about Saturday’s celebration of terrorism in Washington, D.C., was a quirk of fate related to the timing. Organizers of the rally couldn’t have known when they set the date that they would end up marching just as news was breaking of the biggest morale-booster for Israel’s cause in many months.

Here was the scene in D.C. as footage of overjoyed Israeli captives being reunited with their families was playing on American televisions:

Repulsive—but kind of funny given that at that moment the free world was being reminded in vivid emotional terms which side started the conflict and how long the hostages taken last October have suffered because of it. The jihadist cause, always unsympathetic, had somehow bumbled into maximizing its disadvantage.

This is also repulsive but not so funny, considering it’s par for the course now whenever angry leftists gather near monuments:

When a U.S. Park Police officer intervened to try to stop the crowd from defacing the statues any further, they threw bottles at him and called him a fascist.

What grabbed my attention about that scene was the location: Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Site of the most sinister photo op of Donald Trump’s presidency until January 6.

In June 2020, amid the George Floyd demonstrations, federal officers forcibly cleared the area of protesters; Trump seized the opportunity to stride across the now-empty park, his aides in tow, and famously held up a Bible outside St. John’s Church. It was such a grotesque symbolic fusion of religion with state power against political enemies that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who had accompanied Trump while wearing his combat uniform, publicly expressed his remorse for participating afterward.

All things considered, it was actually pretty restrained. Mark Esper, the defense secretary, later claimed Trump had reacted to protests in Washington around that time by asking, “Can’t you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?”

Many Americans view the choice before them this fall as a choice between the two episodes in Lafayette Square. They can have a lowbrow authoritarian swinging a cross of gold at his enemies like a truncheon or they can have anomic left-wing miscreants spray-painting “F–S 4 HAMAS” on portraits of George Washington with impunity.

Is that the choice before us?

As I write this on Monday, the number of arrests resulting from Saturday’s vandalism is zero.

It’s worse than that, actually. According to NBC, “Police said they attempted to arrest one person who climbed a statue, but members of the crowd intervened.” The suspect fled after being freed by the mob and no one in the mob has suffered any consequences for it.

In fact, the protesters appear to have chased the police at various points rather than vice versa.

Perhaps there’s some logic about crowd control or “deescalation” that explains the cops’ quiescence. If they had begun hauling people in, the mob might have grown restive; if the mob had grown restive, more police would have been needed; the odds of a violent confrontation would have skyrocketed over nothing worse than some graffiti that’s already in the process of being washed away.

But that amounts to saying that so long as a group is large and hostile enough, it’s free to commit minor crimes in full view of the police, and that lesson extracts a price in public respect for law and order. If “no one is above the law,” as Democrats have intoned regularly since Trump’s conviction in Manhattan, it’s strange that this very left-wing horde agitating for a very left-wing cause in a very left-wing city was effectively above the law on Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t think that the Democratic Party has even started to grapple with how badly this stuff hurts them,” Charles Cooke wrote on Sunday about D.C.’s disinterest in prosecuting those who vandalized the Lafayette Square monuments. The average joe might understandably suspect that the protesters received special treatment for political reasons, either because the local Democratic authorities sympathized with their agenda or because those authorities feared that punishing them would incite a political backlash among progressives.

It’s the same reason videos of shoplifting rings clearing out convenience stores routinely go viral on social media. The impunity with which the thieves operate—in broad daylight, on video, with store employees and sometimes security guards feet away—is so galling that it simply must be a political choice by elected officials to let it happen, one concludes. And the fact that it tends to happen in indigo-blue cities, where a bleeding heart seems to be a prerequisite for public office, makes the nature of that political choice clear.

Not only does this hurt Democrats, as Cooke says, it might plausibly lead them to defeat in November against Donald Trump. What else explains Joe Biden’s malfeasance at the border over the past three and a half years, after all, except terror that progressives would abandon him if he replicated an iota of Trump’s immigration policies? The president has concluded that a certain amount of disorder is necessary to hold the Democratic coalition together. What an advertisement for left-wing politics.

And how much more potent it is when the advertisement plays out in Washington, D.C. It’s one thing for a group of teenagers to raid a CVS. It’s another for degenerates in Hamas headbands chanting “We don’t want no two state, we’re taking back ’48” to desecrate monuments to Founding-era heroes in the seat of government. Impunity under those circumstances feeds suspicions that Democrats aren’t just “soft on crime” but anti-American, especially when protesters who break the law in more virtuous causes don’t receive the same degree of mercy.

Disorder is a choice. Biden has chosen it on immigration and D.C. authorities chose it on Saturday in Lafayette Square. Many undecided voters will worry that supporting Democrats on lesser-of-two-evils grounds in November will validate those choices and incentivize liberals to keep on choosing disorder over the next four years. Would that truly be less evil than reelecting a strongman who’s willing to club the forces of disorder over the head with a Bible?

Answer: Yes, it would be. The “lesser evil” is still evil, of course, but Democratic passivity toward certain forms of disorder is preferable to populist Republicans actively fomenting disorder for their own ends.

Typically when populists complain about leftists getting off easy for mayhem they’ve caused, they compare law enforcement’s reaction to January 6 with its reaction to riots during the George Floyd protests in 2020. Why is it that hundreds of right-wing rioters went to prison while left-wing rioters got off scot-free? That’s another example of the “disgraceful double-standard on basic questions of law and order,” in Cooke’s words, that Democrats routinely practice, no?

Well, no. Left-wing rioters didn’t get off scot-free. Many criminal charges were filed against them in 2020. Thousands were arrested, and in larger numbers in Washington, D.C., in particular than were arrested on January 6. Black activists even alleged that protesters were disproportionately targeted with federal charges when state charges, which carry lighter penalties, would have been more appropriate.

The persistent Republican delusion that the George Floyd rioters enjoyed total impunity is a function of how much more harshly critical the media has been of January 6 than of the riots of 2020, I think. Because the arrests of Floyd protesters weren’t covered nearly as much, many Americans mistakenly concluded that they didn’t happen. And I do think it’s true, as Cooke says, that left-leaning institutions like the press find right-wing rioters more menacing and newsworthy than left-wing ones, all other things being equal.

The thing is, in this case all other things aren’t equal. There are good reasons law enforcement and the media treated the insurrection as a graver offense than the riots of 2020.

January 6 wasn’t just a riot, let alone the spray-painting of a few statues. It was the last chapter in a coup plot backed by various influential figures in one of the two major parties. Of course the Justice Department was going to regard a violent attempt to overthrow the incoming president more seriously than it would an urban riot.

The insurrection also nearly led to the vice president and members of Congress being murdered. You can lament if you like that the law takes threats to public officials more seriously than it does threats to statues or businesses, but there’s logic to doing so. Morally, Mike Pence’s life isn’t worth more than a park ranger’s, but in terms of its importance to the country it’s night and day. 

The rioters at the Capitol also very foolishly documented their assault extensively, treating it as half-putsch and half-Instagram-livestream. When thousands of photos and videos of perpetrators committing crimes are taken by the perpetrators themselves and uploaded with pride to their own social media feeds, it’s no surprise that an unusually large number of successful prosecutions will result.

There’s an especially significant political difference between January 6 and the sort of left-wing deviancy we saw in 2020 and on Saturday in Lafayette Square, though. Only one group of criminals enjoys the support of their side’s candidate for president.

Following the vandalism of the statues by Hamasniks, a White House spokesman issued this statement: “President Biden has always been clear that every American has the right to peacefully express their views. But he has also always been clear that anti-Semitism, violent rhetoric, and endorsing murderous terrorist organizations like Hamas is repugnant, dangerous, and against everything we stand for as a country.”

Compare that to what Trump said at a rally in Las Vegas a day later, when he heralded the January 6 insurrectionists as “warriors.”

The Hamas fan club in Lafayette Square on Saturday hated Joe Biden so much that at one point a rubber mask of the president’s face was displayed with red paint on it, a sort of mock beheading. Many of the January 6 rioters worship Trump by contrast, enough so to have recorded a hymn to the insurrection with him.

Which is more troubling from the “law and order” perspective, the leader who’s too passive in confronting the criminal elements of his coalition or the leader who’s actively in league with them?

“Trump has inspired the development of a paramilitary wing to his movement. He has goaded their aggressive impulses and rewarded their loyalty,” Jonathan Chait wrote of the “warrior” comment this weekend. “In a second Trump term, they would be unleashed to commit violence on his behalf, understanding they would enjoy the benefit of his legal protection. This was the idea he was promising in broad daylight.”

He’s already pledged to pardon many of the January 6 rioters. The goons on his side will take encouragement from that and treat it as license to intimidate his enemies during his second term, confident that they too will be held harmless should law enforcement try to hold them accountable.

So, yes, when there’s criminal activity by a right-wing entity in 2024 it does feel more menacing than criminal activity by a left-wing entity for the simple reason that there’s a greater chance it will be expressly condoned by the leadership of a major political party. And I don’t just mean Trump, either: It wasn’t he who recently pardoned a convicted murderer for no better reason than that said murderer killed a political undesirable.

To paraphrase Cooke, I don’t think that the Republican Party has even started to grapple with how badly this stuff hurts them. Maybe they would if we treated it as a somewhat more urgent threat to law and order than leftist freaks defacing monuments.

Or maybe they haven’t grappled with how badly it’s hurting them because … it isn’t hurting them. At least, not enough to have cost Trump the lead he’s held in national polling for many months.

The tireless MAGA propaganda campaign around January 6 has paid dividends with Republican voters. As of New Year’s Day this year, just 55 percent of the party said that the sentences the Capitol rioters have received were either fair or not harsh enough. That was down from 64 percent a year ago. By November, it may well be a minority position. Slowly but surely, even the normies in the party are being conditioned to believe that law enforcement overreacted to the insurrection.

And we all know why. Faith among Republicans that the rioters were treated justly is declining for the same reason that the number of Republicans who are okay with being governed by a criminal is soaring. Trump’s momentary political needs dictate the opinions of his supporters; he can’t get reelected if Americans believe that felons are unfit for the presidency or that January 6 was a travesty so members of his party are simply choosing not to believe those things and encouraging others not to believe them either.

Just as Democrats will tolerate impunity for illegal migrants and for the occasional statue-defacer as the price of holding power and imposing “law and order” on the right, Republicans will tolerate impunity for Trump and the insurrectionists as the price of winning power and imposing “law and order” on the left. 

That being so, what a political trick it’ll be if Donald Trump manages to win reelection by successfully framing the race with Biden as a matter of order versus disorder. It was Trump, the so-called candidate of “law and order,” who presided over the civic disorder of 2020; it was Trump who sought electoral advantage by letting disorder prevail at the border in 2024; it’s Trump who seeks constitutional immunity for any disorder he might unleash as president in a second term; it’s Trump who aims to shield his party’s radicals from criminal jeopardy for the disorder they’ll cause on his behalf; and of course it’s Trump who’s been convicted of numerous felonies and stands accused of dozens more.

The authoritarian vision of “law and order” isn’t one where police clear Lafayette Square of riffraff so that Bible-clutching Americans can admire the pristine statuary. It’s one where the riffraff are the police and statues are all in the image of the man they answer to. No thanks.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.