Why Cowardly Republicans Got Hysterical about the Capitol Riots

Over the last six months, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa riots caused two billion dollars in property damage, killed at least 25 people, and injured over 2,000 police officers.  Rioters occupied and burned a police station in Minneapolis.  They attacked a federal courthouse in Portland every night for months.  In Seattle, Antifa set up an "autonomous zone" where five people were murdered, including two teenagers shot to death when they drove "too fast" near an armed checkpoint.

Senator Kamala Harris applauded the rioters.  In June, amid the burning and looting of large swaths of Minneapolis, she said the riots were "not going to let up, and they should not, and we should not."  Then she raised money to bail rioters out of jail.

Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan called Seattle's Antifa autonomous zone a "summer of love" before five people died.  Two months after the riots began, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley called for more "unrest in the streets."  Vice President Joe Biden would not condemn the rioting for weeks.

Along the way, "progressive" district attorneys have avoided prosecuting rioters.  "Insignificant" crimes like arson, looting, and assaulting a police officer do not land a rioter in jail.  Often, D.A.s refuse even to charge them. When serial rioters commit more serious crimes, such as throwing a Molotov cocktail at a police officer, charges are reduced or dropped.

In short, Democrat politicians have condoned, rationalized, or ignored rioting by their supporters.  It's no surprise that these riots continue.  On the night of January 6, Antifa punched the Portland mayor, attacked a county courthouse, and smashed local businesses for the third time this year.

The BLM/Antifa riots are important context for the Capitol riots and the response of Republican leadership. 

On the morning of January 6, many thousands of President Trump's supporters gathered near the Capitol.  After a speech by the president, they marched to the Capitol grounds.  Many stayed there, protesting outside.  But several hundred people (including some with Antifa links) pushed past barriers and into the Capitol itself.  Along the way, they assaulted dozens of police officers, smashed windows and cabinets, and looted several pieces of property, including a podium and a laptop.

Police officer Brian Sicknick died of injuries following the riots.  (It's unclear whether his death stemmed from a clash with rioters.)  An unarmed Trump-supporter, Ashli Babbitt, died after an officer shot her in the neck.  That shooting was questionable — a barrier separated the officer from Ms. Babbitt, and other officers were only a few feet behind her when he fired. 

It's worth noting that while some Trump-supporters were rioting, others were merely protesting.  Capitol police officers recognized this fact and opened the doors to the Capitol, saying they respected Trump-supporters' "right [to protest]."

The occupation of the Capitol led Congress to evacuate its chambers, interrupting the certification of Electoral College votes.  When police cleared the Capitol several hours later, Congress reconvened and completed the certification that same night.

The Capitol riots were serious and violent.  But by any measure — death, injury, destruction, criminality — the BLM/Antifa riots were much worse.

The left avoids direct comparisons between the riots and instead implies that Trump-supporters are particularly despicable because they occupied a government building during a formal electoral ceremony.

The problem is that BLM and Antifa often attack public buildings.  In June, leftists celebrated reports that rioters at the White House forced Trump into a bunker.  Democrats also stormed the Senate building during Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings and occupied the Wisconsin capitol in an attempt to block legislation.  Finally, the Capitol riots were not particularly disruptive.  Trump-supporters delayed the electoral certification for a few hours.  It was, at most, a symbolic gesture.

Now, after months of encouraging and rationalizing BLM and Antifa riots, Democrats condemn Trump-supporters at the Capitol riots in the harshest possible terms.  "Treason," "coup," "insurrection," "sedition," "terrorism" — there has been plenty of hysteria. 

This is wild hypocrisy.  But hypocrisy is normal.  Bias or bad faith often leads partisans to condemn opponents for the same behavior they excuse in their supporters.

What is more interesting — and concerning — is Republican leadership's own hysterical response.  Borrowing from Democrats, Ted Cruz called Capitol rioters and protesters "terrorists."  Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney said they were insurrectionists.  Lindsey Graham called for the arrest of everyone who entered the Capitol and raised the possibility of sedition charges.  The RNC's communications director called the riots "domestic terrorism."

These statements are overbroad and melodramatic.  They fail to distinguish between rioters and protesters.  They also falsely imply that anyone who smashed a window is a terrorist, cheapening the term.

What explains Republicans' eagerness to join the left's hysteria?  It stems, at least in part, from a basic failure to identify with their voters.

Many Democrats identify with BLM/Antifa rioters and see their violence as, at worst, justifiable anger that goes a step too far — in other words, a matter of bad tactics.  

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained rising violent crime in New York by citing parents' need to "shoplift bread" for their children.  As for the BLM/Antifa riots, the congresswoman said that "[i]f you are calling for an end to this unrest ... but you are not calling for the end of the conditions that created the unrest, you are a hypocrite."  In a similar vein, Congresswoman Pressley justified BLM/Antifa riots by explaining that "unrest in our lives" caused "unrest in the streets."

Many Republican leaders seem incapable of relating to their supporters' anger.  Based on video and initial arrest reports, most protesters were white, and most were from outside D.C.  Some were contractors, some owned small restaurants, others were low-level employees — all people whom lockdowns have harmed.  

Most people at the Capitol were normal Americans with legitimate questions about election irregularities.  These people have a deep loyalty to a president who is not ashamed to call them his supporters and has consistently put working- and middle-class Americans first on issues of immigration, international trade, and foreign policy.

These Trump-supporters are rightly fearful that Democrats — and many Republicans — are eager for a return to the pre-Trump era in which both parties joined in selling out to China, flooding America with foreign workers, and draining our treasury to fight for someone else's democracy.

Trump-supporters' fears do not justify riots.  But they do justify vocal protest.  Perhaps that's why a snap poll on the night of January 6 found that a plurality of Republicans approved the "storming" of the Capitol.

After four years of the president's record-setting popularity with rank-and-file Republicans, leaders like Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Lindsey Graham still cannot grasp Trump's appeal and his supporters' concerns.  Perhaps it's because they spend too much time in the D.C. bubble.  Perhaps it's a class issue.

Whatever it is, they need to fix it.  Quickly.  A good first step is working to understand the Republican base.  A good second step is refusing to echo the left by calling everyone at the Capitol "terrorists."

Republican leaders must do the following with respect to the protests and riots at the Capitol:

First, condemn violence and call for the prosecution of anyone who attacked police or damaged property.

Second, describe the riots and protests in sane, measured tones.  Point out that Capitol Police recognized many of those on the Capitol grounds as legitimate protestors.  Object to the prosecution of anyone who did nothing more than walk through the building.  Stop labeling protesters "domestic terrorists."  Demand an investigation into the killing of Ashli Babbitt.

Third, acknowledge Trump-supporters' anger and assure them that the Republican Party will fight for its base.  People are suffering and scared — scared of never-ending lockdowns, a changing economy, an all-powerful Democrat party that calls them deplorable, and a weak Republican party that seems eager to abandon them.

Fourth, constantly point out the difference between Republicans' and Democrats' responses to political violence.  Republicans issued quick and forceful denunciations of their supporters' rioting.  Many Democrats still refuse to do likewise.

Forty-five percent of Republicans approved of the events at the Capitol.  Republican leaders have the political capital to discuss both the protests and riots in accurate and measured terms.  They just need to find the courage.

Jack R. Carlsson is an attorney from Boise, Idaho. Follow him on Twitter at @jackrcarlsson.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.