Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
The Republican National Committee on Friday censured Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, arguing that they “support Democrat(ic) efforts to destroy President (Donald) Trump more than they support winning back a Republican majority in 2022.” Their shame-worthy act? Participating in the January 6 select committee currently investigating last year’s attack on the Capitol. According to the committee, aiding the investigation is an offense not just against the Trump-supporting GOP but against the republic itself, because it involves an unjust persecution of people engaged in “legitimate political discourse.”
This phrase is an odd way to describe the actions of a mob that chanted “Hang Mike Pence” as it clashed with police before breaking through the doors and windows of the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. And while, after widespread ridicule, the RNC insisted that it was referring only to the nonviolent protesters supporting Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him, its attempt to whitewash right-wing violence is part of an ongoing pattern on the right.
The GOP’s effort to minimize the horrifying events of January 6 has been well-documented: from the attempts to shift blame to left-wing protestors in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, to a House Republican likening some of the insurrectionists seen that day to “a normal tourist visit,” to the widespread campaign to paint the insurrectionists as peaceful patriots. But it’s important to place those efforts to erase the violence on January 6 in the recent history of right-wing politics in the US, to illuminate an arc of radicalization and official sanction that makes future political violence more likely.
Attempts to redefine violence as “legitimate political discourse” have been central to the Trump-era right. As a candidate and then president, Trump regularly sanctioned violence, whether encouraging his fans to pummel protesters or police officers to rough up suspects (“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, I said, please don’t be too nice.”). These statements were often shrugged off as Trumpian excesses, but they were part of a broader blurring of political discourse and political violence.
Trump’s comments after Charlottesville, his reflexive defense of some mysterious faction of “very fine people” mixed in with the neo-Nazi and White-power organizers of the Unite the Right rally in 2017, also fits this pattern. But more importantly, the way the organizers framed that rally demonstrated the tactical relationship between “legitimate political discourse” and political violence. Attempts to move the planned rally were thwarted by a court order issued the night before.
Yet, even as lawyers were arguing in court, the rallygoers were gathering tiki torches in preparation for a march through Charlottesville. That torchlit march, an act of both intimidation and violence, went hand in hand with the organizers’ appeals to free speech: protected political discourse was covered in the news in the aftermath of the deadly political violence in Charlottesville.
The RNC’s appeal to “legitimate political discourse” is an effort to engage in the same water-muddying exercise. By attempting to make the investigations into January 6 an attack on discourse rather than a response to violence, the party is trying to cram the insurrection into a culture-wars framework. Instead of an attack on Congress and an effort to overthrow the election, the story instead becomes one of the persecution of hundreds of patriots simply trying to voice their views and instead of running into a censorious, ruinous cancel-culture mob.
A classical reversal: the mob becomes the victim, the victims the mob.
The right is attempting the same sort of reversal with the racial justice protests of 2020. Though there was some support for them from conservatives in May and early June 2020, that is now almost entirely absent. Instead, the protests have become a counterpoint to the insurrection: those violent protesters were excused as racial justice advocates, while these peaceful protesters have been painted as insurrectionists. You’ll find that comparison regularly invoked on right-wing broadcasts and podcasts over the past year.
Yet there is an erasure of violence there as well. Because what is never mentioned in those conversations is what the racial justice protesters were responding to: rampant and lawless police violence. That violence was regularly on display in 2020, not just in the murder of George Floyd but also in the clashes with peaceful protesters across the country.
But in right-wing narratives of 2020, law enforcement violence has largely disappeared, leaving the occasional acts of property destruction that happened alongside the nationwide peaceful demonstrations to stand in, not as the equivalent of the insurrection, but something much worse.
The end result of these efforts to minimize, excuse, and erase right-wing violence is an environment that invites even more of it. Because if a mob can ransack the Capitol while hunting for members of Congress in an effort to overthrow an election – an effort that Trump and his administration both encouraged and attempted through their own antidemocratic efforts – only to emerge as something between political protesters and persecuted heroes, then why would they swear off violence in the future? Why wouldn’t they see mob attacks as a form of “legitimate political discourse”?