Wednesday’s events in Washington, D.C., are already infamous, not just in this country but around the world. That President Trump spoke to a rally on the National Mall supporting the conspiracy theory that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, urged its attendees to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” and confront members of Congress over their supposed failure to contest the “rigged” election that they had assembled to certify, then seemed to do nothing when some of its attendees broke into the Capitol, fought with security, and roamed its hallowed halls committing vandalism and shouting threats as they searched for elected officials is not only a permanent stain on the Trump presidency: It has marred the image of American self-government in a way that will require serious effort to mend.
But it is a testament to that same system of self-government that the recovery from this shock began quickly. Congress returned that night, and in the early hours of the next morning, Vice President Mike Pence certified his own election loss, pointedly ignoring Trump’s own imploring him to do otherwise. Condemnation of the day’s intervening events was wide enough even to encompass the reckless Republican politicians who had thought this mob was one of which they could take advantage. Even Trump gave a kind of concession, though curiously ambiguous and almost surely disingenuous. America’s convalescence is far from over, of course. And the events of Wednesday give significant vindication to President Trump’s harshest critics, who are far likelier to be found on the left than on the right. Such critics have a valuable role to play in condemning the Capitol bum-rush and the actors who facilitated it, and in ensuring that something like it never happens again. The reaction of some of these critics, however, shows a worrying inclination to reflexive partisanship that risks exacerbating an already perilous political moment.
Start at the top, with the duly elected presidential ticket. Joe Biden ran on a grandiose promise to “heal the soul of this nation.” In his initial, laudable remarks condemning Wednesday’s violence, he gestured manfully toward this difficult ambition. Then on Thursday, Biden pointlessly raised a purported double standard in the way different groups of protesters have been treated: “If it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting” at the Capitol on Wednesday, they would “have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.” Kamala Harris, the vice president–elect, spoke similarly, alleging that tear gas was not used against the Capitol vandals. Forget the incidents of the recent past (which these statements at best simplify and at worse falsify). This is an untrue and unnecessary reading of what happened on Wednesday. The Capitol Hill police were simply overwhelmed; despite this, they deployed traditional riot-control measures, such as tear gas; and they even shot and killed one person, Ashli Babbitt, inside the Capitol. The events of Wednesday are bad enough on their own and deserve condemnation as such. It is not a time to deceptively graft political baggage from other causes onto them, and to do so is merely inflammatory.
Among many Republicans and conservatives, it is time for a reckoning. Individuals who facilitated the events of Wednesday — chief among them Donald Trump, Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and a disturbingly large contingent of House Republicans — must be held accountable. But to paint with so broad a brush as to condemn all of conservatism as irredeemable is merely to reinforce the damage done to our political system. Ezra Klein, for example, wondered how Mitch McConnell, soon to go from Senate majority leader to minority leader, could now hold his caucus together for “relentless obstruction” after Republicans realize “what they have permitted.” Again, many Republicans do deserve to be shamed. But to speak in this way is to suggest casually that McConnell bears some responsibility for these events by having in the past exercised his constitutional prerogatives and asserted his institutional interest. The truth is quite the contrary: On Wednesday, he rejected Trump’s fantasies, held to the process outlined in the Constitution, and worked to restart the certification process that had been interrupted — all for an election that has put him at a political disadvantage. There are Republicans who deserve blame for Wednesday’s events, but Mitch McConnell is not one of them.
It is even more irresponsible to suggest that not simply McConnell and Senate Republicans but “everyone who worked in Republican party politics the last four years” played a role in Wednesday’s events, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes did. Wednesday revealed serious problems with a far too high number of Republican Party elected leaders and supporters. But to tar everyone involved in the Republican Party as complicit in the Capitol violence, to suggest that this is some kind of karmic payback — You were okay with Trump because of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court? Well, this is what you get — is to consign an enormous swath of the country to political oblivion. It is also wrong.
Consider the example of Vice President Mike Pence, certainly someone at the center of much that Hayes detested. Pence should not be immune to criticism. But when push came to shove on Wednesday, he rejected the president and, like McConnell, adhered to the processes outlined in the Constitution — processes that guaranteed the end of his own tenure in office. The number may be unacceptably low, but there remain many Republicans and conservatives who were unwilling to go along with Trump’s demagoguery, both in elected office and outside it.
I bring up these examples not because I am trying to score political points. After Wednesday, I am genuinely uninterested in that. Even whataboutism, that old standby, has little appeal for me now. But too many seem to be trying their damnedest to drag what should be an opportunity for universal condemnation of wicked acts into the muck of reflexive partisanship. There is no doubt that some Republicans deserve a comeuppance. But let’s not turn this into just another partisan outrage by scoring points off conservatism as a whole. Elected leaders — notably, Biden and Harris — and media figures risk ceding a certain high ground left open by Trump’s and other Republicans’ failures.
They also frustrate the drawing of a bright, bold line that every responsible actor, along the whole political spectrum, should be drawing and stepping to one side of, consigning to the other the reckless fools who have made a mockery of our government. Some Republicans and conservatives have, sadly, crossed to the wrong side of that line, but not all have. It should matter that not everyone on the right believes storming the Capitol is the logical endpoint of their worldview. And it is in the interest of the Left, and the functioning of the country, to help conservatives increase the number of responsible individuals in their own ranks — to encourage a responsible opposing party. May liberals not be driven by the anger they feel to mark all those to their right as lost and be done with them. Otherwise, the recovery this country needs may never come.