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 podcast “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Wednesday’s violent insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, DC – as horrifyingly unprecedented as it was – also had a quality that we’ve experienced repeatedly over the past four years: It was both shocking and surreal, and yet eerily familiar and entirely predictable. The scenes playing out at the Capitol echoed those that took place in Charlottesville in August of 2017, which I witnessed in-person and later reported on, following a known pattern of right-wing political unrest that has been nurtured by the President and his party.
The parallels between the assaults on Charlottesville and the Capitol were striking: the hesitance of law enforcement to engage White, right-wing protesters (and their delay in doing so), the turn in right-wing media to the bogeyman of antifa as the source of disorder, the President’s efforts to excuse or embrace the violence of his supporters – even as he urged them to go home, he said “We love you” (in a video later restricted by social media platforms for its obfuscation and reinforcement of debunked election lies).
But more than that, they were both marked by a pernicious both-sides-ism that has, over the past four years, corrupted every discussion of the violence and chaos that Donald Trump provokes, one encapsulated in the “very fine people on both sides” line but with a much longer history in America.
A few days after the violence in Charlottesville, Civil War historian Elizabeth Varon wrote about the false equivalence that for decades dominated the way most Americans talked about the Civil War: as a war in which both sides fought nobly on behalf of causes they deeply believed in, and at the end, laid down their arms and came back together as Americans. There were heroes on both sides, men on horseback deserving statues no matter how many people they enslaved or US soldiers they killed or insurrections they led.
It was a peace bought on the backs not only of the US soldiers who died but the millions of freed people forced into a system of segregation, theft and violence that persisted for nearly a century after the war.
Trump trotted out the same sort of false equivalence after the violence in Charlottesville. He praised enslaver and Confederate traitor Robert E. Lee, who he has repeatedly called a “great general.” He insisted that the people who flocked to Charlottesville for an event organized by violent neo-Nazis, Klan members and racists were very fine people who were just there to protect Lee’s statue, even though the night before the planned rally, they had marched on the grounds of the University of Virginia and attacked anti-fascist and anti-racist protesters there. And he turned antifa — anti-fascist organizers and protesters — into the right’s new scapegoat.
We’ve seen over the past year how useful that scapegoat has been for a new era of false equivalence. “But what about antifa?” has been the response to nearly every act of right-wing violence since.
Even more insidiously, the President and his supporters, from right-wing media personalities to members of Congress to posters on Facebook, have routinely suggested that in cases of violence, shadowy antifa were the actual cause.
That was clear on the Rush Limbaugh radio show on Wednesday, which was live as the seditious attack on the Capitol was underway. Despite the fact there was no visible contention of counter-protesters, when guest host Todd Herman first announced the news, he immediately speculated, with no evidence, that antifa was responsible. “Apparently there’s talk that Trump supporters are breaching security on Capitol Hill,” he said. “It’s probably not Trump supporters who would do that. Antifa, BLM, that’s what they do.” He raised the idea of antifa stoking the violence again later in the show.
The notion of antifa infiltration has already been thoroughly debunked. While there has been no verified anti-fascist presence in the Capitol, many pro-Trump activists have been identified after bragging about their participation on social media. Even without evidence, the antifa conspiracy continues to course through right-wing media, including on shows like Laura Ingraham’s on Fox News. It does so because it serves a useful purpose, deflecting blame from groups associated with right-wing politics to a decentralized, often-little-understood group like antifa.
Antifa-as-bogeyman persists, in part, because of the climate of false equivalency the President has deliberately stoked. Rather than acknowledge and denounce the right-wing violence and rising domestic terror threat that plagues the United States — the Department of Homeland Security has called it the most persistent and lethal terror threat in the country — the loudest pundits and politicians affect an air of high-mindedness to say violence is never the answer, a comforting platitude that no doubt has many readers nodding along.
But the number of actual pacifists in the US is quite small, and the number among the ranks of politicians, pundits and Trump supporters is even smaller. Violence from the police, from the military, from those acting in self-defense — these have broad social sanction in our society. The real dividing line is not about violence or nonviolence but when we think violence is appropriate, and who we believe should be allowed to use it.
Piercing that platitude, that “violence is never the answer,” is important because it exposes its underlying purpose: to make two unequal things equal. Violent street gangs fighting for White supremacy are different than protesters fighting to stop them. Most Americans understand that in the framework of World War II: both the Allies and the Axis fought catastrophic battles, but some fought on behalf of the Nazi regime and some fought to stop it. Yet when similar fights break out on American streets, too many people forget that moral distinction.
The same effort to equate unequal things was happening on the floor of the Senate before it was interrupted by insurrection. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, slipping into his somber statesman tone, denounced not just the coordinated attempt by Republicans to overturn the results of the election but also the Democrats’ protest in 2004: “Republicans condemned those baseless efforts back then, and we just spent four years condemning Democrats’ shameful attacks on the validity of President Trump’s own election.”
But, of course, Democrats concerned about balloting in Ohio in 2004 were not looking to overturn the election. They had accepted that George W. Bush would remain president and acknowledged his victory. They were not working in league with a president, spreading falsehoods and conspiracies in an effort to maintain power in an increasingly unlawful effort to overturn the election and destroy Americans’ faith in democracy.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Democrats’ actions in 2004 were wrong. Even then, they were not equivalent to what is happening today, nor were they the entering wedge for the post-election chaos we have endured for the last two months. It has become popular, especially but not exclusively on the right, to point to moments like this and tut-tut over small infractions from an earlier era. But this sort of broken-windows policing of political discourse doesn’t safeguard democracy. Pretending a litterbug and a spree killer have committed equivalent infractions doesn’t make people safer. At best it confuses things; at worst, it excuses them.
If we are to have any hope of building a just, working democracy in this country after Trump leaves (or is removed from) office, then we cannot continue to engage in debates set in these terms. Nor is our work done when we call out false equivalence (a popular Twitter pastime). Rather, we have to refocus our political debates and conversation around a different kind of discussion of ethics, one that can look at a Civil War battlefield or the streets of Charlottesville or the floor of the US Senate and see that there are fights that are righteous and there are fights that are not – and begin to build from there.