A new line of argument claims it’s moral relativism to question the credibility of your political opponents in their pursuit of power. The argument misses the point: We are unequivocally against violence, but political surrender isn’t morally acceptable either. In other words, it takes two to de-escalate.
In the wake of the violent, some call it insurrectionist, assault on the US Capitol one week ago, many liberals and marginal conservatives are bemoaning that the Republican party under Donald Trump has embraced “moral relativism,” that is using the bad actions of others to excuse their own bad actions. A more common parlance these days is “whataboutism,” or both sides do it therefore it’s not bad.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Baker, notes, “In the wake of last week’s violent incursion at the U.S. Capitol, President Trump’s supporters have been working overtime on the moral-equivalence shift.” He continues to describe an equivalence between the claims of stolen elections, mob violence, and autocratic tendencies, ultimately concluding two things.
First, he claims that they are all, “All legitimate objections. And there have been and will be many times when all these alarming instances of progressive extremism should be thoroughly exposed and condemned.” Yet continues to note, “But now is not that time.”
Then, Baker leaps to, “Now is the time when conservatives especially need to look beyond the frustrations of what often seems like an unlevel moral playing field and acknowledge an unequivocal, unqualified truth: The president’s behavior last week was uniquely and unforgivably iniquitous. And the decay goes deeper. It cannot be excused by citing counterparts on the left.”
This argument appears in various forms and is extended in various ways.
Ed Morrissey, writing for the nominally conservative site HotAir, cites Baker and goes one step further, “It’s one thing when this is just tactics — reprehensible, but fixable. The problem with the GOP is that this is all it is any more. It’s all tactics and no principle.” Morrissey then presses onward, concluding, “This is the end result of a party leadership abandoning principles and governing philosophy. Power becomes the only value, and moral relativism the only possible excuse for what follows.”
In my opinion, there are two critical flaws in these and similar arguments.
The first flaw ultimately inverts traditional moral principles in the subservience of some other, unknown form of morality. It’s an argument against moral relativism that is based entirely in moral relativism. The second greatly misunderstands the nature of political power itself, and the essential conflict inherent in political debate.
First, Republicans have not been unclear about the events at the Capitol building. Immediately afterward, Donald Trump himself decried the assault as a “heinous attack.” He continued, “The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy.” He further warned individuals involved that they will “pay.”
There are no mainstream conservatives I am aware of that have supported the violence in any way, shape, or form. On the contrary, there has been universal condemnation and a demand for the perpetrators to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This is far from moral relativism. We are condemning a segment of our own party, unequivocally and universally.
Then, we go one step further ourselves: We are asking why Democrats and liberals repeatedly refused to condemn mob violence in the wake of the George Floyd protests. This argument has two parts. In one, we are asserting that if political violence is wrong, it is universally wrong and should be condemned in all cases. Next, we are using this argument to question the motivations of liberals who seem to have suddenly discovered this truth purely for political purposes.
In June of 2020, anarchists, antifa, and other malcontents seized several blocks of downtown Seattle. They overran a police station and set up what they described as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, first known as CHOP, then renamed CHAZ. The Seattle Times reported on June 10, “On Tuesday, demonstrators hung a banner on the police station: ‘THIS SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE.’ Teenagers passed a bottle on the exit ramp for police vehicles. A young man carried a long rifle down the sidewalk, despite the mayor’s ban on weapons in Capitol Hill, which has not been clearly enforced.”
The zone became occupied after several days of violent assaults on a police station. Sometime after midnight on June 8, the police station was under attack with “protestors” throwing bottles, rocks, and fireworks. The police responded with tear gas and pepper spray, but soon abandoned the building. The “protestors” then swept in and repositioned barricades to declare a “Free Capitol Hill”
The barriers were further extended over the next couple of days. At its peak, CHAZ occupied about 5.5 city blocks in downtown Seattle, a major US city. Police and other government agencies were not allowed to enter. The autonomous zone set up its own leadership and enforced its own laws.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an insurrection as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” The creation of an autonomous zone in the middle of a major city certainly qualifies, but the mainstream media and Democrat politicians didn’t see it that way at the time.
Seattle Mayor, Jenny Durkan, described the insurrection as having a “block party atmosphere” and claimed it could turn into a “summer of love.” Seattle Times staff reporter, Evan Bush, waxed eloquent, “Welcome to the CHAZ, the newly named Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, where most everything was free Tuesday. Free snacks at the No-Cop Co-op. Free gas masks from some guy’s sedan. Free speech at the speaker’s circle, where anyone could say their piece. A free documentary movie — Ava DuVernay’s ‘13th’ — showing after dark.”
No major Democrat politician condemned the occupation, called it an insurrection, or voiced concerns about the violent seizure of US territory.
Far from a “summer of love,” CHAZ remained violent throughout its existence. On June 20, two people were shot. There was another shooting on June 21, but even after these three incidents, Mayor Durkan said, “We cannot let acts of violence define this movement for change.” More shootings occurred on the 23rd and the 29th. On the 29th, a 16 year old black male, Antonio Mays, Jr., was killed and another 14 year old male was in critical condition.
At the time, President Donald Trump was as unequivocal as he was after the assault on the Capitol. He demanded the Mayor and Governor, Jay Inslee, “take back” the zone, referred to the protestors as what they were, “domestic terrorists,” decrying the work of “violent” people.
For his clear-eyed approach to an insurrection, Durkin shot back, saying Trump should “go back to [his] bunker,” referring to another violent assault, this time on the White House itself, when the Secret Service had to take the President to the Emergency Operations Center after rioters advanced on the barricades. The attacks on the White House were met with the same silence from Democrats and the mainstream media.
It is not moral relativism to question their credibility on the issue now. In legal proceedings, testimony must be both competent and credible to be believed. In this case, conservatives like myself are making a simple credibility-based argument. We condemn violence in all cases. Our opponents do not, therefore their credibility condemning it suddenly should be called into question.
I am not the only one who has noticed this sudden change. Glenn Greenwald, no Trump apologist, writing on Substack, explains, “The complete reversal in mentality from just a few months ago is dizzying. Those who spent the summer demanding the police be defunded are furious that the police response at the Capitol was insufficiently robust, violent and aggressive. Those who urged the abolition of prisons are demanding Trump supporters be imprisoned for years. Those who, under the banner of ‘anti-fascism,’ demanded the firing of a top New York Times editor for publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) advocating the deployment of the U.S. military to quell riots — a view deemed not just wrong but unspeakable in decent society — are today furious that the National Guard was not deployed at the Capitol to quash pro-Trump supporters.”
The credibility question leads directly to another. Why are they suddenly denouncing political violence and calling assaults on authority and insurrection now?
We now get to the second part of conservative arguments and comparisons to the behavior of their political opponents: The sudden horror at political violence is nothing more than the hard-nosed desire for political power.
This is the logic that allows Nancy Pelosi to tweet, “Our election was hijacked. There is no question. Congress has a duty to #ProtectOurDemocracy & #FollowTheFacts” on May 16, 2017, but now claim that questioning the results of the 2020 election is sedition. If you substitute #stopthesteal for her two hashtags, this could have been a tweet from Donald Trump.
In fact, Democrats regularly use the word stolen to describe anything that doesn’t go their way regardless of the legality or fairness of the outcome. Before the 2016 election, Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat was “stolen” despite the GOP controlling the Senate and his having no chance of being confirmed under the rules set forth in the Constitution. Stacey Abrams’ governorship in 2018 was just as “stolen” despite her receiving less votes than the winner.
There was no truth to any of these claims, and yet they are made repeatedly to this day. This is because Pelosi and the other Democrats understand that politics is about power, and power is a zero sum game. However noble or desirable, you cannot advance your principles if you are out of power.
The conflict over the accumulation of this power necessarily leads to an arms race between the two parties: Escalation begets escalation, until you reach either defeat, surrender, or detente.
Putting it another way, there is an old expression that the “constitution is not a suicide pact.” I would argue that neither are our more principles. For example, all moral people are against war, but we understand that sometimes military action is necessary, especially when you are attacked. Likewise, moral people are against personal violence, yet we acknowledge the right to defend ourselves.
Therefore, there is no moral imperative to accept defeat or surrender as Baker and others are essentially arguing. The Democrats certainly do not acknowledge one, nor should the Republicans be under any obligation to do so. This is not moral relativism. It’s the inescapable reality of power politics, the same morals that support the right to self defense.
The question then becomes: How do we structure the distribution and acquisition of power in such a way to limit continuous escalation?
The Founders solved this problem by broadly distributing power across both the Federal Government and the states. Thomas Jefferson, writing to Judge Spencer Roane in 1819, said, “This is so because those who gain positions of power tend always to extend the bounds of it. Power must always be constrained or limited else it will increase to the level that it will be despotic.”
Unfortunately for us, the structures they created to limit the growth of power have been largely overturned over the past two centuries. The reason we fight so fiercely over the Presidency, House, and Senate is because of the almost limitless concentration of power in Washington. One way to de-escalate is to reconsider where power lies. This, however, is an unlikely, long term solution.
In the short term, I believe we have two options.
First, we can restore the traditional minority rights in the House and Senate, especially the filibuster for judicial appointments and other nominees. We can return to regular order and stop the continuous fast tracking of everything from impeachment to budgets. This will likely satisfy no one, but that’s the point: If you can’t get anything done without at least a little support from the other party, you will necessarily have to court them. This will encourage more civil behavior by our leaders, that will likely be reflected in the populace as well.
Second, we can demand more accountability from politicians and the mainstream media. If we are going to have standards, reasonable people understand those standards need to be evenly applied. We need to get back to the business of ensuring this is the case and reaching some sort of sustained detente.
The tragic underside of most heated political debates is that the middle of the country, that broad swath that tilts right and left between the two poles, is generally in agreement on the problems our country needs to address, if not the specific solution. Unfortunately, this large middle often remains silent while the battles rage on, seemingly worse every day.
It’s past time for these people to speak up and take their country back.