Imagine the following hypothetical situation. Donald Trump is about to become president of the United States again. By some extraordinary set of circumstances he wins a second term and, as long as we’re postulating extraordinary circumstances, his cognitive powers have returned better than ever. As president-elect he’s full of nothing but talk of vengeance and oppressive policies.
Let’s further postulate that you and you alone can prevent his taking power. You have a single, non-violent means to cause him to resign and go into exile. You can also replace him with a similarly rested and ready Joe Biden. Question: would you do it? I know I would.
Now, if you think about it, what I just admitted to is a hypothetical situation in which I would aid and abet an insurrection, however bloodless and nonviolent. I admit that circumstances exist where I would willingly subvert a free and fair election in order to deny Donald Trump his rightfully won victory. How then can I (and those of you who agree with me) claim that we are morally superior to Republicans who supported the insurrectionists?
The first answer, of course, is that it’s a hypothetical that can never happen. Hypothetical situations can often be constructed in such a way as to present apparently unsolvable moral conundrums.
But that’s just a cop out. The real answer is, given the constraints of the question, we can claim to be better because we are. We know that Donald Trump will destroy the American experiment if he’s given a second chance to do so. We know that America will become a North American North Korea, or an Albania, or another Russia under Trump. Our transgression is made righteous by the purity of our motive.
I hasten to add that it’s not a transgression most of us would enter into without deep moral conflict. We understand that the political process is sacred and Constitutional. We understand that we would be subverting that process. The question really is, would you break a law to preserve a higher law? Would you break the law to save the life of a loved one? Would you commit a crime to prevent a larger crime?
Some insurrectionists believed they were morally right at the time they committed their insurrection. We know they were morally wrong, and many of them are coming to understand that themselves. But their state of mind at the time they acted is important because they reached the same conclusion we would have, they just did it for the wrong reasons. And of course they employed violence against individuals, which is not justified by their state of mind no matter how pure their motives.
But I think that’s what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he concluded the civil war “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” I think he understood that sometimes good people do great evil because they think they are right. Our job is to punish the leaders of the insurrection but go easier on the rank and file insurrectionists who came to realise their error. They were misled. They believed what they were doing was right, even though the objective reality is they were wrong.
I am not a moral relativist. I believe in absolute good and absolute evil. But I also believe that good people can be tricked. On Tuesday, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Tarrio is an evil man, a bigot who misled many others with his lies. He deserved what he got.
But not all insurrectionists are created equal, and it’s important we recognise that. Many are discovering for themselves that the man that ultimately misled them all, Donald Trump, is a truly evil man who cares nothing for them. Toward them I think we should adopt Abraham Lincoln’s charity and lack of malice. They knew not what they did, and the repentant ones should be welcomed back into the brotherhood and sisterhood of forgiveness. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.