On Sunday, political journalist Jon Karl interviewed Representative and minority whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) on ABC’s “This Week.” Scalise delivered a tour de force of greasy, Republican whataboutisms that reminded me of how much I don’t miss Kellyanne Conway.
Karl asked Scalise if he agreed with Kevin McCarthy, in that Donald Trump must take responsibility for the insurrection at the Capitol. It was the kind of point blank question, holding Republican feet to the fire, that doesn’t get asked often enough by the mainstream media. Even so it didn’t work, and the mainstream media needs to be more discerning about who they allow on the air. Scalise’s response was classic redirection. “The people who stormed the Capitol on January sixth, it was a disgrace, and they need to be held accountable, and over a hundred and eighty have already been arrested …”
So Jon Karl asked the question one more time. “That’s obvious. I’m asking you about Donald Trump’s role in this. You heard again, Kevin McCarthy, do you agree with what he said, that he [Donald Trump] bears responsibility for what happened [at the Capitol on January 6]?” To which Scalise replied, “You could go back and look at the impeachment trial, the second impeachment trial, it seems like all they’ve done since they walked into office is try to impeach him, but again, when you look at that trial, they ran a clip of pretty much every United States Senator who voted to impeach president Trump who talked about things like ‘go and fight like hell’ and other things like that.”
If you’re wondering what Scalise is referring to here, it’s when, in the recent impeachment trial, Trump’s defense played several clips of various Democratic politicians using the word “fight” in their speeches. The intent was to show how unfairly Trump was being treated. The narrative goes that if Democrats can get away with using the word “fight” then Donald Trump shouldn’t be held accountable for when he uses the word “fight.”
First of all, it wasn’t the English language that was on trial during the second impeachment, it was Donald Trump. When people use the word “fight” its meaning depends on context. It’s a common metaphor used commonly in English. When Shakespeare said “We cannot fight for love like men do,” he wasn’t talking about strapping on boxing gloves or picking up baseball bats, he was talking about metaphorical moral struggle. When you tell an angry mob, many of whom are dressed in body armor and carrying clubs and spears, to go down to the Capitol and “fight like hell” it’s a different context. Only a fool would see an equivalence with Shakespeare’s meaning, and only a scumbag like Scalise (or Donald Trump’s impeachment defenders) would try to exploit that fool’s misunderstanding.
These explanations shouldn’t be necessary in conversations with adults. But when a party desperate to claw its way back into power has nothing but lies and false equivalencies, then it’s what they are going to use. Scalise cannot bring himself to admit what’s obvious to everyone else, including a partisan hack and scumbag like Kevin McCarthy, that Donald Trump was responsible for the January 6th insurrection.
Trump was responsible in the sense that he spent the six months prior to the attack manufacturing from whole cloth a false narrative of a stolen election. Then on the day he whipped an already provoked mob into a rage about that false narrative and sent them off to the Capitol. Then, when violence was the inevitable product of that deliberate agitation, Trump did absolutely nothing to stop the violence once it began.
In other words, Trump was responsible in every way, before the fact, during the commission of the crime, and in the aftermath of the crime. Trump was the chief criminal to an extent that no one else comes close to. In fact, I would go as far as to say Trump is the only person that, if you had removed him from the equation, then the assault on the Capitol would have never happened. Take away anyone else and the attack would have gone ahead and on schedule. Only Trump was exclusively responsible for the attack. No one else comes even close.
People like Scalise deliberately create confusion about what really goes on. Republican quibbling, false equivalencies, whataboutisms and equivocations are getting far too much airtime from the mainstream media. The propaganda damage has been done. Scalise got his absurd, specious message out, and now the glassy-eyed fanatics have yet another ersatz reinforcement for their lies.
Meanwhile, back on the round earth, we can see through it all. Unfortunately it takes time and effort for some to see through these lies, and in a world of sound bites it’s an uphill struggle to get some people to pay attention. Few people want to listen to explanations, and many Trump supporters are incapable of understanding those explanations when and if they hear them.
Being fair doesn’t always mean giving both sides an equal chance to speak. Ours is a culture too often governed by cliches. The notion that “there are two sides to every story” is a case in point — and it’s tangibly and immediately false. A man who raped a child doesn’t have his equal side of the story, for instance. It’s absurd to suggest that everyone’s opinion is equally valid and it’s a point of view we need to stop indulging.
Republicans are already prepared for this, of course. They’ve already loaded their canons with their latest lament of “cancel culture” and “First Amendment suppression” and are ready to fire at the first sign that the media isn’t going to listen to them any more. But we need to stop giving airtime to conspiracy theories anyway. It doesn’t take very long for conspiracy theories to pass from wacky to venerable. All they need is time and persistent repetition to insinuate themselves into the automatic speech of cliches and sound bites. Think “Benghazi.” Think “her emails.” In short order these shortcut words become as inculcated and triggering as “the Grassy Knoll,” and before you know it they pass into the uncritical canon of historical fact.
The mainstream media needs to stop interviewing scumbags like Steve Scalise. They use this free airtime to spread their lies and dog whistles to their disgusting acolytes. The major networks and cable news are passively complicit in the spread of these lies. Have they learned nothing from 2016? Certainly they’ve learned that 2016 was breathtakingly good for business. But have they learned nothing moral? I guess not. 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.