So the word is Vice President Pence has finally spoken with President Trump. I’ve been trying to imagine how that conversation went. Maybe something like this:
Pence: Hey, Mr. President, trashing me to your supporters last Wednesday wasn’t a very nice way to treat your vice president.
Trump: Mike, I wasn’t trashing you. I was just trying to encourage you to do the right thing in that meeting about the electoral vote.
Pence: But you know I was limited by the Constitution to a ceremonial role.
Trump: Everyone knows the Constitution is just window dressing. All you needed to do was wave your arms around and delay the vote certification. Then we could have remained in office.
Pence: Sir, it was very unsettling to hear these people roaming through the capitol halls, shouting, “Where’s Pence!”
Trump: No, Mike, they were shouting, “Make Sense!”
Pence: Then how do you explain that gallows out front, with a noose?
Trump: No, Mike, that noose wasn’t for you, it was for Pelosi….except if you hadn’t waved your arms around and delayed the certification, then maybe it was for you, too.
I’m trying to think of ways to lighten up the events of last week, and I’m struggling. It was bad, as bad as it gets, and the best I can do is gallows humor. (I wanted to include a photo of the gallows and noose out front of the Capitol, but you’ll have to view it here, since I wasn’t about to pay $375 to the agency that was selling rights to it on behalf of a photographer.)
There were difficult demonstrations during the 1960s and early 1970s. Most were simply occupations of university buildings, to push for withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. I was at one in 1967 in front of the Justice Department in Washington and was tear-gassed. Very scary, but there was never any thought to taking over a government building and people. There were radicals building bombs, some of which went off in apartments in New York. There were shootings of judges at court houses in California. There was Kent State in 1970, where four students were killed by Ohio National Guard troops for no obvious reason than having been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the scenes at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday were a whole different dimension. When you watch the videos of the destruction and the marauding mobs, you realize that it was only because of a few lucky breaks that legislators and the vice president weren’t rounded up and hauled out to that gallows set up outside the capitol.
We’ve gotten to hear a lot of words unfamiliar to most Americans. Insurrection, coup d’etat, sedition, putsch. All having to do with violently overthrowing the government. Some have questioned how a few hundred crazies in the Capitol could overthrow a government. Amazingly simple: By preventing the legislators, overseen by the vice president, from certifying the electoral vote—usually a ceremonial event—the matter of the next president could suddenly have become a matter of serious confusion. And who might have stepped into the vacuum to proclaim himself the real leader ongoing?
Insurrection is a word we’ve only heard in this country when reading history books about the Civil War. Insurrection is one of the most serious crimes a citizen can commit. That’s why the 14th Amendment—to give citizenship to former slaves, right after the Civil War—includes a provision that anyone guilty of insurrection is forbidden to hold office in the U.S., unless two-thirds of Congress agrees.
In other countries, insurrections and coups are matters of very serious consequences. A failed coup in Turkey in 2016 led to 50,000 arrests, 20,000 people losing their passports, and more than 100,000 people being fired from state and university jobs over the two years that followed. Last November, 337 individuals identified as ringleaders received multiple life sentences.
On January 6, the crowd outside America’s capitol had been stoked beforehand by President Trump, when he reviewed, yet again for the unpteenth time, his grievances, the falsehoods about the election having been stolen from him, and then declared: “Today, we see a very important event though, because right over there, right there, we see the event going to take place. And I’m going to be watching, because history is going to be made. We’re going to see whether or not we have great and courageous leaders or whether or not we have leaders that should be ashamed of themselves throughout history, throughout eternity, they’ll be ashamed. And you know what? If they do the wrong thing, we should never ever forget that they did. Never forget. We should never ever forget.”
History was certainly made, but for all the wrong reasons. The event laid bare the authoritarian (some would say fascist) virus that has been taking hold in the minds of many Americans for years now. Stoked most intensively by two months of “the big lie,” unrelenting claims of election fraud—claims that had been rejected by 60 courts, including twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, along with state legislatures and secretaries of state.
Once the U.S. legislators reconvened amid a quickly cleaned Capitol building the evening of Jan. 6 and confirmed Joe Biden’s election as president, things seemed to quiet significantly. That was because social media finally, after years of indulging Trump and his outlandish accusations and conspiracy theories, finally pulled the plugs on him and associates on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Platforms threw Parler off. Corporations joined in to discontinue contributions to the Republicans. Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, refused the Presidential Medal of Honor. European officials refused to meet with America’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, forcing him to cancel his trip. In other words, important people and organizations took actions to isolate the virus carriers.
That raised all kinds of claims of censorship from supporters remaining on Facebook and elsewhere. One of the first lessons I learned in journalism school (in a class on libel law) is “you can’t yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater” (per U.S. Supreme Court). In other words, speech that is both dangerous and false not only isn’t protected, it is toxic and subject to ban (and can be libelous). Trump’s repeated assertions that the election was fraudulent, even after having that claim rejected in 60 courts, including twice before the Supreme Court, is a classic example. Yet he used the repeated assertion on social media to foment insurrection (as dangerous as it gets), so Twitter and FB acted responsibly.
Here’s one interesting assessment from a NYTimes columnist: “In fact, Twitter and Facebook’s ejection of Trump is pretty much the opposite of what happens in China; it would be inconceivable for the Chinese social media giant Weibo to block President Xi Jinping. Trump’s social media exile represents, in some ways, a libertarian dream of a wholly privatized public sphere, in which corporations, not government, get to define the bounds of permissible speech…..”
Clearly, speech can be weaponized to do serious damage. Hopefully the fever of this virus has broken, and we’ll see a lowering of voices and more isolation and punishment of the perpetrators. There’s an old saying: “Nothing focuses the mind like the hangman’s noose.”