A year ago, Americans were appalled by the sight of a violent mob storming Capitol Hill on the day that the Electoral College votes from the 2020 election were counted. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, were a disgrace. As I wrote then, “there can be no rationalizing or excusing what happened.” Any effort to disrupt the peaceful handing transfer of power between the political parties by extra-legal means is unacceptable. Those who took part in this shameful episode deserve to be punished for breaking the law.
But it is painfully obvious that few lessons have been learned from it or the events that preceded it. This could have provided the nation with an object lesson about the consequences of a bifurcated political culture. All too many Americans have come to see people with opposing views as enemies who cannot be credited with good motives rather than fellow citizens.
Yet rather than seek to step back from the brink those on both sides of the partisan divide have merely doubled down on their suspicions, creating even more animosity and hate. And, sadly, some of the groups that can reasonably claim to speak for large portions of American Jewry are part of this problem, rather than helping to find a solution to it.
That the Jan. 6 anniversary is helping to perpetuate the tribal culture that passes for normal political discourse these days, instead of reminding Americans to step back from the brink, is disappointing. In the hours and days immediately after the Capitol riot, it might have been possible to start the healing. But that’s not what happened, and the blame for that belongs to both sides.
While those who believe the 2020 results deserved to be challenged had a right to be heard, by Jan. 6 the outcome was decided, and they should have at that point stood down and begun the important job of acting as the loyal opposition to the incoming administration.
It cannot be reasonably denied that former President Donald Trump should have done more, before, during and after the riot to calm down his followers. He needed to strongly condemn without reservation what happened following the Washington rally he had addressed that day in real-time, rather than only afterward, as he did. Having helped to rile them up, it was his responsibility to do everything he could to prevent what happened and to be personally involved in stopping it.
But the reason why Jan. 6 has become yet another point of contention between the two political camps goes deeper than Trump’s mistakes. Indeed, part of what made it possible was the behavior of his opponents over the course of the previous four years. And it was the behavior of the victorious Democrats, who took control of both houses of Congress and the White House in January 2021, that ensured that the following 12 months would see the chasm between the parties continue to grow.
That this would happen was perhaps inevitable given the intractable nature of the partisan warfare into which American politics had already descended.
It is also a reaction to the way the riot was inflated by Democrats into something that to all appearances and available evidence it was not: an actual “insurrection” or attempted coup d’état by Trump and the Republicans. Even many Republicans who condemned Trump in the aftermath of Jan. 6 have become convinced that the Democrats’ claims that democracy is at stake isn’t merely partisan hyperbole but an effort to gaslight the nation into believing that the GOP is a proto-authoritarian party. What’s more, they see the Democrats as advocating policies and behaving in a manner that is either complicit in or actively engaged in an attempt to suppress their political opponents.
Over the course of the last year, every sign of truculent conservative opposition to the Biden administration or to woke leftist doctrines—whether a coded refrain of contempt for President Joe Biden (“Let’s Go Brandon”) or the actions of those resisting the spread of critical race theory teachings in the schools—has been labeled as more evidence of an ongoing “insurrection.” That Attorney General Merrick Garland has mobilized the Department of Justice to begin federal investigations into such “insurrectionists” is a sign that those who claim to be defending democracy think they need to destroy it in order to save it.
The willingness of Democrats to portray political squabbles as an extension of the riot is bad enough. Their claims that it is the moral equivalent of the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter or as bad as, if not worse than, the 9/11 attacks—as to her shame, Vice President Kamala Harris did in her speech at the anniversary ceremony—illustrates this problem. When even a moderate group like the Democratic Majority for Israel spoke of the riot as a broad “plot to destroy America” shows how the discussion has escalated. That has sunk any hope of a consensus about what happened or what it meant.
The same is true concerning the actions of the House of Representatives Jan. 6 Committee, the composition of which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denied the Republicans the right to name their own members to serve as the voice of the minority. The ever-widening fishing expedition being conducted by the committee to implicate the entire Trump administration, congressional Republicans and Fox News personalities in an event in which they had no discernable part has already become a McCarthyesque witch hunt and will likely get worse. The committee’s efforts to broaden its scope to treat efforts by Trump supporters to come up with legal stratagems to prevent Biden from taking office as a criminal conspiracy is also hypocritical given that Democrats were openly considering, though ultimately rejecting, efforts to do the same four years earlier.
Just as bad, Jan. 6 and the alleged threat to democracy from Republican legislators is being used as a rationale for passing the Democrats’ push for bills regulating elections. This is an unprecedented attempt to federalize elections and discard the guardrails ensuring the integrity of the vote.
Far from uniting the country behind a platform of healing and a return to constitutional norms, that has essentially pushed just about everybody on the right—with only an ever-dwindling band of “Never Trump” holdouts as exceptions—to think the Democrats’ target is not so much Trump, but his voters and all Republicans. And if that is the case, they see no reason to draw any conclusions from Jan. 6 except to see its exploitation as even more justification for doubling down on their own pre-existing positions.
The problem didn’t start on Jan. 7. Only a few months earlier, there were hundreds of instances of violence and looting in American cities that were part of the aftermath of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Those “mostly peaceful” riots also involved attacks on police officers and public buildings. But most of the same people that have bemoaned the “insurrection” rationalized or even applauded those riots.
Trump’s appalling efforts to treat Biden’s win as solely the result of fraud followed years of Democrats and media outlets promoting a different set of conspiracy theories about Russia collusion, whose aim it was to delegitimize the 2016 election results. That Democrats spoke of themselves and behaved as if they were the “resistance” to the Trump administration rather than a loyal opposition mattered and influenced what would follow.
Even though the conspiracies floated by some Trump backers about voter fraud in 2020 were detached from reality, that doesn’t mean the presidential contest was contested fairly. Big Tech companies and mainstream media outlets did their best to tilt the election towards Biden, including silencing discussions of reports that exposed scandals about his family’s activities, influencing the outcome even if the election wasn’t stolen.
It’s also true that mainstream liberal Jewish groups, which represent huge portions of the community, are part of the drumbeat of incitement about Jan. 6 and the supposed threats to democracy.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League were right to note the presence of anti-Semites carrying placards and wearing clothing that depicted their hate at the Capitol riot. But predictably, it used that to justify a stand that essentially backed up the worst partisan hyperbole about Trump and his supporters as somehow complicit in anti-Semitism. As he had done for the four years prior and continues to do to this day, ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt continues to accuse Trump of anti-Semitism and to depict him and his administration as authoritarian in nature.
The same is true of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and other liberal groups, who continue to make broad accusations of sedition and treason.
Otherwise respectable Jewish figures such as Holocaust historian and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt (who has been rewarded for her partisanship with a nomination to be the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy) made specious and inappropriate comparisons between Trump and the Nazi era.
None of that makes the Capitol riot any less of a disgrace or excuses the actions of those who took part in it. But it does explain why those who supported Trump—including the 22 percent to 30 percent of Jews (depending on which poll you believe) who voted for him—are largely ignoring the rhetoric about insurrection and democracy being in peril.
It’s hard to imagine either side accepting defeat in a future election, no matter the margin or which party wins. Worse still, it’s equally hard to imagine either party lowering the rhetorical heat since they both seem to believe that their opponents are trying to destroy the country and ensure that they will not lose control of the government.
That is a tragedy. And those Jewish groups that have taken sides in this partisan debate, even if it is veiled in a flimsy facade of defending democracy, are part of the reason why this is so.
Jonathan S. Tobin is the editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.