Storming of Capitol Evokes Horrors of French Revolution, Not Ideals of American Revolution
Certain members of the right-wing media, who don’t deserve even the attention condemnation would bring, reacted quickly to Wednesday’s events by attempting to brand themselves “revolutionaries.”
Alongside images of themselves lounging on the floors of the chambers of Congress and in the offices of Congressional leaders, rioters and their sympathizers indulged in gross acts of self-aggrandizement, praising the “revolt” by “patriots” who’d ridden up against the iron glove of government tyranny.
By the narrative these people paint, they’re all apple pie and family values, reluctant to engage in violence but driven past their breaking points by a constant barrage of lies and usurpations.
This narrative is false, and their smug self-congratulatory attitude needs to be completely and totally demolished. This was not just an attack on a physical space and the people who occupy it, but on the very fabric on republican government and state sovereignty. Those who stormed the U.S. Capitol — interrupting a legitimate function of Congress and putting not only the politicians who work their but their aides, the capitol support staff and internal security at risk — are not revolutionaries. They’re penny ante thugs whose convictions are so fragile they apparently require force. They’re moral despots who can’t countenance the idea that someone might disagree with them. And their actions defile the very document they claim to hold sacrosanct.
In this country, the word “revolutionary” has a meaning that goes beyond dictionary definitions. It speaks to the great American mythos, conjuring up images of patriotic work-a-day citizens who’ve been abused and exploited at every turn, whose voice was taken from them, and who finally had enough and took up arms, not just for themselves, but so that their children might have freedom and a better life. There’s nobility to that connotation.
And it’s a nobility that is completely absent from the self-styles “revolutionaries” who today brought terror to the capitol and attempted to upend the Constitutional order. Their thoughts were not for the long-term consequence of their actions, nor the degradation it would bring to the document they supposedly championed, but their own narrow political desires.
They are not following the tradition of the American Revolution, which held tightly to ideas above all else and, as a result, did not devolve into blood sport and the tyranny of the mob dressed up as justice. Rather, today’s events followed the tradition of the French Revolution, which championed abstractions and gave to its leaders absolute power to interpret what these meant, leading to indiscriminate violence and the cannibalization of former freedom fighters, beheaded for the crime of not being enthusiastically-enough pro-revolution.
In thought, as in action, President Trump and his supporters again more closely represent the example of the French Revolution than the American one.
Many of President Trump’s supporters — and indeed the president himself — have attempted to justify the appellation “revolutionary” by couching their actions in innocuous rhetoric and good intentions. They point to Article II, Section I of the Constitution, claiming, the clause that states “each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress” gives Congress standing to review and reject states’ electors. This argument is false. The Constitution clearly gives the states authority to set their own election laws and state courts the authority to settle disputes within their borders.
Leading the charge of the oh-so-genteel Congressional objectors to the election results, Ted Cruz stood on the Senate floor today and declared he wanted nothing unreasonable — not the rejection of election results from the state of Arizona — just a ten-day commission to examine more closely the state-certified results. What was the downside, he argued: if nothing underhanded happened, no one should object, and if something did happen, concerns about election security should mean all right-thinking Americans wanted the truth.
Nevermind the state election officials who certified the results from their states. Nevermind the rulings from judges across the country who examined claims of election security and found nothing of merit. Nevermind that establishing an election commission would run afoul of the Electoral Counts Act. If Congress didn’t vote for the commission, Cruz argued, they’d be casting aside the concerns of millions of Americans who believed election fraud occurred.
The problem, though, is this soft-spoken, moderated language wasn’t the real thrust of the argument. It’s never been the rhetoric of the “stop the steal” activists who’ve painted a bleak picture wherein everyone who fails to confirm their preconceived biases is a deep state plant, corrupted and funded by China. It’s certainly not the language Trump used, especially in his speech at today’s rally, in which he encouraged his supporters to march on the capitol. It wasn’t the language he used on social media in the wake of today’s outbreak of violence; in posts since deleted by Twitter, Trump offered milquetoast rebukes of the violence, lamely asking his supporters to go home, repeating claims the election was rigged and in no place strongly condemning what was today done in his name.
It would be hard to argue Trump didn’t incite what happened today, but even if he hadn’t, he certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade it from growing. And that fits a nasty pattern that’s been an undercurrent of Trump’s administration. In the past, he’s refused to disavow white-nationalists and groups in his base who entertained their vile beliefs. He’s cozied up to dictators and praised the leadership of nations like China that violate human rights. He is an entirely transactional creature: willing to embrace whatever is advantageous in a given political moment.
Even, as it turns out, when that means standing by and watching American institutions be literally assaulted. Trump might wrap himself in the mantle of conservatism, but there is nothing conservative to endorsing assaults on American institutions. And that’s what separates the American Revolution from the French Revolution: deeply-engrained principles that help people — and democratically-elected leaders in particular — from indulging their worst impulses.
The French Revolution was also transactional: there were no iron-clad sureties that the leaders of a given day might be guillotined on the next. Political virtue was political advantage. That’s what democracy looks like: the morality of the mob, with no greater reference than whatever the largest group of people says is right. That’s what Trump and his supporters endorse today. And it’s un-American.
Read The Federalist Papers and you’ll find an in-depth discussion of how to make government work not just for the majority, but the minority. Because in America the minority don’t lose their rights simply because they happen to have a numerically unpopular opinion. James Madison pays special attention to that: making note that, if the freedom of all is to be protected, the interests of politicians must be connected to the rights of the people.
That relationship was flipped on its head today. Trump has convinced his supporters that he alone stands between them and the loss of their political rights. And he’s used that to advocate that they take actions that not only undermine the legitimate operations of the United States but perpetuate his office. Nowhere in any of this is there real consideration for the Constitution and the damage this would do to its continued preeminence. Not only is this not “conservative” in the sense that it doesn’t conserve American institutions and ideals, it’s not even American.