Donald Trump’s second impeachment defense, having few promising options, has focused on the theme of whataboutism: Democrats have frequently used the word “fight” in their speeches; also there was violence at rallies this summer. “I mean, you have a summer where people all over the country were doing similar kinds of things,” said Senator Roy Blunt. “I don’t know what the other side will show from Seattle and Portland and other places.”
The purpose of these false comparisons is to obscure the main activities that are the heart of Trump’s crimes: First, he spent years cultivating violent extremist supporters. And then he mobilized them behind a campaign designed to overturn the result of an election. Neither of these remotely apply to the Democratic Party. Indeed, neither applied to other Republicans, at least not until Trump came along.
As early as the summer of 2015, reporters noticed that Trump’s campaign had activated white-supremacist groups, who previously had seen little in partisan politics to inspire their involvement. Extremists unmoved by the campaigns of Mitt Romney or John McCain or George Bush were brought into partisan politics by Trump.
A recent New York Times report zeroes in on Michigan, a state that has long harbored an active far-right militia movement, which became invested in electoral politics only because of Trump. “I think there is a fair amount of sympathy in the Republican Party for these people that wasn’t there in the past,” JoEllen Vinyard told the Times. “It’s a much closer relationship now.” Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the state GOP, complains: “It is like the Republican Party has its own domestic army.”
That is an important difference between the two parties: One has a private army, and the other does not.
It is true that violent protests and simple vandalism and theft broke out at some racial-justice protests this summer, and that small band of left-wing militants have kept up protests that include vandalism and attacks on police. Trump’s lawyers have played clips of Democrats encouraging the broader racial-justice protest movement. But they have not condoned the violence.
What’s more, by every indication, the violent protesters have no connection to Democratic Party politics. When you get that far out on the ideological edge, sympathy for the Democratic Party disappears and gives way to outright contempt. In Portland, black bloc protesters recently smashed up Democratic Party headquarters and chanted “Fuck Joe Biden!”
Violent extremists on the left are, almost without exception, indifferent or hostile to the Democratic Party, just as violent extremists on the far right used to be indifferent to the GOP, until Trump came along. The right may not have a monopoly on political violence, but it does have a monopoly on partisan political violence.
Trump’s defense team has featured clips of Democrats objecting to the certification of electoral votes in 2017. Ironically, nearly every one of these remarks is quickly ruled out of order by none other than the outgoing Vice-President Joe Biden, a fact that negates whatever point Trump’s lawyers are trying to make.
It is true that some Democrats used the electoral vote ceremony to register protest and disagreement with Trump. They were not, however, attempting to challenge or overturn the outcome. Hillary Clinton conceded the 2016 election the morning after. Trump did not, and instead spent months lying about the result and pressuring state officials to negate the outcome so he could secure an unelected second term.
The January 6 insurrection was a combination of both these factors. Trump had inspired a violent cult and cultivated its rage with his lies. He used them to pressure Mike Pence and Congress to stop the certification of the election.
If there was any remote similarity between the two parties’ support for political violence, or willingness to disregard democratic elections, then something like January 6 would have happened four years ago. Nothing like it did. In 2017, Hillary Clinton’s armed wing did not try invade Congress and hand her the presidency because she did not have an armed wing and was not trying to steal it.