Updated at 6:37 p.m. ET on April 23, 2021.
History is rewritten by the self-styled victims.
Even after more than four years of rationalizing and excusing every violation by the president, Donald Trump’s enablers have their work cut out for them this week, after a mob incited by Trump sacked the U.S. Capitol and disrupted constitutional order. But, undeterred, they are still energetically devoted to the task.*
I warned yesterday that Trump’s remaining allies would seek to memory-hole the January 6 attempted coup and convince people that it didn’t happen the way it did. The whitewashing is already in full motion. Some takes the form of dangerous disinformation—false claims, for example, that antifa was behind the siege and not Trump backers, even though Trump cheered them on. Those are fringe ideas catering to a fringe audience, however, and they mostly serve to muddy the waters.
The more common argument on the mainstream Trump-friendly right is simpler: It contends that what happened wasn’t so bad, and anyway it was someone else’s fault. The real victims, it turns out, are Trump and his supporters.
In an absurd video statement released this morning, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tried to have it every way he could. He condemned the riot and warned against seeking “political shelter in divisive political movements and in conspiracy theories,” but instantly pivoted to talking about the real problem: the press.
“How do we explain what we saw? How could this happen, here in America?” Rubio asked. “It kind of begins with millions of Americans who voted for President Trump. They saw the nonstop bias and double standard of the legacy media. They see how social-media companies covered up stories negative to Joe Biden. They saw how state officials mutilated election-integrity laws to help the Democrats. The result is you have millions of people who are convinced that the election wasn’t fair, and that the outcome wasn’t legitimate. Millions of people. They wanted something done about it.”
The video does explain how the riot could have happened, but not in the way Rubio intends. People seek shelter in conspiracy theories in part because politicians like him tell them that those theories are true, as Rubio does in this very answer. Having given credence to nonsense, he then uses it to justify the rioters’ anger and shift the blame. (Taking dramatic measures would have been patriotic and even rational if the election had truly been stolen—a delusion Rubio happily indulges here.)
Rubio is hardly alone, but he offers a good case study because he is a onetime Trump opponent who later jumped on the bandwagon. Trump diehards will defend Trump because that’s what they do. There are plenty of examples of that, especially conservative-media titans such as Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin. More interesting are those who back Trump but are not bound to him, like Rubio. Some prominent right-wing and Republican leaders have broken with Trump, including former members of his administration, but many others have chosen to adopt Trump’s own reasoning.
The idea that the real victims of the attempted coup are Trump and his supporters comes directly from the president. He has portrayed himself as the victim in chief throughout his time in office, as Yuval Levin noted, and his decisive loss in November has only amplified his already huge grievance.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now,” Trump said in a video posted Wednesday afternoon. “There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us—from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace.”
He also said, in a now-deleted tweet, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.” In a tweet this morning, Trump said, “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me … will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
He has plenty of support. At The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson insists that outrage about the pillaging of the Capitol is phony, and the reaction is really “about punishing supporters of President Trump. If the pro-Trump mob can be depicted as ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors,’ then there’s almost nothing we shouldn’t do to silence them.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, who has called for the suspension of the Constitution in response to past violent acts, now says that using constitutional measures such as impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to penalize Trump for inciting the riot would hurt the country more than leaving him unpunished. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy agrees.
Senator Josh Hawley, who along with his colleague Ted Cruz was among the most prominent proponents of the bogus fraud claims that animated the insurrection, is preoccupied with painting himself as a victim of “Orwellian” behavior, after the publishing house Simon & Schuster dropped plans to publish his new book, The Tyranny of Big Tech. (Hawley prefers the old-fashioned tyranny that comes with overturning democratic elections, apparently.)
Central to these professions of victimhood is the sense that Trump supporters are being held to a double standard. In particular, many apologists have pointed to reactions to Black Lives Matter protests during the summer.
“Now, are the left hypocrites? Absolutely,” Rubio said in his video. “I remember what they now are calling insurrection, they were justifying just this summer. They called it ‘the language of the unheard’ when rioters were burning cities.”
There are some superficial parallels here. Both cases involved large crowds of protesters demonstrating against a wrong they believed had been done to them. A few of them, but only a few, participated in violence.
But the parallels run out pretty quickly. Violence against businesses and police stations is wrong, but it is not the same as assaulting the seat of the federal government (and in some cases reportedly discussing assassinations and coming prepared for hostage-taking). And Black Lives Matter demonstrators were protesting about a real problem: Police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, just as they have killed and injured many other people, recently and historically. By contrast, the insurrectionists were rising in support of false and debunked claims.
Recent experience also suggests that law enforcement would have deployed much greater force and acted more swiftly against a Black Lives Matter march than was initially seen on Wednesday.
These complaints about double standards are mostly whataboutism and don’t carry much weight. But the invocation of Black Lives Matter is illuminating, because it underscores how quickly Trump supporters have discovered the need for the empathy and understanding of one’s opponents. While Floyd’s death did elicit more criticism of police tactics than any previous incident, you didn’t hear many Republican politicians explaining that years of racist press coverage and police subjugation made the riots understandable, if still unacceptable.
You also didn’t hear them making the same pleas to empathize with the plurality of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton but saw Donald Trump win the Electoral College and with it the presidency in 2016. When liberals held protests against Trump, criticized him, and, in some cases, made their own spurious claims about him, Marco Rubio didn’t implore anyone to understand the roots of their anger. Instead, Republicans thundered that Democrats were trying to delegitimize Trump and nullify his election.
After all, victimhood is an exclusive and exalted class in contemporary American politics. To Trump and his enablers, the truth about the insurrection is clear: The perpetrators are the real victims.
*This article originally stated that a police officer was killed in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, based on reporting in The New York Times and The Associated Press citing two unnamed law-enforcement officials. On April 19, Washington, D.C.,'s chief medical examiner released a report finding that Officer Brian Sicknick had experienced two strokes and died of natural causes.