The Republican establishment has long downplayed the Jan. 6 insurrection in a bid to protect the reputation of former President Donald Trump. Now we’re seeing how that complicity has helped set the stage for another such uprising. Consider the GOP’s mental gymnastics designed to downplay Trump’s frantic calls for mass protests over his possible upcoming arrest.
In a post Saturday on the social media platform Truth Social, Trump alleged that the “corrupt” Manhattan District Attorney’s office was on the brink of apprehending him and called for his supporters to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”
“WE JUST CAN’T ALLOW THIS ANYMORE. THEY’RE KILLING OUR NATION AS WE SIT BACK & WATCH. WE MUST SAVE AMERICA!PROTEST, PROTEST, PROTEST!!!” Trump wrote in a follow-up post.
As my colleague Hayes Brown explained, on Saturday House Speaker Kevin McCarthy irresponsibly co-signed Trump’s inflammatory and evidence-free allegations about a politicized investigation by promising to direct Congress to investigate “politically motivated prosecutions.” Speaking at a press conference the following day, though, McCarthy could’ve backtracked into responsibility and admitted that what Trump was saying was worrisome or wrong.
If Trump is charged, those charges should be judged based on the merits of the evidence and legal reasoning provided, not preemptively dismissed as a “sinister” witch hunt. And given Trump’s use of similar language to whip up a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol, responsible Republican lawmakers should push back against his demand for protesters to wrest the country back from “evil” adversaries.
Instead, when it came to discussing Trump’s calls for protests, McCarthy’s remarks were head-spinning. “I don’t think people should protest this, no,” the speaker said. “I think President Trump, if you talk to him, he doesn’t believe in that either. I think the thing that you may misinterpret when President Trump talks, when someone says that they can protest, he’d probably be referring to my tweet, ‘educate people about what’s going on.’ He’s not talking in a harmful way. And nobody should.”
There are a couple points to note here. First, McCarthy is preposterously claiming Trump “doesn’t believe” what he has literally called for on his personal social media platform. Telling the public that they’re “misinterpreting” Trump’s language is gaslight-level denialism.
Second, if McCarthy actually believes that any future charges brought against Trump are in fact a witch hunt, why would he oppose citizen protests? What he’s concerned about isn’t any protests, but violent protests — riots, occupations, vigilante action. That’s why later during the conference he emphasized, “We want calmness out there.”
McCarthy’s denials implicitly reveal what we all know: that the connotation of Trump’s call for protests is that they should be transgressive, rowdy or violent. But instead of acknowledging this reality, McCarthy portrays Trump, an openly aspiring authoritarian, as a victim of widespread misunderstanding.
The best way for the GOP to guard against destructive behavior is to admit Trump’s history of using vague, combative language to encourage such actions — and unequivocally condemn any use of it. Trump deliberately calibrates his language to incite his most hardcore supporters while maintaining an escape hatch of plausible deniability. We saw it when Trump promised supporters that Jan. 6, 2021 would be a “wild” time, and when he leaned on his supporters to “fight like hell” before they stormed the Capitol. In both instances, Trump has pretended that it was traditional abstract political rhetoric, even as his militant wing saw it as a green light to use force.
This is Trump’s whole game, and when McCarthy says that the media is misinterpreting Trump, McCarthy is helping him play it. The reality is you can’t disentangle Trump’s rhetoric from political militance at this juncture. The GOP can’t pretend to be guarding against the latter without strongly rejecting the former.