The philosopher Eric Hoffer famously wrote, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
What he evidently didn’t count on was great outrages becoming causes.
From the perspective of the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6 it was hard enough to believe that Donald Trump would survive the event, let alone make it a plank in a powerful comeback bid just a few years later.
But there was Trump in Waco, Texas, opening his inaugural rally of the 2024 campaign with a recording of the song “Justice for All” that he performed with the J6 Prison Choir, with some scenes of Jan. 6 playing on the jumbotrons.
Among those favorably inclined toward it, the bloody riot at the Capitol has progressed from something to be minimized — and blamed on others, whether antifa or federal informants — to closer to something to be celebrated, almost, if not quite, Stop the Steal’s Bastille Day.
For Trump, a master at appropriating the catch lines and attacks of the other side, reversing the meaning of Jan. 6 would be his most audacious move yet. How long is it before that day, in an echo of the phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy that got him impeached, becomes “the perfect protest?”
This is a huge mistake in every way, most importantly on the merits, but also on the politics.
Yet Trump’s stance isn’t surprising. He still hews to the two premises of the Jan. 6 riot — that, as a general proposition, the 2020 election was stolen and, more particularly, former Vice President Mike Pence could have stopped the counting of the electoral votes if he weren’t so weak. This is why, in a contradiction, Trump blames Pence for an event that he also portrays as not so bad.
Now, it is true that the insistence by Democrats and the media on referring to Jan. 6 always and exclusively as “the insurrection” is tiresome and politically motivated. (Insurrection suggests a sustained campaign, whereas this was a one-time spasm of violence more appropriately referred to as a riot.)
The Justice Department has gone out of its way to run up the number of prosecutions to make a political point about the seriousness of the event, and defendants have been denied bail in a highly unusual manner — if we grant bail to mafia hit men, and we do, we should grant it to someone who punched a cop on Jan. 6.
And there is a rank hypocrisy in the treatment of political violence. The same people on the left who were willing to look the other way during the “mostly peaceful” riots after the killing of George Floyd are outraged by Jan. 6. (Of course, hypocrisy is a two-way street: If it’s wrong to burn down a gas station in the name of Black Lives Matter, it’s not any better to storm the Capitol in the name of Stop the Steal.)
All that said, making excuses for or valorizing Jan. 6 is deeply wrong.
First, there’s the matter of principle. Riots are bad and never justified (except in the rare case when they are a precursor of a just and well-founded act of revolution — for example, the American War for Independence). They hurt people and destroy property, while achieving nothing or setting back the cause they were supposed to advance.
Disorder at the heart of the U.S. government, disrupting a long-standing ritual connected to the peaceful transfer of power, is particularly egregious.
Second, justifying or excusing political violence has a deranging influence on the republic. The more reason both sides have to physically fear each other, the easier it is to justify extreme measures in response, in a widening gyre of escalation.
Third, it’s simply terrible politics. If the other side is desperate to portray you as in bed with fanatics and rioters, it’s best not to go out of your way to prove them right. It’s perverse for Republicans that just as the Jan. 6 Committee has been put out of business and is no longer in a position to constantly remind the public of Jan. 6, here comes Donald Trump to remind people of Jan. 6.
It’d be a little like Richard Nixon running for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, and campaigning with a barbershop quartet made up of the Watergate burglars.
Or Ulysses S. Grant deciding to run for third term while extolling the unappreciated virtues of the organizers of the Whiskey Ring scandal.
What Trump is doing flies in the face of the lessons of the midterms. Jan. 6 lent emotional power to the Democratic argument that democracy was under threat, and Stop the Steal candidates proved radioactive. Trump wants, in effect, to repeat November 2022’s failed political experiment on a larger scale in 2024.
On top of his natural inclinations, Trump may be making a calculation that in a primary race with Ron DeSantis to be the most MAGA Republican candidate, he can’t lose by staking out the most pro-Jan. 6 position. That’s not a crazy bet, but if Trump is going to be beaten it will probably be, in part, on grounds that he carries too much baggage and is an electability risk. By embracing rather than skirting one of his major vulnerabilities, he gives his adversaries more ammunition on both counts.
Jan. 6 is an outrage that shouldn’t become a cause.