After the pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Twitter blue-checks, politicians, and elite corporate journalists wailed and rent their garments in outrage. But they weren’t really outraged.
Yes, the breach of the capitol was appalling and disturbing. Most people didn’t see it coming and were understandably shocked when images of MAGA bros fighting capitol police began popping up on social media (although the authorities should have been better prepared, most of all D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had earlier rejected offers of additional law enforcement.) There’s no question the protesters who decided to riot should be prosecuted, as all rioters everywhere should be.
But elite outrage is not really about what happened at the capitol—about the “sacred citadel of our democracy being defiled” and so on. The outrage, like almost all expressions of righteous indignation from our elites in the Trump era, is performative. It is in service of a larger purpose that has nothing to do with the peaceful transfer of power and everything to do with the wielding of power.
Specifically, it’s 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. Right? Rick Klein, the political director at ABC News, said the quiet part out loud on Thursday when he mused (in a now-deleted tweet) that getting rid of Trump is “the easy part” and the more difficult task will be “cleansing the movement he commands.”
That’s not the kind of language you use when you’re in the business of reporting the news. It’s the kind of language you use when you’re in the business of social control.
A lot of people on the right have noted the supposed hypocrisy of media elites like Klein, but it’s not really hypocrisy because Klein and his comrades don’t really have a problem with violent mobs storming into buildings and smashing windows, so long as they agree with the mob’s agenda. That’s why corporate media was so tolerant of much larger and more dangerous mobs destroying American cities for months on end last year. When Black Lives Matter rioters stormed city halls and police stations, burned down churches, and ransacked shopping districts in major U.S. cities, killing dozens and destroying livelihoods, the media offered support for the rioters’ cause, which they invoked time and again to justify their criminal acts.
That’s why CNN’s Chris Cuomo said, “Please, show me where it says protesters are supposed to be polite and peaceful.” That’s why his colleague, Don Lemon, compared the riots to the Boston Tea Party, saying, “This is how our country started.”
That’s why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued “the whole point of protesting is to make ppl uncomfortable.” That’s why incoming Vice President Kamala Harris urged her supporters to contribute to a fund to pay bail for militant anarchists who set fire to Minneapolis. That’s why reporters at MSNBC and CNN described fiery, riotous scenes as “mostly peaceful protests”—sometimes while buildings and cars burned in the background.
As my colleague Tristan Justice recently chronicled, this default posture of support for the riots was pervasive in the media. GQ, Slate, Mother Jones, Time Magazine, Vox, The New York Times, NPR—all of them ran news stories, analyses, and columns justifying the violence, praising the rioters, and mulling over the deeper meaning of it all. Condemnations were few and attenuated.
They won’t do that about the pro-Trump rioters at the capitol. In his monologue Wednesday night, Tucker Carlson made the good point that we have to find a way through our political divisions and this moment of crisis. Above all, we have to learn to live together.
There’s no option to peacefully divide and go our separate ways, so if we want to fix this, he said, we need to try to understand why Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and killed in the capitol, was there in the first place. What was she doing there?
Our elites—in the media, in corporate America, in politics—have no interest in that question. They don’t want to understand people like Babbitt because they don’t actually want to share a republic with them. To paraphrase Rick Klein of ABC News, they want to cleanse the country of Trump supporters, period.
It won’t be easy. Trump’s supporters aren’t just going to disappear because Anderson Cooper thinks they’re gross. Plenty of media people, along with plenty of Democratic leaders, spent Wednesday and Thursday arguing that Trump gave the protesters the idea to storm the capitol, that he egged them on and incited them.
But the media, which sowed the wind all year long with loose talk about riots, did far more to bring down the whirlwind on Wednesday than Trump did. When you argue for months and months that there’s nothing wrong with rioting or mob action or fighting with the police, and that we have to try to understand the rioters and their complaints, don’t be surprised if a certain segment of the population takes you at your word.
None of this is to excuse or defend the people who stormed the capitol. Like the mobs that stormed through American cities this spring and summer, they should have been stopped—by force, if necessary. Turns out Sen. Tom Cotton was right all along.
But it is to say that both groups were motivated by strongly held beliefs that, in their minds, justified rioting. In the case of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, it was the belief that America is in the throes of white supremacy and systemic racism, and that police kill disproportionate numbers of black people. In the case of the pro-Trump mob at the capitol, it was the belief that the election was stolen, rigged, fraudulent, and that no one would listen to them or take them seriously.
I happen to think both these sets of claims, on the BLM side and the Trump side, are misguided and wrong. But not our media elites. They are squarely on the side of the BLM mob and against the pro-Trump mob, and they have zero interest in trying to understand why all those people showed up at the Capitol on a Wednesday in January.
They do, however, have a keen interest in cracking down on the wrong kind of mob. Their outrage isn’t just a performance or a pose. It’s also a mask hiding something worse than hypocrisy: anticipation.