When it comes to right-wing media, the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has been nothing if not predictable. On Fox News, you could watch the real time progression from praising the rioters to downplaying the damage to drawing weak comparisons to Black Lives Matter protests to spreading conspiracy theories that the riot was a so-called “false flag” attack. Now, the narrative has reached its predestined conclusion: a call for unity as a way to elude blame.
Within days, pro-Trump media had adopted a message of faux unity and self-victimhood. Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union went on Hannity to ask whether Democrats wanted to “unify and take down the heat or do they want to impeach and cancel and attack.” Schlapp went on to whine about how corporate America and social media companies are trying to “shut down anybody who is a conservative, shut down anybody who is for the MAGA agenda.”
Conservative lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, who promoted efforts to overturn the election results and install Trump for a second term, made an appearance on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle. There, Dhillon complained that “the left” was wrongly characterizing Trump supporters as “a mob of white supremacists.” Dhillon called efforts to remove Trump from office for inciting the deadly riot “a witch hunt.”
During an episode of The Ingraham Angle, Fox News contributor Ken Starr, who has supported attempts to overturn the election, called for “kindness and compassion,” and criticized Democrats for “an act of deliberate divisiveness at a time when I thought that we were trying to unify the country.” Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk also argued that Democrats need to appeal to unity by not holding Trump accountable for inciting an insurrection.
It’s clear that these calls for unity aren’t genuine because the people making them still haven’t walked back the lies that inspired the Capitol assault.
For there to be unity, the right-wing commentators and politicians who have insisted that there was massive and widespread voter fraud during the election need to come clean. It’s long past time for them to stop falsely claiming that the election was “stolen” from Trump. It has been clear all along that the election was secure, as Trump’s own administration said in a statement that led Trump to fire cybersecurity official Chris Krebs for contradicting the president’s lies.
Even after the January 6 violence at the Capitol, 147 Republican members of Congress -- 139 representatives and eight senators -- voted to reject the Electoral College tallies. This was done without any legitimate concern about who won the states in question, but instead as part of a cynical ploy to undermine democracy and illegitimately retain power. Violent attack aside, the willingness of the president and his enablers in media and politics to do an end-run around the election results under false claims of fraud is itself something that should chill us to our cores.
Defenders of the baseless Republican objections to the Electoral College votes point to a 2005 objection filed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) when counting the votes from the prior year’s election. There were a number of key differences, however. For one, Tubbs Jones was clear from the start that she was not trying to overturn the state’s results. “This objection does not have at its roots the hope or even the hint of overturning the victory of the president,” she said. She instead wanted to use the delay afforded by the objection to speak out about voter suppression that led to long lines in traditionally Democratic precincts. Whether that was an appropriate thing to do or not, it wasn’t an effort to overturn the election, nor was it endorsed by the losing candidate, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).
The people pointing to 2005 to justify the anti-democratic actions happening in 2021 know this isn’t an apt comparison, just as they know that the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer are not analogous to the Trump-directed siege of the Capitol of last week. Those engaging in the indefensible know that their best shot to emerge with their reputations intact is to point and blame the other side for doing it first.
If members of Congress and conservative commentators truly want unity, why haven’t they apologized for trafficking in conspiracy theories? Why haven’t they acknowledged that what they told their audiences and constituents was false? Why are some of them continuing to push the same narrative that inspired a violent attack? The answer is simple: They think they can get away with it. Thanks to the power and insularity of the pro-Trump media bubble, they may be right.
These calls for unification are little more than a play for a rhetorical high ground.
Urging unity now is less about a legitimate desire to bring the country together or even to agree to work together in pursuit of common goals in Congress than it is an attempt to try to catch Democrats in a “gotcha” scenario. In this case, urging unity is playing on President-elect Joe Biden’s post-election call for the same. This smacks of a sarcastic, Oh, I thought you WANTED unity? Now you don’t? type of tone that comes with any of their many false equivalence-based defenses. But as you can see, when Biden called for unity after the election, he was met with a firm answer from the right: no.
For democrats calling for unity you may want to actually stop counting illegal votes in NV first.
We are not suckers anymore. We caught you red handed
— Matt Schlapp (@mschlapp) November 9, 2020
Let me get this straight.
Democrats want us to forget what they did to:
-The President and his family
— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) November 8, 2020
Resist. Overturn. Boycott. Surveil. Leak. Impeach. And now they tell us it’s time to heal. Where were they for the last four years?
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) November 8, 2020
In 2016, Republicans and right-wing media defended the decision to block President Barack Obama from filling a vacant Supreme Court seat by citing “the Biden rule.” Then, when a new vacancy opened up just weeks ahead of the 2020 election, those same conservatives ignored the actual precedent they created four years earlier and instead pointed to the Democrats’ 2016 insistence that presidents should fill vacancies in election years. The entire ordeal, just like the attempt to deflect questions about challenges to the election by pointing to 2005 or citing the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer to defend the attack on the Capitol, is all part of a dishonest game.
So long as people on the right can frame themselves as victims, which we are now seeing with the furious shift to focusing on other topics like supposed social media censorship and “cancel culture,” that’s what they will do. If they can do this convincingly and get social media companies and donors that have distanced themselves to reverse course, they will have proved that there is no limit to their depravity. Even before the attack, there was a clear case to be made for making the attempt to undermine the electoral process a permanent part of how we remember Trump’s enablers.
What happened on January 6, just a week ago, was abhorrent. If the people who inspired it want to stop future such attacks, then they have an obligation to tell their audiences the truth.