Watching the highly disturbing footage from Washington DC, last night, my mind kept going back to the autumn of 2018.
On October 4th, of that year, the US Senate was engaged in a confirmation hearing for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh had been accused, you’ll recall, of sexually assaulting a high school classmate, as a teenager. At the height of the #metoo movement, many people on the left found the mere existence of the accusation – devoid of any particular evidence – sufficient enough to disqualify him from service on the court. There were mass protests.
And then, on that day, October 4th, anti-Kavanaugh protestors invaded, and occupied, the US Senate’s Hart Office building:
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) October 4, 2018
US Senators were cornered, and shouted at, by protestors. Senators Jeff Flake, and Orrin Hatch, for example, were accosted in an elevator. The US media, and, indeed, the Irish media, did not regard the occupation of parliamentary offices as a coup. Indeed, on MSNBC, over footage of protestors roaming the halls of the US Senate, a reporter described the events as “a large and well organised protest”:
"the protest happening behind me.. is by far the largest,most well organized protest against Kavanaugh I’ve seen yet this week.. after this announcement from Heidi Heitkamp she would vote 'No'..it gave a boost of energy to the opposition @GarrettHaake @NicolleDWallace pic.twitter.com/ZgTRIZ6tMA
— Deadline White House (@DeadlineWH) October 4, 2018
If you watch that video, you’ll note that the reporter seems quite nonchalant about the prospect that the invasion of the US Senate’s office complex might be intimidating for politicians: “Just in terms of the optics of this, if you will, this is all definitely audible to Joe Manchin, or Joe Manchin’s staff, and Lisa Murkowski’s staff, who are also in this building”
Manchin and Murkowski, at the time, were two of the US Senators whose votes could have blocked Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. MSNBC had no qualms about the subtext then: These Senators can hear these angry people, and maybe it will change their votes.
What’s interesting, of course, is that nobody called it an attempted coup.
Last night, there was, of course, an attempted coup. The intent of the Trump protestors, in breaching the US Capitol, was to force the US Congress to change its mind when it came to counting the votes for President, and to use some mechanism (which one is unclear) to win a second term for President Trump. That the attempt never had any chance of succeeding is irrelevant – when it comes to coups, intent is all that matters.
But what’s the difference between these two events, exactly? One of them was covered as a heroic, normal, protest, even though the intent was to invade and intimidate congress into changing its mind on a vote. The other is being covered as an unprecedented attack on democracy, even though the intent was to invade and intimidate congress into changing its mind on a vote. What’s the difference, and what explains the difference in coverage?
The simple answer, whether people like it or not, is that journalists, and other opinion formers, really didn’t like Brett Kavanaugh, and sympathised with the efforts to prevent his confirmation. And those same journalists and opinion formers have considerable antipathy for President Trump, and therefore strongly oppose any effort to prevent Biden’s ratification. Thus, one event is a protest, the other is an attempted coup, or insurrection, as CNN called it last night.
This double standard does nobody any good. It is true that the scenes from Washington last night were disgraceful. It is also indisputably true that President Trump bears almost all of the blame for them: He summoned these people to Washington. He told them explicitly to go to the Capitol. He told them an election was being stolen. Now, a woman, one of his own supporters, lies dead, and his own allies in the US congress are abandoning him in disgust.
But the outrage, to many of us, comes across as both selective, and fake. Throughout the summer, when US Cities burned, the media shied away from talk of insurrections, and coups. Black Lives Matter protestors, who burned cities to the ground, and attacked peoples businesses, were described as protestors. Trump supporters, who smashed some windows in Congress, are described as traitors.
The truth is that when it comes to this kind of thing, people are no longer judged on what they actually do. They’re judged solely on why they did it. Thus, if you burn out a business in Kenosha, Wisconsin, because you are angry at a police shooting, you are a protestor. But if you sit in Nancy Pelosi’s chair for five minutes after occupying congress, because you are angry at an election, you are a domestic terrorist.
Here’s an image that was circulating last night, which sort of sums the whole thing up:
If you occupy the US Senate to stop a right wing Judge, you are a peaceful protestor. If you occupy the US Congress to stop a left wing politician, you are an insurrectionist thug.
None of this makes much sense, and yet, it makes perfect sense. There is, and has been for some time, one set of rules for the political left, and another set of rules for the rest of us. And it’s not just in the United States.
In Ireland, if you breach social distancing to protest lockdown restrictions, you are an irresponsible person who is risking the lives of the elderly. But if you breach social distancing to protest a police shooting, you are a group of angry and passionate young people trying bravely to change the world. Though your actions are identical in both instances, you are judged only on what your political views are.
This, it goes without saying, cannot last. People see the double standard. They see the completely different rules. And they stop listening, or caring, what you say about them.
President Trump bears almost all the blame for what occurred last night. But the US media bears almost all of the blame for creating the environment in which such a thing could occur to begin with. And their pattern of failure, bias, and partisanship is being exported to the rest of the western world, where it will, in time, have precisely the same result.
Note: This article has been slightly edited to note that the Kavanaugh protestors occupied the US Senate’s Hart Office building, rather than the Senate Chamber itself. Hat tip to Mike McShane for spotting the error.