Lincoln was not naive. He understood the deep divides in the still-young United States but implored everyone to step back from the brink of violence. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” he said. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Those moderating forces, which proved impossible to summon in Lincoln’s day, have been largely missing from our country for four years, since the shock of the election of President Trump. Hyperpartisans have waged virtual campaigns against one another, and sometimes the virtual violence turned real. Often the police and other authorities have hung back and allowed looting and lawlessness to go unpunished. At other times, the police themselves have been the targets of attack, some physical and much verbal.
When Trump supporters gathered in D.C. this week to “Stop the Steal,” it is hard to imagine that more than a tiny fraction intended violence. But some surely did, and they chose their moment with fierce intent. Congress had gathered to certify the election of President-elect Joe Biden, a ceremonial process that has in recent cycles on occasion developed a counterpoint ritual of objection and debate.
But the objectors in 2004 or 2016 did not object on behalf of a contender so indifferent to the facts of vote counts, court decisions and public opinion as Trump.
I do not believe the president intended today’s riot. It has done him, and his hopes for a future political comeback, great damage. If he did not foresee what the people in the outer fringes of his support were capable of, he ought to have seen it. As it unfolded, he ought to have been quick to condemn it. And he should have done so without any sort of mention of his own grievances.
The country is shamed. The criminals should be prosecuted. Trespassing at the Capitol and menacing elected representatives are crimes. Examples must be made so it cannot happen again.
Still, we must be friends, not enemies. Every terrorist who has menaced public officials in public places and every thug who threatens a journalist or a peaceful protester is of a piece and that piece is anti-American. Our leaders are supposed to be examples, not provocateurs. They must calm, not inflame.
Networks addicted to cringe-inducing shout-fests between Trump-Derangement-Syndrome-suffering pundits and blind-to-his-faults Trump apologists are culpable too for the atmosphere of mutual contempt.
Nearly all of the nearly 75 million who voted for Trump and all of the 81 million who voted for Biden have more in common than either do with the violent fringe to right or left. But the president and his most hate-filled opponents across the aisle, the media and operatives feast on division. Even today, slandering all Trump supporters as enablers of Wednesday’s mob is as wrong as slandering all protesters of the murder of George Floyd as looters and arsonists.
This disturbing episode will make Trump’s exit from Washington an occasion of general relief. The country will carry on. Before the riot on Wednesday, I had been Megyn Kelly’s guest on her podcast. I said to her then — and would repeat now: We are blessed to be alive in the best country in which to live. That remains true, through the stress of a shameful day and through the sorrows of a pandemic.
Shame on everyone who breached the peace. And shame on those who malign those who did nothing of the sort. If we are to be friends, it has to begin with careful discrimination between the those on the fringe who embrace violence and the 99 percent of Americans who reject it.