It’s reasonable to debate which ideas fall outside the spectrum of acceptable public opinion: Attitudes change, sometimes very quickly, and these boundaries are constantly being renegotiated. But we should all agree that there are some views and behavior that must be met with social, professional and moral sanction. Or, to borrow Hawley’s own words: “It’s community that helps us find moral purpose.”
Inciting, enabling or participating in an attempted insurrection aimed at overturning the results of a free and fair election should fall into that category. Everyone else who played a role in Wednesday’s disgraceful spectacle deserves far more than the annoyance of losing a prestigious publisher and being forced to hunt for a down-market conservative alternative.
The only redeeming feature of the riot incited by Trump was that it produced a rare moment of near unity. Almost everyone in public life acknowledged that an unprecedented attack on American democracy had taken place.
But if an event truly is uniquely horrible, and if it should not be repeated, the only response to such an occasion can’t be to say so and move on. The people who participated in that event on every level have to be held responsible. Our collective horror at their actions has to be made clear, over and over again, for as long as it takes a norm that has been broken to be restored.
The law has an obvious role to play here: The people who killed Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, planted pipe bombs at the headquarters of the Democratic and Republican national committees and rampaged through the Capitol must be identified, arrested and prosecuted.
But the law has limits: Encouraging the fantasy that the election could be overturned is not illegal, just disgusting. We shouldn’t forfeit the moral tools we have to express that disgust.
If the prospect of canceling a book on an unrelated subject in response to the attack on the Capitol raises First Amendment-adjacent concerns for you, recent days offer some creative suggestions for how to reestablish the moral guardrails that were plowed down during the Trump era.
Randall Lane, the editor of Forbes magazine, has announced that if private companies hire Trump press officials who lied to the public, “Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie.” Publishers can certainly hold authors who peddled lies about the 2020 election to a more rigorous fact-checking standard than currently is the norm.
CNN’s Brian Stelter suggested that some Trump officials were searching unsuccessfully for agents to represent them as they try to sell book and film projects. It’s possible to believe in someone’s right to speak without helping them to make money doing so. And certainly, high-profile institutions can opt to not offer paid speaking opportunities, board seats or prestigious appointments to people who have demonstrated themselves self-interested to the point of recklessness or worse.
Voters and professional associations have a role to play, too.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall heads the Republican Attorneys General Association’s nonprofit Rule of Law Defense Fund, which participated in organizing Wednesday’s gathering, including through robocalls saying that “we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal.” He should be voted out of office. Some lawyers are pressing for ethics investigations and possible disbarments of lawyers who participated in efforts to get the courts to reverse the outcome of the election.
Saying that consequences should follow actions doesn’t preclude the possibility of redemption. Former White House special counsel Charles Colson pleaded guilty to conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglary that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon. Colson then went on to found Prison Fellowship, which provides Christian counsel and support to inmates and their families and advocates for criminal justice reform. And efforts to restore public morality should avoid overreach that turns into harassment of perpetrators’ families.
But with those caveats in place: Five people are dead because of the mendacity Josh Hawley legitimized, and he’s the victim? He, and everyone else who made Wednesday possible, should be beside themselves with shame. The rest of us should help them feel it, for as long as it takes.