America Has Seen Political Violence Before. Here's Why the MAGA Attack Is More Dangerous.
On Wednesday, like most Americans, I was stunned by the images on my television. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced since September 11, 2001—the nausea induced as the world suddenly turns upside-down. When shocking, destabilizing events like these occur we try to make sense of them by looking for analogous events from the past. During and after the attack, I watched a parade of historians on the news remind us that the Capitol hadn’t been sacked since the War of 1812, and then pivot to reassure nervous viewers that the country has been through worse.
It's a sentiment we've heard repeatedly over the last four years. Comparisons have been made to the political violence of the 1960s and 70s, the labor riots of the Industrial Age, and the 600,000 Americans who died in the Civil War. “If the United States could survive the Civil War,” one said with a calming professorial voice, “we will survive this as well.” Yes, we have overcome eras of political violence before, but such statements, while comforting, fail to acknowledge the unprecedented nature of the crisis now unfolding in our country.
In 1970, the Weather Underground, a Marxist group protesting the U.S.-backed invasion of Laos, detonated a bomb in the Capitol building. The Islamic terrorists who attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, believed the presence of U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia was a blasphemy against their religion's most sacred sites. And even the rebels who sought to destroy the Union during the Civil War were driven by an unholy desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy. All of these violent acts were evil, but they were also motivated by real events. The United States did support the invasion of Laos. The United States did have troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. And the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 did threaten the institution of slavery. None of these facts justified the violence, but no one denies the facts themselves.
The MAGA attack of the Capitol on January 6 that killed five people was different and represents a new kind of political violence in America because it was fueled by complete fiction. There was no widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, and the political and media voices who incited the insurrection know it. And yet, as Tim Alberta wrote—
Make no mistake: Plenty of the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol complex on Wednesday really, truly believed that Trump had been cheated out of four more years; that Vice President Mike Pence had unilateral power to revise the election results; that their takeover of the building could change the course of history. I know this because I know several people who were there, and several more who planned to go. They bear responsibility for their actions, of course. But the point remains: They were conned into coming to D.C. in the first place, not just by Trump with his compulsive lying, but by the legions of Republicans who refused to counter those lies, believing it couldn’t hurt to humor the president and stoke the fires of his base.
This is why comparisons to violence in America's history miss the real challenge our nation now faces. Unlike terrorist attacks in the past, on January 6 thousands of people violently attacked and sought to overthrow the government of the United States because of a lie. That has never happened before on such a massive scale. In 2016, the lie that Democrats were trafficking children in the basement of a pizza restaurant drove an armed man to storm Comet Ping Pong in Washington D.C. Last week, the lie that Democrats were stealing the election drove thousands to storm the Capitol. The escalation is frightening but the two incidents are shockingly similar. Both were political vigilante violence motivated by baseless conspiracy theories, and there is no limit to the damage lies could do in the future.
And consider this—unlike conflicts which have some grounding in reality, grievances unhindered by any truth can be manufactured and spread at dizzying speeds. Tensions between free and slave states festered for decades before the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. And U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia for 10 years before 9/11 happened. But it only took nine weeks for the lie that the election was stolen to provoke a violent insurrection against Congress. As Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots." And he said that before social media.
The leaders responsible for the MAGA attack on the Capitol are also a new kind of enemy. I have no doubt the political and military leaders of the Confederacy sincerely believed in the supremacy of the white race and the righteousness of race-based chattel slavery. In fact, it was their sincerity that made them so evil and so dangerous. By contrast, the political and media voices fueling the #StopTheSteal movement do not believe the 2020 election was rigged, they know Congress cannot change the outcome of the Electoral College, and they do not think their Democratic colleagues are cannibal pedophiles. Despite this, they have coddled QAnon cultists and happily repeated Donald Trump's lies to score political points.
Even after their unhinged rhetoric resulted in domestic terrorists invading the U.S. Capitol, they were at it again. Just hours after the mob was cleared from the building, a congressman on the House floor declared the attack was not perpetrated by pro-Trump activists but by disguised Antifa agents. Despite being debunked by the FBI, the Antifa false flag conspiracy theory is now trending on social media and being legitimized by some news outlets. New threats of violence are also appearing with #HangPence chatter appearing online because the Vice President did not obey Mr. Trump's order to stop the electoral college certification despite having no constitutional power to do so. The leaders of this movement—whether online, in the media, or in Congress—are unlike any previous threat to the country. They're driven by unbridled cynicism rather than sincere belief, incapable of shame, and carry an unlimited arsenal of disinformation.
It also means combating them must look different. How do you disarm a conspiracy theory untethered from reality? How do you defeat a phantom that morphs at the speed of social media? The answer was seen in the most hopeful and inspiring moment from last Wednesday's tragedy. After returning to the Senate chamber, Mitt Romney (R - Utah) addressed his Republican colleagues who led the effort to block the election results with baseless claims of voter fraud. "The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth," he said. "That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership."
If the country is to emerge from this dark season, it won't happen simply because Mr. Trump leaves the White House. It will happen because virtuous leaders find the courage to tell the truth to their own followers. There have been many, many voices combating the lies of Donald Trump since he descended his golden escalator five years ago, but most have been easily dismissed by his supporters because the truth was coming from those outside the GOP/Conservative/MAGA community. Of course, telling the truth from inside MAGA world doesn't guarantee success either, as a growing number of former Trump administration officials—now including the Vice President himself—have discovered.
This is why, if our country is to stop the spread of conspiracy-fueled violence, courageous truth-telling must go beyond political leaders and journalists. It must come from the church. Others have written about evangelicalism's complicity in Wednesday's attack, including evangelicals like David French, Ed Stetzer, and Michael Gerson. White evangelicals are the Americans most likely to support Donald Trump and among the most susceptible to conspiracy theories. And while some evangelical leaders have been parroting MAGA world's favorite distortions, the vast majority of pastors have not. Most have no desire to risk a church schism by talking about social or political happenings, and they certainly don't want to make their already daunting work even more stressful by tackling political controversies.
Having been a pastor, I understand the instinct to avoid contentious issues. That's why I'm so grateful for those church leaders who’ve refused to remain silent in recent years as forces antithetical to the gospel have tried to capture the hearts and imaginations of their church members. Their courage is real, and if we are to overcome this new threat both to the church and the United States their numbers must grow. The pastoral inclination to maintain peace, avoid conflict, and rise above the controversies of the day is usually admirable, but when the primary risk to our society is an avalanche of lies directed at church members, the silence of pastors is no longer acceptable.
As the evangelical sheep are being led astray by bad shepherds and their lies, the good shepherds cannot remain silent. The sheep need to hear courageous, truth-tellers from within their own faith communities. They need pastors who are willing to sacrifice congregational tranquility, and sometimes their own jobs, in order to rescue their flocks from the wolves surrounding them in the media or be willing to go down trying. Please don't assume I'm asking pastors to become partisans. I am not. I'm simply asking for pastors to remembering their calling. They are to lead us from false idols to the true God. They are to lead us from the father of lies to our Father in heaven. They are to lead us from darkness into the light.
The threat against our republic is different than any we've faced before. Unlike the Nazis or Islamic terrorists, the threat is not driven by foreign fanatics. And unlike the Civil War or the Cold War, today's danger is not led by those with evil, but sincerely held beliefs. We are witnessing a new kind of danger utterly detached from reality, fueled by cynicism, and capable of inciting terrible violence at a stunning speed. Because this fight is between truth and lies, America's pastors and Christian leaders have a vital part to play—one we dare not neglect because what we witnessed on January 6 wasn't just an attack on America's democracy. It was an attack on America's sanity.