After President Joe Biden commemorated the first anniversary of January 6, Republicans answered: How dare you. Their objection was not to the idea that the insurrectionist riot was a terrible event, because obviously it was. Rather, they said it was politically inflammatory of Biden to say so out loud.
“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy,” Biden said in a speech delivered in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. That’s just true. The crowd’s goal was to prevent Vice President Mike Pence from fulfilling his constitutional obligation to count electoral ballots that designated Biden the winner of the 2020 election.
That crowd had been egged on only minutes before by President Donald Trump, who urged Pence publicly not to count the ballots. In his speech, Biden identified the responsible party as “the former president” (an excess of comity barred him from saying “Trump”) because Trump was the responsible party; 10 House Republicans acknowledged it by voting to impeach him. “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats,” Trump told the crowd that day. “We will stop the steal.… We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Yes, Trump urged the crowd to protest “peacefully.” But Biden noted that when they reacted violently instead, Trump sat “in the private dining room of the Oval Office in the White House watching it all on television and doing nothing for hours.”
Please raise your hand if you can find a single untruthful sentence in the foregoing two paragraphs.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina replied in a tweetstorm that, yes, January 6 was a terrible event, though mostly because “it would have been so easy for terrorists to bootstrap onto this protest.” That this mainly Anglo-Saxon mob, which injured more than 140 police and killed at least one, could itself be classified as terrorist doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. Still, “I have consistently condemned the attack,” Graham wrote. But he objected strongly to the fact that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who also spoke in Statuary Hall, condemned it, too. “The Biden administration seems to be incapable of dealing with the challenges America faces,” Graham wrote, “and their efforts to politicize January 6 will fall flat.”
Politicize? When you condemn a violent attempt instigated by an American president to overthrow an election, how exactly do you not bring politics into it?
But let’s not waste any more time pulling apart the logic of Graham’s response. It’s too easy. I’m more interested in its rhetorical form, which has become a familiar construct in Republican discourse. Its gist is: I may be free to acknowledge that my side committed a wrong, but for the other side to acknowledge it is more deplorable than the original wrong. We encounter this frequently when conservatives condemn liberals for pointing out instances of racism. To call some person or thing racist, goes the implied logic, is worse than actually being or doing something racist.
I consulted a few rhetoric scholars, and they fumbled around a bit to find the right term for this style of argument.
Rob Goodman, an assistant professor of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto, is the author of Words on Fire: Eloquence and Its Conditions, which traces political rhetoric back to classical antiquity. He was also formerly a speechwriter for U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senator Chris Dodd. “I don’t know if there’s a specific term for that kind of device,” Goodman told me when I phoned him. “Efforts to classify are always going to be playing catch-up.”
But perhaps, Goodman said, we might borrow from metaphysics the term “nominalism,” which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as a rejection of abstract objects or a rejection of universals in defiance of Plato. You say this is a tennis shoe? There is no such thing as a tennis shoe, merely a variety of objects that conform to some falsely accepted notion that is “tennis shoe.” And by extension: You say January 6 was an insurrection? There are no insurrections, merely protests that conform to some falsely accepted notion that is “insurrection.”
But that’s not quite right, because conservatives like Graham do accept, at least in the abstract, that there is such a thing as an insurrection. They just think it’s wrong to point to one and say, “Hey, look at that insurrection!” January 6 “was not an insurrection,” a January 5 editorial in The Wall Street Journal insists. How dare you call it one!
Goodman phoned back to revise and extend his remarks. The Republican objection to Democrats discussing the Capitol insurrection, he suggested, was based on the “spurious argument” that “you really should have talked around it in the interest of decorum.” Goodman’s analysis brought to mind Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth but tell it slant / Success in Circuit lies.” Except in Dickinson’s poem, the ultimate purpose is to convey the truth successfully, not to minimize or ignore it. Dickinson advises to “dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—” whereas Graham’s purpose is to dazzle not at all and keep every man as blind as possible.
Kathy Hannah Eden, a classics professor at Columbia, informed me by email that the Romans “spoke of aptus as opposed to what is ineptus.” Ineptus you can probably figure out even if you never took Latin. Aptus means suitable, appropriate—more literally, fastened or fitted. In the United Kingdom, there’s a line of sportswear called Aptus. In this construct, Eden said, “members of the GOP mistakenly accuse the Democrats of a kind of ‘ineptitude.’” To speak of the January 6 insurrection, then, is like wearing a too-tight dinner jacket to a charity ball. But that’s not quite right, either, because it doesn’t capture the moral outrage Republicans feel, or at least put on display, which is disproportionate to observing somebody in ill-fitting evening wear.
The closest approximation that occurs to me is “waving the bloody shirt.” You’re never supposed to wave a bloody shirt. It’s demagogic! But really, what’s so awful about waving a shirt when the shirt is really and truly bloody? In his 2008 book, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, Stephen Budiansky explains the taboo’s provenance. It is not a tale of moral uplift.
In 1871, 120 heavily armed Klansmen in Mississippi terrorized a Yankee named Allen P. Huggins for trying, as superintendent of schools, to educate some Black children. Leave town within 10 days or we’ll kill you, they said. Huggins said no, so they beat him bloody with a stirrup. They struck him 25 times, and he said no, he would not leave. They struck him 25 times more, and he said no. They struck him 25 times more, and by now he was “senseless, more dead than alive.” When Huggins came to, they pointed their guns at him and said if they ever saw him again, they’d kill him. Huggins testified about the incident the following year before Congress.
At this point the truth becomes difficult to separate from legend, but the story goes that a U.S. Army lieutenant got his hands on the shirt Huggins wore that night—which, as you can imagine, would have been more than a little bloody—and delivered it in Washington to Republican Representative Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts. Butler then, legend has it, waved Huggins’s bloody shirt on the floor of the House while telling Huggins’s story and, more broadly, denouncing the Klan’s viciously racist and violent campaign of terror.
The phrase “waving the bloody shirt” became, Budiansky writes,
the standard expression of dismissive Southern contempt whenever a Northern politician mentioned any of the thousands upon thousands of murders, whippings, mutilations, and rapes that were perpetrated against freedmen and women and white Republicans in the South in those years.… It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had.
To the Southern mind during Reconstruction, to bloody a shirt was perhaps bad, but to wave that bloodied shirt was beneath contempt. A century and one-half later, the South and the North have switched parties. But the South, in the person of Graham, still takes exception to waving a bloody shirt, along with the rest of the Republican Party—not because it’s demagogic, but because it reveals the Republicans’ profound and still-unaddressed culpability.