The January 6 Capitol riot—depicted increasingly on the right as a peaceful tourist visit, an FBI plot or an Antifa agitation effort—is the latest incarnation of comedian Richard Pryor's story (as he channeled Chico Marx) about what he said after his wife caught him in bed with another woman. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
We all saw what happened on the TV news and in livestreaming videos from participants and bystanders. We can read the transcript of the former president's stem-winding speech to his supporters before many of them marched on the Capitol, where he whipped up the crowd by touting absurd conspiracy theories about a stolen election.
The numbskulls who stormed the Capitol, some of whom are facing modest prison sentences for their role in the clownish putsch, didn't show up by happenstance. "All of them—all of them were telling us, 'Trump sent us,'" according to recent testimony at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing by a U.S. Capitol police officer who fought back the insurgents.
Not every participant in the day's sordid events engaged in violence or vandalism, of course, and whatever punishments the courts mete out should fit the particular crime. But this was no tourist visit gone awry. Not every person who joined in left-wing attacks in Portland committed crimes, either, but I don't suppose Trump supporters would cut those folks slack.
The Trumpsters' silliest argument is that Antifa, the fascistic "anti-fascists" who turned portions of U.S. cities into rubble, were behind the Capitol event. Conservatives touted that narrative immediately after January 6. Apparently, that loose-knit movement runs so meticulously that it recruited thousands of volunteers who acted exactly like Trump supporters.
Why believe your own eyes? Sure, a few lefties might have infiltrated the pro-Trump mob. That doesn't make it an Antifa riot. The Portland scene wasn't a right-wing event because a few right-wing infiltrators may have joined in the action. I've attended many protests and guarantee that they attract all sorts of nut jobs. It's not hard for anyone to gain admission.
Despite GOP efforts to rewrite history, my eyes confirm the conclusion drawn by conservative writer David Frum: "The January 6 attack was incited by the head of the American government, the man who had sworn to protect and defend that government. It was the thing most feared by the authors of the U.S. Constitution: a betrayal of the highest office by the holder of that office."
Here's the problem. It portends dangers for the future if so many conservatives refuse to cop to the obvious truths of that day. If we can't all agree on basic, obvious facts about an event that unfolded before our eyes, then we're headed toward a well-trod path of internecine struggles where we just pick a side and fight to the bitter end.
In such situations, there's no room for common ground. For instance, Trump supporters have suddenly expressed concern about jail conditions and police shootings. A January 6 detainee "corroborates accounts from other detainees, including reports of abuse by prison guards, inedible food, and zero access to the outdoors, religious services, or physical activity," according to American Greatness.
As someone who has championed criminal-justice reform, I gladly welcome converts to the cause—except that it's hard to believe that the conservative law-and-order crowd really cares about this issue in any substantive way. It's more likely that they're concerned about it simply because people they sympathize with are suffering the indignities.
My problem isn't with Trump and Republican policies per se, although I'm dismayed by the conservative movement's populist rejection of free markets, free trade, budget restraint and limited government. Nevertheless, the former president's judicial picks, tax policies and regulatory rollbacks resonate with me far more than Democratic priorities.
My problem is with the political right's movement toward, well, authoritarianism, exemplified by its refusal to embrace facts that don't conform to their alternative reality—and their unwavering support for a man rather than a set of ideas. It's ironic that the man they've chosen to follow seems to embody moral characteristics they've long railed against, but go figure.
Even GOP leaders who know better and occasionally speak out against Trump's disinformation—House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.)—always end up toeing the party line. They dare not defy Trump or his base voters.
Before you pen that letter to the editor decrying my use of the A-word, consider the following. Prominent Trump supporters have actively been toying with the idea of an American Caesar. Others have been oddly sympathetic toward foreign strongmen.
Fox News TV host Tucker Carlson recently broadcast from Hungary, where he met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which reminded me of leftists who swooned over Fidel Castro. But don't believe what you see. Just believe what you choose.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.