It took just a few hours. Just a few hours between the horrific events at the Capitol last week and when the whitewashing of the day’s events began. The same mindset and ideology that has fought to misinform Americans going back two centuries was already in high gear, using lies, distortion and fake outrage in an attempt to remove the blood on their hands from January 6’s insurrection. We cannot allow them to whitewash history again.
Let’s start with the basic facts: For two months following the November 3 presidential election, President Trump, aided and abetted by several Republican lawmakers, waged a campaign to overturn the outcome of the election he lost. He and his enablers did this based on literally no proof whatsoever of widespread (or even minuscule) election fraud. They simply made it up or piggybacked off the conspiracy theories of others.
Deliberately fueling his followers with false hope that the election results could be overturned, Trump welcomed them to Washington on January 6, addressed them at a rally and directed them to march to the Capitol. From there, chaos, violence and death ensued.
The effort to completely change the facts and narrative around what happened that day began where much of today’s misinformation comes from: the right-wing news media. Not long after the storming of the Capitol, the Washington Times ran a story stating that a facial recognition software company had identified members of the mob as Antifa. In truth, no such thing had occurred (a fact now acknowledged by the Times). But the race to rewrite the facts was off and running.
At 9:41 P.M. Wednesday night, Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks tweeted a link to the story saying, “Evidence mounts that fascist ANTIFA infiltrated Trump rally & stormed Capitol.” The next day, while telling everyone not to “rush to judgement” Brooks noted four pieces of “evidence” for why Antifa incited the riot. The evidence was just a bunch of stories he had heard (if not outright made up).
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, one in a long line of sycophantic Trump cronies, used the Times’s story in remarks on the House floor later that night. Newsmax ran with the ball as well, stating on their news broadcast that night that they were “hearing from some people on the ground that there is a question of, if antifa has infiltrated the Trump rally-goers and are fomenting some kind of unrest.”
In New Jersey, a conservative radio show host, who has made a career out of inflammatory rhetoric and spent the pandemic spreading misinformation, may have taken the cake on whitewashing the day’s events. He boiled the insurrection down to “a few out-of-control protestors who broke glass and entered the Capitol building” (please note, I am not linking to his op-ed because he does not deserve the clicks). For good measure he also blamed the storming of the building on Antifa.
It was all lies. But it branched out from there. Within just 48 hours there was already a concerted effort by those most likely to face consequences from the storming of the Capitol to change the narrative around how and why it happened and lay blame on anyone other than themselves.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz – whose actions over the last two months rival the incendiary tactics of Senators like Joseph McCarthy and John Calhoun – went on television the next day to claim that he disagreed with the president’s rhetoric from the previous day and that, in fact, he had “disagreed with the President’s language and rhetoric for the last four years.” These remarks were absurd. Was this not the same man who in 2018 wrote that “President Trump is a flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington by the forgotten men and women of America”?
Then, those most responsible for the events of January 6 further distorted history by playing the misdirection angle. When Simon & Schuster decided to cancel the publishing of Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s upcoming book because of his leading role in the events that preceded the insurrection, Hawley took to Twitter to spew a ridiculous string of “woe is me” comments about censorship. He called the decision “Orwellian” and “a direct assault on the First Amendment.”
None of that is true, of course. I have had many publishers refuse to publish a book of mine. Never did I consider it a violation of my First Amendment rights (because it isn’t). What’s worse is Hawley knows this is all nonsense. But he needs a straw man to divert attention away from his liability in the storming of the Capitol.
Friday night saw perhaps the culmination of the whitewash attempt when Trump was banned from Twitter and most other social media outlets. Almost immediately, history-ignorant Trumpers – in a move exploding with irony – took to the very forum they were decrying to yell about censorship.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene – maybe the country’s best example of “I cannot believe this person is an elected representative” – tweeted, “Never before in American history has free speech been under attack more than right now by the totalitarian leftist Silicon Valley Cartel and the Democrats in Congress.”
Never before has free speech been more under attack?!?! Putting aside for a minute that these actions were taken by private entities, not the federal government, has the Congresswoman never heard of the Alien and Sedition Acts? Is she unaware of the crackdowns of the Wilson Administration on free speech during World War I? Perhaps the Congresswoman should Google “gag rule and slavery” to learn of a time when the federal government literally forbid even the discussion of anti-slavery legislation. Or perhaps she should just go a step further and Google “American slavery” and learn about how the government provided no rights (including those of the First Amendment) to millions of enslaved and free black men and women in this country. Or Google “Dred Scott and no rights” to learn how Chief Justice Roger Taney once said that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The sheer ignorance mixed with fake outrage is beyond infuriating.
This attempt to whitewash is not new. After the Civil War the Southern States banded together to create a narrative that made the war seem like a noble effort to defeat government intrusion of states’ rights. It wasn’t. It was an armed rebellion for the right to keep slaves, pure and simple. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, those dead set on maintaining Jim Crow talked about “outside agitators” who disrupted the peace that existed between the races. Again, this was utter nonsense.
These present-day attempts are directly connected to the Civil War rebrand and all efforts that have followed since. It is no coincidence that these efforts are almost always led by white elected representatives trying to maintain power (maybe it’s also not a coincidence that it is called whitewashing). It all stems from the same broken ideology, ignorance, lies, need to shirk responsibility and yes, racism. Maybe history repeats itself, but the whitewashing of history most definitely repeats itself in this country.
We cannot allow those whose words, deeds and actions incited a mob and led to an insurrection against our government to just change the conversation and create a false narrative. Antifa? Disagreeing with the president’s language? Free speech under attack? These were all lies that happened within just the first 48 hours after a mob stormed the Capitol AND they happened and festered despite these events happening on live, national television with real time reporting, pictures and updates from the media, Capitol staffers and elected representatives. Imagine what lies will emerge over the comings days, weeks and months.
Push back on false narratives. Call out the right-wing media machine. Tell your uncle his conspiracy theories are nonsense. Do not allow the whitewashing of American history to repeat itself again and again and again. Let’s truly hold accountable those who caused January 6’s events and show that we will not keep allowing oppressors to rewrite history at the expense of the oppressed.
Chris Donnelly is a Principal at the public affairs and consulting firm Kivvit, located in Asbury Park.