Five Americans lost their lives in the riot at the U.S. Capitol. What makes that tragedy even worse is that it was so unnecessary. We didn’t arrive at this volatile moment, when loud voices on both sides show contempt for each other, because of the failings of a single political party.
We are here because members of both parties, aided by their respective media cheerleaders and other attack dogs, have rewarded rhetorical bomb-throwers and cultivated distrust at the expense of what we once called “good government.” Neither party should be proud of its own poor judgment (to be polite) during the past four years. The problem is that too many “leaders” believe the ends justify the means.
The Jan. 6 tragedy – like the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting – is a reminder that this careless rhetoric, always escalating the stakes, isn’t merely a game.
In a truly Nixonian maneuver, officials within the Obama administration secretly worked with Hillary Clinton campaign operatives to use the FBI to undermine the Trump campaign and his presidency. Then-Vice President Joe Biden was complicit in these activities, just days before he left office.
Democrats immediately sought to overturn the 2016 election, introducing articles of impeachment against President Trump on the very day he was inaugurated. When Democrats won a congressional majority in 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed there would be no impeachment without bipartisan support, but she eventually bowed to the vengeful wing of her party. The articles of impeachment did not cite a single violation of law, only the arrogance and extremely poor judgment that accompanied Trump’s tenure.
No prominent Democrats publicly pushed back against these outrageous tactics. Instead, they were applauded. Democrats quickly realized that Trump would poke them in the eye at every opportunity, so there was no political upside – but plenty of downside – to pursuing a tactful approach to the President.
Republicans learned a similar lesson. Publicly criticizing Trump usually produced virulent blowback from the president and his supporters, so the politically expedient path was to work with Trump on areas of agreement and hold your tongue otherwise.
Republicans and Democrats concluded it was better to fight with your opponents than with your allies.
This led to an incendiary environment after the 2020 election. Republicans expected Trump would eventually face the reality that he lost a legitimate election. Those in the administration, like Attorney General Bill Barr, who presented the facts were fired or left in frustration. (Shouting “election fraud” is nothing new for Trump, who in 2016 claimed he actually won the popular vote over Hillary Clinton and earlier accused Ted Cruz of “stealing” the Iowa caucus.)
When Sen. Mitch McConnell acknowledged Biden’s victory, Trump exploded. He did the same when Sen. Tom Cotton, a decorated veteran and one of Trump’s strongest supporters, explained that he would adhere to the Constitution rather than exploit the Electoral College certification for political gain.
The same fate awaited Trump’s most loyal ally, Vice President Mike Pence who has seen the same facts as the President and knew he could not violate his oath by claiming the power to overrule the votes certified by 50 states.
These Republicans had much to lose politically, but they did what they knew the facts and the law required, unlike Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and more than 100 GOP Representatives who perpetuated the myth of a stolen election.
Trump’s most ardent supporters take his reckless statements as divine truth. When they were told to march on the Capitol, they did. That some resorted to violence was entirely predictable. Tragically, five Americans died due to Trump’s inability to accept the facts.
Sadly, some Democrats can’t leave tragedy alone. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even several members of the Colorado legislature called for the resignation of certain Republicans. This is rank opportunism and further escalation at a moment when Americans need time for reflection.
America needs more level heads and fewer opportunists among our leaders. If our political parties can’t provide that, they are inviting their own demise. Our elected officials should start by vowing not to throw stones at each other. If you can’t make a point without attacking someone who disagrees, then you should reconsider your argument.
That’s good advice for all Americans.
Mark Hillman served as Colorado Senate majority leader and state treasurer.