Reporters who for months used sanitized language to normalize Donald Trump’s attempt to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States finally overcame their scruples Wednesday, enthusiastically hurling hyperbolic epithets at the ragtag mob of yahoos who flukishly breached the Capitol and stomped around screaming and taking selfies for a few hours.
The drama of what happened Wednesday was undeniable. It was terrifying. It was an outrage of epic proportions, a shameful moment for the country, and a scandal of law-enforcement failure and complicity. And Trump obviously sent the mob on its way.
But I find it pathetic that it wasn’t until they had the visuals they needed that the elite journalists of the Washington press corps could bring themselves to call what Trump has been doing since before the election by its proper name: An attempted coup.
It wasn’t until they could point to a guy with face paint and bison horns and a bunch of spittle-flecked bros waving flags that they could bring themselves to say something they were unable to say of people in power.
And the irony is that, in contrast to actions Trump and his enablers have taken that were actually intended to keep him in office against the will of the people, the storming of the Capitol did not rise to that level.
You could certainly call it a violent insurrection or domestic terrorism. But there was no genuine attempt to take control. Few if any were armed. They certainly weren’t organized. They came, they were (surprisingly) let in, they smashed, they vandalized, they terrorized, they had their white-nationalist temper-tantrum, but they didn’t actually try to seize power. They wandered around and after a while let themselves get politely shooed out.
You certainly can’t say the media underreacted to this story. “TRUMP INCITES MOB” screamed the morning New York Times. Trump’s rage ignites mob assault on democracy said the AP headline.
Washington Post reporters, who up until Tuesday had only used the word “coup” in a story about what critics were saying, led the Thursday morning paper calling the mob’s storming of the Capitol “an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost.”
But it’s Trump and his enablers who have been actively trying to overturn the election. The real coup attempt on Wednesday was by a handful of senators and a few dozen members of Congress, who tried to destroy the democratic process. The mob was just being a mob.
Now, none of this should be seen as excusing the mob’s criminal conduct.
And, even though it’s so late, I welcome the change in tone to more non-euphemistic political coverage.
But its sudden emergence under these circumstances makes me worry that it will not stick.
New Yorker staff writer Adam Davidson posted a wonderful Twitter thread to that effect Thursday morning:
Yesterday's crisis was created by Trump and his followers.
And yesterday showed that many journalists are willing to state that some actions by an elected leader are unacceptable.
But they will return to institutional cowardice.
— Adam Davidson (@adamdavidson) January 7, 2021
And as NPR public editor Kelly McBride noted, Wednesday’s spectacle shouldn’t eclipse its context:
It’s important to remember where this week started: With the predident’s phone call to Georgia. I’m never one for alarmism, but for all the fantastic coverage and analysis, I think journalists everywhere underplayed that story. https://t.co/yb9Q75LVzr
— kellymcb (@kellymcb) January 7, 2021
David Halperin, writing for the anti-corruption Republic Report, captured that context particularly well:
For six years, Donald Trump has fed his supporters a fatty diet of grievances, lies, and exhortations to violence. It was only a matter of time before that incitement produced a major upheaval, and it happened today — a violent and deadly, if aimless, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump-supporting thugs, after Trump, standing on the Ellipse, had called on them to “walk down to the Capitol” and “fight much harder,” and told them “you’ll never take back our country with weakness,” and just as members of Congress were beginning to hear baseless challenges by some GOP members to the collective, decisive judgment of the states that Joe Biden defeated Trump in the presidential election.
I also liked the way Eli Stokols and Janet Hook framed the event in the Los Angeles Times, “as a breathtaking demonstration of what Trump has wrought — a mob as heedless of law and norms as he has been, willing to literally trash the fundamental institutions of American democracy.”
The violent storming of the Capitol will forever be etched in our memory, and for good reason. But it needs to be remembered as merely one manifestation of a dangerous movement to shatter our democracy, not as its culmination, or its end.
But note how the value-neutral term “Trump supporters” is still used by everyone.