September 2, 2022 - 10:00am

Yesterday, within the space of a few hours, the White House pulled off two of the more cynical rhetorical moves of the current administration. 

First, in an afternoon press conference, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre blamed Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans for pandemic-era school closures and for the catastrophic learning loss among minority students. At the same time, she credited the Biden administration and Democrats for the more recent return to in-person schooling. This, of course, is not accurate. Throughout the pandemic, the single most reliable predictor of whether a state returned to in-person schooling was whether it was controlled by the GOP. 

The second came in Biden’s much-anticipated speech last night on the “soul of the nation.” Just a week after asserting that “semi-fascism” was taking hold in sections of the Republican Party, the President issued a dark warning about the extremist threat to democracy posed by “MAGA Republicans” who refuse to respect the results of “free and fair elections”. Fair enough. One can be sceptical of the future conjured by Democrats, but Trump did, in fact, refuse to concede defeat in 2020. Whatever hay Biden makes of that is Trump’s own fault.

What was striking, however, was the President’s attempt to position himself, and his party, as the advocates of law and order. Responding to recent comments by Senator Lindsey Graham predicting “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted, the president warned of:

More and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country. There is no place for political violence in America, period. None. Ever. We saw law enforcement brutally attacked on January 6
. On top of that, there are public figures predicting, and all but calling for, mass violence and rioting in the streets. This is inflammatory. It’s dangerous. It’s against the rule of law. And we the people must say, ‘This is not who we are’.
- Joe Biden

Biden is right. Political violence is not acceptable, law enforcement should not be attacked, and public figures should not encourage rioting in the streets. The problem is that throughout the long “summer of love” of 2020, it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who openly cheered while American cities burned, all but directly inciting deadly race riots in the belief that the ensuing chaos, directed at the spectres of “white supremacy” and police racism, would help convince the country to throw the Orange Man out of office. 

Whether those riots count as “political violence” is largely a question of semantics. Unlike the January 6th riot, they were not aimed at a specific goal such as intimidating the vice-president, but they were a form of violence that was tolerated by political authorities for nakedly political reasons. So unanimous was the liberal consensus in favour of the riots that two editors were forced to resign from the New York Times after the paper published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to restore order. 

Needless to say, it would be good for the country if, going forward, politicians were to abjure encouraging violence — tacitly or otherwise. It would also be good to have a real conversation about America’s pandemic-era policy failures, both in education and elsewhere. At the moment, however, the Biden administration is offering a highly partial account that borders on gaslighting. It remains to be seen whether voters will buy it. 

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet