False equivalency is more than just a “spin,” it is more than just a tactic that masks the fact that you are losing a debate; it is the purposeful weaponization of the natural human propensity for blurry memories. It exploits the relative ease with which an illusion of truth can settle over repeated statements by those in power, even when false.
Innate within the human mind is the tendency to compare. This basic tenet of psychology consistently informs decision-making, inner thought, and social behavior across all humankind, regardless of politics, country, or continent.
Whether we like it or not, we have both performed and been on the receiving end of comparisons all our lives: academic rankings, sporting events, skills competitions, voting, dating, and more — the list goes on. Most of our routine comparisons are benign, at least to a peaceful extent. That is, unless your name is Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), or one of the other 195 GOP representatives who voted against impeachment in the House on January 13th, 2021.
Impeachment is a Constitutional mechanism for accountability: the solemn solidification of checks and balances when oaths are violated and things go wrong. And wrong things went on January 6th, 2021. America was mutilated on that day, a deep wound wreaked by a mob of domestic terrorists, white supremacists, and seditious sycophants assembled, ignited, and launched on the U.S. Capitol by none other than President Donald J. Trump, who — after a single term reeking of chaos, bigotry, and destruction — will undoubtedly go down in history as the worst to ever occupy the office. These wounds remain unbandaged, a deep, exposed gash in the core of our democracy that necessitates a just response worthy of our nation.
But Trump is not the focus of this piece, and he should not be. His most loyal right-hand Congressmen and Congresswomen who voted against his second impeachment are the focus. On the House floor, not a single Republican speaker — not McCarthy, Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Lee Zeldin (R-NY), or any other GOP representative — could deny the violence that occurred. But instead of meeting the moment, the 197 “no” voters did something more dangerous. With a keen eye towards the President’s most loyal, angry base, these representatives opted for their most predictable yet destructive debate strategy: false equivalencies between the attempted coup and other, completely dissimilar protests in our nation’s history, aimed at excusing the President’s actions and delegitimizing the Articles of Impeachment.
The most notable and disgraceful GOP false equivalency leveled during the impeachment proceedings compared the riots to the 93%-peaceful Black Lives Matter movement. It has been a popular target for GOP members who fear the power of a united, righteous movement against injustice and systemic racism, against the Republican-employed “politics as usual,” giving tax breaks to the wealthy and denying systemic injustice while turning a blind eye towards the needs of working Americans, particularly those in predominantly Black communities and other communities of color. I implore all Americans to wake up and especially condemn these false equivalencies; for Black Americans and the majority of Americans who stand with them in solidarity, the Black Lives Matter movement is built on a lived reality: the fact that a 400-year system of oppression, discrimination, and inequity needs to be reckoned with, acknowledged, and dismantled. Concrete evidence of the police and/or armed vigilante murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Jr., Freddie Gray, and other Black Americans is, sadly, only the most recent proof of that reality.
What makes that false equivalency even more disgraceful, even more damning, is that the riot at the U.S. Capitol was not motivated by anything even remotely resembling reality; instead, it was fueled by a President and a Republican Congress that revels in fiction, basks in lies, and dreams of unbridled power. A universe away from any righteous act, these insurrectionists stormed the building to “stop the steal” that, in the opinion of 60 Federal and state courts as well as the conservative Supreme Court, never was a steal. There is zero proof: no evidence of any “steal” exists or ever will exist — no matter how many times Rudy Giuliani rants amidst the backdrop of Four Seasons Total Landscaping. To suggest that there is even an inkling of equivalence between the Black Lives Matter protests and the riots last week is not just woefully false, it is an utter disgrace — a crystallization of the GOP’s disdain for taking systemic racism seriously. But, sadly, it is only the latest in a consistent string of Republican deflection dating back a generation.
The weaponization of comparisons into false equivalencies is the gravest, most malignant danger in comparative debate. Just as the ability to weigh similarities and differences is a built-in trick of the human mind, so too is the ability to forget. Political science, international relations, economics, and psychological theory all inform us of the fact that we simply have a limited bandwidth: a limited ability to comprehend every fact and recall every memory within the public’s sphere of ideas and knowledge. False equivalency is more than just a “spin,” it is more than just a tactic that masks the fact that you are losing a debate; it is the purposeful weaponization of the natural human propensity for blurry memories. It exploits the relative ease with which an illusion of truth can settle over repeated statements by those in power, even when false.
When GOP representatives continuously make false equivalencies, each have the potential to become a fake truth — at least to the large proportion of Americans who consume endless hours of conservative media. In the endless struggle for Republican power retention, creating false equivalencies is just one of many tools in their massive historical arsenal for winning elections and keeping power, right up there with gerrymandering, disenfranchisement of felons, purging of voter rolls, the Electoral College, and too many others to list concisely. The manifestations of that strategy are numerous; we have seen GOP allies use it countless times to explain away President Trump’s unprecedented immoral behavior over the last 5 years: his administration’s family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border (“Obama did it…”), his quid pro quo with the Ukraine that led to his first impeachment (“Hunter Biden…”), and his administration’s still-suspicious dealings with Russian agents and ambassadors in 2016 (once again returning to his predecessor; “Obama spied on my campaign…”).
Most recently, it formed the centerpiece of Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) objection to the electoral vote certification on the fateful day of the riot, where he claimed that Democrats had been “cheered” for their objections in the past. This neglects the fact that in no previous case had the opposing party’s candidate failed to concede, respect the election results, and commit to a peaceful transfer of power, not to mention that it stands out as a pretty weak argument upon which to build a case aimed at disenfranchising millions of Americans. But it is not a strategy unique to these times. In response to questions about then-President George W. Bush’s military record during the 2004 campaign, Republicans smeared distinguished Bronze Star Vietnam veteran and then-Democratic nominee John Kerry with an attack on his military service and patriotism. Coming out of the 2004 DNC, Kerry was gaining ground in polling on issues of national security; this concerted effort by some GOP interest groups to viciously attack his service record led to a reversal of those gains, as the illusion of truth began to settle over potential swing voters. These voters were led to believe in the false equivalency between the controversies, a smear campaign that likely cost Kerry his edge in the election.
These false equivalencies are a dire threat to our democracy. But it is not just the assertion that builds the threat; it is the concerted conservative media effort to reverberate false equivalencies throughout their “reporting.” Among the most grotesque examples in recent memory is Tucker Carlson’s August 26th, 2020 response to the murders of innocent citizens in Kenosha, Wis., perpetrated by 17-year-old white supremacist and terrorist Kyle Rittenhouse: a full-throated rationalization of the teenage killer’s actions (“…how shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would…”). By drawing disgraceful comparisons — with no basis in either reality or morality — between property destruction and Rittenhouse’s murders, Carlson relayed to his national Fox News audience what the majority of Trump’s GOP members and base were thinking behind closed doors.
So what can we do to combat false equivalencies? What can we do to heal?
We can start by delivering a universal condemnation to Trump and Trumpism via a resounding conviction in the Senate. As with the 9/11 attacks, when heinous acts of terror are committed against our nation, we must regain our national confidence and begin to heal by systematically dismantling the infrastructure through which those attacks came to fruition — regardless of whether the perpetrators are foreign or domestic. If your state’s Senators are Republicans, call or write them immediately to demand accountability for President Trump’s incitement of insurrection. We know that some of his staunchest Senate enablers — Sen. Hawley, Sen. Cruz, and others — will try to hide behind their false equivalencies and divisive rhetoric. We must not let them. After crimes and violence are committed, healing only comes when justice is delivered.
We must also move to remove those who supported, aided, and abetted the attack on our Capitol from government. Expulsion, impeachment, and conviction should all be on the table for those Federal officials who engaged in such crimes. We should stand behind former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s demand for an investigation into those members of Congress who potentially aided in reconnaissance for right-wing extremists. We should also stand behind New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s COUP Act, which demands an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the woeful lack of law enforcement preparation for the Capitol siege.
And finally, we should all make changes to our own personal behavior. We Americans must live up to the high moral standards we set for ourselves. Donate to on-the-ground organizations, volunteer, and speak truth in the face of lies. Those Republicans who finally stopped making false equivalencies and excuses for the President yesterday must continue to climb the mountain of righteousness. Trump’s enablers, on the other hand, should find some semblance of conscience. Ask yourself: can I continue to lie to my constituents, even if I risk losing political clout with an insurrectionist base? Can I continue to debase my character, even if it means I will not be able to hold fundraisers with right-wing extremists? What about the oath I took to protect this democracy for future generations?
Democracy is like a bicycle. It will only move forward so long as we, its keepers, are willing to work for it — to pedal on, to learn how to balance, and to weather an onslaught of external and internal threats. We are riding in the open; endurance, courage, and willpower are crucial to our success.
When one side throws us down with the display of treason, chaos, and savagery witnessed on January 6th, 2021, balancing seems impossible; a tall, fragile task atop the systemic racism and injustice laid bare for the world to see last summer, an imbalance that already threatens our democracy and the lives of our friends and neighbors every day.
But there is hope for young people like us, for we all have the strength within us to lead our resilient response. It is hope that with dignity, laws, and grace, we can rid our nation of the seditious supremacists, the treasonous thugs who chose a selfish, unwell man over a nation of democracy, honor, and empathy.
The two Senate victories in Georgia on January 5th, 2021 — the triumph of two upstanding candidates over two corrupt politicians — provide some light amidst this darkness; they prove that we Americans, though we may stumble mightily, can and must always find the power, drive, and sovereignty to get back on our bicycle and forge ahead in preserving this nation.