Hawley, Trump, and the Question of Responsibility

Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) speaks during the second day of the Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, October 13, 2020. (Samuel Corum/ Pool via Reuters)

Late Wednesday night, Manu Raju of CNN reported that he had tried to get Senator Josh Hawley to concede that President Trump bore some responsibility for yesterday’s breach of the Capitol. Hawley said that he didn’t think Trump should have urged “people to come to the Capitol,” but added, “The responsibility of violent criminal acts is with violent criminals.”

Arguments about responsibility often reach this point: We assume there is a fixed amount of it for any evil or misfortune, and attributing more of it to one person or decision means there is less left over for someone else. If we hold Al Sharpton accountable for inciting the murderous attack on Freddy’s Fashion Mart, to this way of thinking, we are absolving the actual shooter/arsonist of his full measure of blame.

It’s bad math. Adults of sound mind are wholly responsible for their decisions, yes. Criminals are morally as well as legally responsible for their crimes. But those who encourage them may also be culpable (morally and, less often, legally) for their encouragement, without detracting from anyone else’s responsibility. Among the questions relevant to determining the degree of culpability in such cases are: How overt was the encouragement? How reckless? How much of it was based on truth? If there was falsehood, was it intentional, negligent, or neither?

President Trump’s grotesque campaign of lies and conspiracy theories about the election, and about the possibility of blocking the certification of the results, a campaign that continued when he spoke on the very morning of the outrage to many of the people who would go on to commit it, gives him a high degree of culpability. What he has said and done has been dishonest, injurious to the national interest, and sometimes just plain nuts. That would have been true even if there had been no breach on Wednesday. But yes, he has some responsibility for that too.

Whether Hawley himself does is a slightly more complicated question, which I’ll discuss in another post.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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