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EDITORIAL: 'Political event'? Really, sheriff?

The Dispatch Editorial Board
A pro-Trump mob gathers in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images/TNS)

The 2020 presidential election must not become American's next Lost Cause myth or it will fester and erode democracy for years to come. 

But some local officials are already bending to political expediency and, in effect, doing their best to whitewash Donald Trump's failed coup. It's an effort that too closely resembles the creation of the country's most damaging mythos.

For decades, there have been two narratives about the Civil War:

One, backed by historical fact, rightly says southern states attempted to abandon the U.S. so slavery could persist. The other is ahistorical drivel — ignoring the words of even the secessionists themselves — arguing that the plucky southerners were merely defending states' rights and responding to an aggressive north.

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To this day, the prominence of the myth of the Lost Cause, which gave rise to another 90 years of racial oppression and abuse, haunts the United States through a disproportionate criminal justice system and persistent multi-generational poverty.

The Lost Cause was born out Reconstruction's failure — a rollback of federal actions immediately following the South's surrender meant to empower Blacks Americans. It's continued existence the result of weakness among the ruling class and rhetoric still espoused by politicians, filmmakers and musicians alike. 

Reconstruction, its opponents argued 130 years ago, undermined unity and healing. 

Sounds familiar. 

And the historical rewrite is now happening throughout conservative circles, including right here in York County. 

Take Sheriff Richard Keuerleber's characterization of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It was, in very real terms, a failed coup, one ordered by the President Donald Trump. It followed weeks of misinformation, innuendo and lies about an election Trump and his acolytes refused to admit losing. 

For more than a week, Keuerleber refused to respond to questions about any investigations into whether his officers had attended Trump's rally, clearly protected speech, or participated in the storming of Capitol Hill. Finally, on Tuesday, York County's sheriff issued a terse statement in which he said he was not aware of any involvement among his officers in the rally or insurrection.

But it was Keuerleber's description of the attack on the seat of American democracy that should raise an eyebrow. He didn't call it an attack. He didn't call it an insurrection. 

In perhaps the mother of all understatements, Keuerleber, an elected official, called it a "political event."

York County's sheriff is not alone in his whitewashing. Republicans throughout the country, especially in Pennsylvania, are contorting logic itself to recast Trump's coup.

For many, it's an effort to self-exonerate. Too many state and federal lawmakers, including most representing York County, fed Trump's legions of conspiracy theorists, thereby contributing to the Capitol attack.

Senator Kristen Phillips-Hill, left, and York County Sheriff Rich Keuerleber chat while waiting for the general election results, Tuesday, November 5, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Local Republican officials have no desire to anger Trump's followers, a cult of personality that's consumed large swaths of the GOP. And, frankly, speaking truth to power would be seen as a slight to the very state and federal lawmakers who spun Trump's lies.

So now, the United States has a new president, and those who earlier this month attempted to install a dictator are calling for "unity," griping about their own supposed persecution and working to whitewash the most significant assault on the American republic in generations.

And local officials with appetite for poking a stick in the eye of their cash cows and party brethren are adopting the very language that make those efforts possible.