Photo: Getty

“Democracy dies in darkness.” So says The Washington Post.

That tagline, which graces the front page of the newspaper under the Trump administration, can now be followed by: But honestly, things aren’t actually as bad as people are saying, so everyone should just chill, OK?

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That’s one message in an editorial they published today, advertised with this tweet:

You might understandably assume this column must have been written by one of the Post’s (very large) stable of conservative columnists, like Jennifer Rubin, George Will, Marc Thiessen, Kathleen Parker, or Hugh Hewitt. Or perhaps it’s by Richard Cohen, America’s worst living columnist alive for 40 years running.

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Nope, this column actually represents the official view of the Post’s esteemed editorial board.

It begins:

The news sounded horrifying: Federal prosecutors last month demanded wide-ranging electronic records regarding anyone who visited disruptj20.org, a website devoted to protesting President Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. An astonishing 1.3 million people could be exposed. The website’s host, a Los Angeles company called DreamHost, was fighting the government’s data order. Yet on Thursday, a judge ruled for the government.

Actually, the story is more complicated, particularly after the government offered some needed assurances in a brief it released in advance of Thursday’s ruling.

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This much is true: Prosecutors reined in their demand for a list of 1.3 million internet users who visited disruptj20.org, and huzzah for that. But the editorial doesn’t stop there (emphasis mine):

It should first be clear whom the government is targeting. D.C. prosecutors, technically in the Justice Department but effectively local district attorneys, are investigating rioting that occurred after Mr. Trump’s swearing-in. Violent protesters committed tens of thousands of dollars in property damage and assaulted police officers. Some 200 people face charges. If the government were demanding data on the peaceful Women’s March on Washington, that would suggest a crackdown on dissenters. But local prosecutors are investigating serious violations of public order that cannot be considered legitimate dissent in a rule-of-law society.

Tens of thousands of dollars in property damage? My heavens! Will no one think of that Bank of America window’s family?

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The argument being put forth by the second-most powerful editorial board in the country is essentially that protesters who happened to be in the vicinity of property damage during a protest deserve whatever level of punishment the federal government sees fit. The belief that a torched limousine justifies a draconian prosecution of hundreds of people is one held by a disturbing number of comfortable liberals, who can’t imagine their own family suffering oppression or persecution at the hands of the state, but can easily picture the anguish they’d feel at their car going up in flames. So, after appointing themselves the arbiters of what constitutes “legitimate dissent, the Post declares: This is fine.

At least the real fascists are honest about wanting to see police boots stamping on protesters’ faces, forever. The respectable opinion leaders of the nation’s capital say they’re merely calling for civil discourse, for the right kind of protest.

This line of thinking gets objectively authoritarian real fast. It conveniently elides the fact the Trump’s Department of Justice is currently seeking felony rioting charges against more than 200 people, most of whom ended up arrested because they were the easiest to kettle. On inauguration day, D.C. police rounded up protesters and journalists, detained them, searched their phones, denied them food or water overnight, searched their phones, and (allegedly) used “molestation and rape as punishment,” according to a photojournalist who was anally probed by police after getting arrested during the protest. Finally, more than 200 of them were charged with felony rioting—a charge which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.

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According to the Washington Post’s editorial board, this is all justified—after all, did you see the property damage?

What the board is essentially arguing here is that police are within their rights to make citizens afraid to march in the streets, for fear of repercussion. It’s fine to make that argument if you happen to like the established order, but you should at least own the fact that your position is fundamentally undemocratic. And, make no mistake, the powers that be will surely take this signal as it was meant to be taken: It is permission to keep doing heinous shit to those who actually practice the dissent that the Post claims to want to protect, with the assurance that our nation’s established opinion-makers will not raise any sort of fuss.

The businesses that were vandalized in downtown Washington on Inauguration Day were insured. By contrast, the cost of silencing dissent—via mealy-mouthed editorials or the threat of a prison sentence—may never be recouped.