The whole drama, the body language, the flags and the onslaught, was borrowed from other dramas — genuine displays of revolutionary fervor against autocrats, authentic acts protesting illegitimate governments. But it was a charade. Not civic or selfless, but corrosive, destructive and illegal.
In real time, journalists and pundits expressed disbelief and wondered aloud: How can this be happening? There was a simple, terrible and chastening answer, and one that will sicken decent Americans for generations to come: It happened because we refused to believe it could happen.
Many Americans once considered this blindness to cataclysm latent in every democratic government, including ours, to be a peculiarly American form of strength. Our naivete was a talisman against disorder. The power of precedence, the comforting illusion of a stable history, the fantasy that our institutions were so just and well ordered that nothing could shake them, might well have seemed a bulwark against today’s attempted coup. Surely Americans, who are by our own fatuous self-definition fundamentally decent, would never attempt the unthinkable, no matter how angry. And so people who get paid to dither on television suddenly began talking at it, repeating again and again their disbelief, as if the arrival of this ugliness was as unexpected as an errant asteroid or alien invasion in a bad science-fiction flick.
But over the past four years, as Trump attacked again and again, dividing the country, inflaming anger, exacerbating every conflict and pouring salt into every wound, the unwillingness to see today’s events became more than a weakness. It became culpable.
We could muster the National Guard to defend bricks and mortar against the possibility that perhaps some angry protesters against police brutality might spill a little paint or hurl water bottles. But we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, defend the Constitution and the republic against open rebellion, a rebellion foretold by every act of a lawless president who has never been coy about his real intent.
One moment in today’s appalling mayhem was telling. As they filed through Statuary Hall, some of Trump’s thugs snapped selfies of themselves, as if they were merely tourists. Meanwhile, windows were being broken, room trashed, historic spaces defiled. You might think it odd that the hardcore Make America Great Again crowd would damage a beloved symbol of the country they profess to support. But not if you understand the deeper dynamic. This was never about who wins elections and the right to govern. It has always been about ownership. Trump’s cult believes that they are the sole, legitimate owners of the country, and if that’s true, then there can be no sin in damaging what is rightfully yours, right?
Which explains why the nation’s capital went into a defensive crouch last summer and enlisted the military to put down peaceful demonstrations, when multiracial crowds gathered to demand that the country live up to the promise of its founding documents. These were outsiders, aliens, invaders. But when the Congress met to formalize the peaceful transference of power, suddenly one of the most fortified buildings on the planet was defenseless against amateur insurrectionists.
In the doctrine of white supremacy, articulated in the deeds, acts, executive orders and repellent speeches of the president himself, some people legitimately own America, while others are merely suffered to live here by the consent of men like Trump and his supporters. Police will mostly defer to the former with circumspection and polite restraint; they will beat down and gas the latter even before the hour of curfew has arrived.
In this most recent escalation of a four-year putsch — abetted by some of the same representatives and senators whose chambers were attacked by the mob — we see the last few threads of Trumpism that were never explicit now made manifest. Trumpism was never about governance or stewardship of the country. It was about a right to possess so deep that it includes the right to destroy.
That is what is so sickening today, what will sicken us for decades to come and what has shamed us before the world in perpetuity. There is only one way out of this, only one redemption. We must see what has happened today for what it is, with no mincing of words and no obfuscations. A minority of Americans, encouraged by a reckless, cornered and irresponsible lame-duck president, sought to take full possession of what they feel they, and they alone, legitimately possess, which is the right to run the country without a Constitution, without laws, without equal rights for all people.
We knew this was coming, we had the evidence, none of it was a mystery.
Those who claim otherwise, who pretend that this wasn’t the inevitable last act of a presidency grounded on white supremacy, now bear the shame of America. They aren’t blind or foolish, they are guilty. Let them retire from public life and reflect with penitence on what we have seen today. And then let us a remake a capital city that will never again leave itself open to this kind of tawdry insurrection.