Just like millions of other people, I watched in absolute shock and horror on Wednesday as the events in Washington unfolded. What should’ve been a routine procedural event in certifying the long-since-finished presidential election was already expected to be interrupted, if not ultimately stopped, by opportunistic politicians lying to their constituents about what they could achieve. Their best-laid plans for showboating were upstaged, though, as a mob at once clownish and terrifying laid siege to the center of American democracy. Leaders’ offices were trashed, halls were vandalized, and at least five people were killed. If not for the quick-thinking of at least a few dedicated guardians, the story could have easily been significantly worse still.
In the aftermath, there has been a frenzied rush to disclaim responsibility for what happened, to stress that this is the sort of thing that can happen somewhere else but not in America, to insist, loudly enough to make it seem true, that this is not who we are.
We have to face the facts, though:
This absolutely is who we are.
Now, I’m not about to both-sides this story when there is very clearly one side that has spent a long time courting this moment—either actively or coyly playing footsie with it under the table. Revolutionary and apocalyptic rhetoric has long served certain figures in this government as they seek to push their own self-serving goals. There are people who bear a very direct responsibility for things coming to this, and they’re not just the ones who stood across from the Capitol on Wednesday morning and called for it; they’re the people who supported that cause, who rode along on its back until they were bucked off and trampled by it. They know who they are, and you do too.
Pushing them out won’t end this, though, because this is who we are.
Don’t get me wrong: it will be a great day for humanity when Donald Trump is shuffled off into the sunset of history; I will celebrate it the same way I’ve celebrated his numerous losses over the last two months. And while I do not have exceedingly high hopes for the incoming administration’s ability to do everything that needs to be done to solve the myriad problems we face, it will be a small comfort to live in a country that is no longer run by a deranged game show host wielding the levers of power in service of avenging petty cocktail-party grievances from 1986. Perhaps we will get much-needed financial aid for the people hit hardest by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Perhaps we will get a national plan to get vaccines distributed more rapidly. Perhaps we simply won’t have every Cabinet-level agency led by a cartoonish villain conjured in direct opposition to their agency’s mission. They will be small victories, but they’ll be better than what we have right now.
The ugliness and hatred that was on display last week will still live and thrive in this nation after it loses its mouthpiece in the Oval Office, because this is who we are.
The impulses that drove this spectacle have always been a part of the American character, and we’ve lived dark moments like this before. In a misguided attempt to distract myself, I’ve spent much of the last week working on Bradford Pearson’s excellent new book The Eagles of Heart Mountain, which uses a football team as a framing device to tell the story of Japanese-American internment during World War 2. If you’re like me, you likely know the broad strokes of that shameful era in American history: how loyal citizens who’d spent decades—if not their entire lives—in this country were treated as enemy combatants, had their homes and livelihoods stolen from them, were debased and degraded and herded into tent-farms and horse stables out of a stated fear they might act against the country’s interests.
None of that is new information, but what’s stunning is how fresh the stories from the decades of prejudice that preceded that moment sound. The voices of politicians and public figures both virulently racist and merely opportunistic in their lack of opposition to virulent racism, the stories of comfortable citizens viewing anyone else’s attempt to make a life for themselves as a threat to their own position, the calls in newspapers and pamphlets and speeches to take our country back all sound like they could’ve played out yesterday on Facebook or Twitter or Parler, the medium different but the message the same.
This is who we are.
You don’t even need to look to history; you’ve just needed to look around, because it’s been visible our whole lives; the confederate flags proudly displayed on expensive pickup trucks deep in the Union North; the dehumanizing language of war hawks who think everything can be solved by killing all of “them”, the anti-democratic and hateful language that’s rattled off the walls of offices and service-shop waiting rooms and youth-soccer sidelines and all the banal places that evil likes to live, spoken by acquaintances both casual and not-so-casual long before this moment.
This is who we are.
I still have hope for us, though, because as much as American history has been marked by this sort of hateful action, it’s also been marked by people soldiering on against it. It’s been colored by optimism, enthusiasm, enduring hope and a willingness to believe that this place can be great even if it’s never been exactly that before. But our better angels can’t win out if we don’t acknowledge our demons.
On Thursday, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who has been open about his struggles with addiction, compared it in a tweet to his own pleading with his family after a bender that he was ‘not that person.’ “Hell yes you are,” he noted, “and it’s time to come to terms with that shit.” If we try to brush off last week and the last four years as an aberration, as a fever that will break, as something that will go away when people come to their senses, we’re setting ourselves up for it to happen again, and maybe the marauders won’t be so buffoonish and clumsy this time.
Last night, I reached out to an elected official with whom I have a personal acquaintance to thank her for speaking forcefully and eloquently on an issue I believe in. It was heartening to see someone standing up against long odds and not equivocating, and I told her that I appreciated her voice being there. She responded enthusiastically, but corrected me in my phrasing. It is not just the people in office in the fight for the soul of our nation, she reminded me. Together WE can do anything.
This, too, is who we are.
Our demons have been fighting to take control of this country’s soul for longer than any of us have been alive. They’ve succeeded in hurting people and advancing hatred.
But they haven’t won yet.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)