- 08 Jan 21
In the wake of the armed assault on the Capitol buildings in Washington by supporters of Donald Trump, we heard pious declarations that ’This is not America’. But of course it was, and it is, America – its febrile atmosphere captured in the demand from Trump's legal consiglieri-in-chief Rudy Giuliani for “trial by combat”. Photo: Tyler Merbler
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
For once, he delivered. Donald Trump’s tweet on December 19th, since deleted, promised his loyal followers a show. Spectacle is one of the few things he knows and cares about. Not the plodding reality of governing, the tedious negotiations, the slog to find workable compromises.
Here’s a man who loves a parade and salivates over pageantry, and January 6th – when the House and Senate would assemble to count electoral votes and name the President-Elect – offered the perfect setting for drama enacted by his bafflingly loyal hardcore supporters.
The electoral vote tally is generally seen as ceremonial – a mere formality on the path to the president’s official inauguration. The President of the Senate opens the electoral votes from each state in alphabetical order, passes them to tellers, counts them, and declares a winner. Declares, not chooses – a distinction entirely lost on a sitting president unable to discern the difference between appearance and reality.
Fixated on the idea that Mike Pence, as Senate President, could reject electors’ votes and essentially name whoever the hell he wanted as President-Elect, Trump tweeted multiple nonsensical claims about what his VP should and would do on the day. Trumpists on Twitter – and especially the QAnon believers who ultimately made up much of the Capitol-storming mob – happily grasped this shred of misguided hope. Wait till January 6th, they said. Just wait.
On Tuesday night, the incoming Georgia election results looked promising. It would be close, but Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were both on-pace to win and give Democrats an effective Senate majority. Georgia turning blue, and with its first African-American Senator, would represent a huge victory for Democrats and for African-Americans. Still, I felt uneasy about what Wednesday would bring.
For a couple of weeks, I’d been scrolling through Twitter threads from Sidney Powell loyalists, Lin Wood, and QAnon adherents. I did this out of curiosity and, admittedly, a certain amount of schadenfreude. Watching their increasingly desperate attempts to fit every tossed lawsuit and failed gambit into “the plan” was, at times, entertaining. But it was also disturbing. Beyond the clear lunacy of it all – the continued exhortations to “hold the line, Patriots!” and all the excited rumblings about imminent executions for treason – was the troubling fact that many of these people talked of coming to Washington D.C. on January 6th to protest in person, bringing their delusions and their guns with them.
At a rally shortly before the count began in Washington on Wednesday, Trump urged his assembled followers toward a cinematic showdown. “I’ll be watching because history is going to be made,” he said, before slinking back to the White House. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.”
EDGE OF DISASTER
That’s what Ashli Babbitt intended to do. A thirty-five-year-old Air Force veteran, who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, she was perfectly clear in her own personal delusions. “Nothing will stop us… they can try and try and try but the storm is here,” Ashli, who had openly embraced various QAnon conspiracy theories, wrote in what turned out to be one of her last tweets.
There are videos circulating of those awful, chaotic moments on Wednesday afternoon when she begins climbing through the window into the Speaker’s Lobby – smashed by the mob moments earlier – only to fall backwards onto the floor as a shot rings out. Those surrounding her, many holding phones aloft, fall back too, stunned by the gunshot, by the blood pooling around Ashli’s head, by reality. That wasn’t how the showdown was supposed to go. They are Patriots, white Patriots, and white Patriots don’t get shot.
Ashli Babbitt was dead.
As events unfolded online and on TV, we repeatedly heard that the rioting was shocking — despite the fact that it was, in fact, entirely predictable, and had been encouraged, enabled, and stoked by the sitting president of the United States and his minions. How else to interpret Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, calling for “trial by combat” at his master’s rally, just hours before the riots began? Then came the claims from politicians and talking heads that “This is not who we are. This is not America.”
The truth: not only is this America, it is uniquely so. What could sum up America as it exists right now better than the breeching of the Capitol at the president’s behest — a combination of hubris, delusion, obsession with social media, and politics-as-performance? January 6th finally, irrevocably, proved what four years of Trump has been gradually revealing — that so many of America’s norms, including the peaceful transition of power, are sustained by the thinnest of threads.
The fundamental decency of America — the word ‘decency’ would no doubt seem puny and weak to the rioter seen urinating on the Capitol’s marble steps on Wednesday afternoon, or the one famously photographed trailing a Confederate flag through the building’s inner halls — hinges on a kind of consensual illusion that is, it turns out, horrifyingly easy to subvert or ignore.
In a matter of days, Joe Biden will be President. He won handily, despite the Democrats’ generally poor showing in House and Senate races. He won, it seems, precisely because he is so many things that Trump is not: experienced, serious, hardworking, humble. This is what we want for 2021. This is what we — or at least I — desperately hope for this year: a president we can occasionally tune out and take for granted as we focus our attentions elsewhere, because we trust him to do the right thing at least most of the time.
How likely is that? I’d say the odds are good. Having seen how thin those threads are, America has decided it is not quite ready to test them further.
With Senate control and a House majority, even a weakened one, Democrats can get to work, undoing some of the harm that has been done. For that reason, because there is simply so much that has to be fixed, it may be a pretty boring 2021, politically, once the first three weeks of January are over. A boring presidency sounds like a delicious luxury at the moment.
“Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
Late Wednesday night in the Capitol, as the House and Senate reconvened to finish what had been interrupted earlier that afternoon, one of the speakers shared John Adams’ words from over 200 years ago. Perhaps Adams would be surprised that it has taken us so long to get so close to that point, to skate up to the very edge of disaster—and turn back, for now.