Part 2: They Think They Own America

Philip Kennicott, a Washington Post critic, explains why it was predictable and yet quite easy for them to invade the Capitol: 

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 Txxxx 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 Txxxx’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. Txxxx’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 Txxxx 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.


Chris Hayes of MSNBC points out that Wednesday was worse than it looked:

There was a kind of selection bias to the live coverage: we had live shots of the least violent places (for good reason) but it’s now become so much clearer it was an extremely dangerous and volatile situation.

It is entirely possible that there were people in that crowd, looking to apprehend, possibly harm, and possibly murder the leaders of the political class that the President [and others] have told them have betrayed them.

Part 1: Trumpism as a Chronic Condition

What follows is a meditation on Trumpism written by Philip Kennicott, an art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, a few days after the election. Later I’ll post what he wrote after the attack on the Capitol:

No matter what happens to Dxxxx Txxxx or who assumes the presidency in January, we can say this: He brought the truth of America to the surface. I’ll leave his policies and his politics — to the extent that he ever had policies or coherent politics — to the pundits. As a critic, I can say that he embodied, embraced or inflamed almost everything ugly in American culture, past, present and perhaps future. He made it palpable and tangible even to people inclined to see the bright side of everything. That this week’s election wasn’t a repudiation of Trumpism, that some 6 million more Americans believe in it now compared with four years ago, is horrifying. But it’s also reality, and it’s always best to face reality.

He also gave our unique brand of ugliness — rooted in racism, exceptionalism, recklessness, arrogance and a tendency to bully our way to power — a name. Trumpism is now rooted in the lexicon, and although white supremacy may be the better, more clinical term for what ails America, Trumpism is a useful, colloquial alternative. It encompasses an even wider category of people that includes not just avowed racists who have publicly supported the president but also those who downplay the problem, or align with it for personal gain, or are simply unwilling to acknowledge its history and persistence. Naming a thing is an essential first step to understanding it . . .

In moments of despair, it’s easy to think that the past four years were a failure of civic discourse, that slightly more than half of America simply failed to convincingly argue against Trumpism. America, in the aggregate, seems just as stupid as it was four years ago, when it became clear that we would have to learn some painful lessons, and learn them the hard way, through the collapse of competent governance, the destruction of civility and, now, the ravages of a grossly mismanaged pandemic.

But if we are stupid in the aggregate, many individual Americans are more clear-eyed and conscious than four years ago. The 2016 election proved that the argument against Trumpism had largely failed, but although losing an argument is maddening, it also makes your argument stronger, clarifies your reasoning and orders your logic. Half of America may be right where it was four years ago, still mired in Trumpism, but some part of the other half of America isn’t just opposed to Txxxx but also smarter and more cognizant of how Trumpism has rooted itself in the society. That’s not a negligible accomplishment.

Grappling with white supremacy, or Trumpism if you prefer, was never going to be easy, because it exists not just in a handful of ugly epithets, the caricatures we see in old movies and statues scattered across the landscape. It is existential, precognitive and pervasive, as fully present in how we conceive of beauty as it is in the assumptions we make about that driver who just cut us off while swerving between lanes.

Changing how we think would be difficult even if we all agreed on the necessity for change. It is even more difficult given that 48 percent of the country resists the project entirely. But for all the damage Txxxx has done, much of which may never be undone, he has inadvertently, accidentally and unintentionally left us with a model for what needs to be done.

Trumpism is embedded in America and can be fought only through rigorous self-discipline, through constant surveillance of the thoughts we think, the words we use and the assumptions we make. There was White supremacy before we started thinking of it as Trumpism, but before Txxxx, there also was a tendency to think of it as “out there” rather than “in here.” Now we know it not as a perverse blemish on American culture but as foundational to American culture. That’s progress.

On a summer morning in 1861, holiday makers, the picnic crowd, the Washington swells went out to the battlefield at Manassas to watch a quick and decisive battle bring an end to the Civil War. Head east past the battlefield on Interstate 66 and you’re roughly retracing the holiday crowd’s steps when they fled back to Washington in panic and disorder after Confederate troops routed Union forces. Some of them, safe again in the nation’s capital, were perhaps slightly less ignorant about the magnitude of the war that awaited them.

Disillusionment isn’t an event — it’s a process. It doesn’t arrive and do its work all at once, like an epiphany. It is a way of living, a perpetual vigilance, a habit of mind. We may wish that Trumpism could be defeated, like an external enemy. But reality requires that we think of it as a chronic condition of American public life — not a virus that can be quarantined and perhaps cured, but a lifestyle disease rooted in sedentary thinking.