I’ll let others weigh in on where this ranks historically in the crises we’ve faced as a nation. But I can’t be the only one my age or older who thought of the images of the invasion of the U.S. embassy in Tehran as we watched events unfold on Wednesday.
Terrorists and insurrectionists, aided, abetted, and encouraged by the president of the United States, invaded the seat of the American government to overturn the results of a free and fair election. That should terrify us all.
The song that came to mind as I woke up this morning to this beautiful scene outside my office door was #todaysRx: The Five Stairsteps “O-h-h Child” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dguz0IsCuKU.
It reflects my own attempts to make sense of what we experienced as Americans the last 48 hours and the conclusion that I came to about where we are.
Below are my thoughts:
Late yesterday, I began to realize something utterly terrifying: what happened Wednesday in Washington, D.C. was an honest-to-goodness attack on our democracy, a failed coup.
Yes, I said it and I can’t believe I’m saying it. But based on the evidence I have seen — the President of the United States, his family, and his enablers engaged in treason as they tried to overthrow the will of the American people.
As uncoordinated as it was, it was an attack on our seat of government as we went through the processes we’ve followed for almost 250 years to certify a presidential election. I am not a conspiracy theorist mainly because people can’t keep secrets, but watch closely on the coverup. It failed, and more information will emerge about the attempted coup and the role of insiders and the Trump-adjacent (the true believers will never give up).
(Sidenote: I will only address today how I came to this conclusion. I do believe Trump must leave office immediately, though I won’t talk about that here, nor appropriate punishment(s) for the traitors, nor the differences in police response to this sedition vs. the Black Lives Matter protests of Summer 2020.)
I cannot get out of my mind images of insurrectionists, spurred on by the President and his enablers, violently storming a building holding the first three members in the line of presidential succession: Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley. They were certifying Joe Biden’s election, and domestic terrorists seem to have been seeking to not only overturn the election, but to decapitate Congress so it couldn’t respond.
The administration refused to call in the national guard for nearly two hours. (Read this account from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, it’s chilling https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/hogan-describes-delayed-permission-to-send-national-guard/2021/01/07/5ed7243c-5130-11eb-a1f5-fdaf28cfca90_story.html.)
All the while, fascists, ACTUAL NAZIS, were roaming the United States Capitol.
I’m not fooled because they looked and acted like yahoos — and you shouldn’t be either. Yes, it was wanton destruction and some cosplay.
But I saw something more sinister behind their motives. I can’t unsee some of the images I saw, I can’t unhear “Where’s Pence?” and at least two guys holding zip ties to take hostages. And I can’t stop thinking about something former CIA Director John Brennan said last night, there were definitely foreign agents in the mob who weren’t there to ransack. The entire computer system of the legislative branch of the federal government has potentially been compromised.
This is serious.
To see the spin — Republican Congressmen Gaetz, Brooks, Gozar, Fox News — saying it’s Antifa would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. They weren’t Anti-Fa, they were the very definition of *Fa* — fascists. And they were damn proud of it. And Donald Trump, the President of the United States, egged them on and encouraged them.
Because I believe in showing my work, here’s what led me to this conclusion:
The lack of preparedness.
Trump has been telegraphing this event for a month — and he’s famous for telegraphing his every move (“Big protest in DC on Jan 6. Be there, will be wild! https://www.adl.org/blog/extremists-and-mainstream-trump-supporters-plan-to-protest-congressional-certification-of) The rightwing militia movement planned this out in the open as people who track their movements warned.
If you’ve ever been to DC, you know if the authorities don’t want you somewhere, you will not be there. I have spent a considerable amount of time in DC, and no small amount of time in and around the Capitol building. I have stood in the freezing rain for an hour waiting to get through security to talk to a staffer for 5 minutes.
How in the world did those responsible for the security of the federal government find themselves this unprepared? Did you see the barriers they put up for the summer protests vs. Wednesday? The former made the Capitol look impregnable, Wednesday looked like parade barriers. https://www.wsj.com/articles/capitol-police-werent-prepared-for-rioters-authorities-say-11609978798
The refusal to initially call up the national guard to secure the Capitol before and during the attack on democracy.
This is not only shameful, it looks intentional to me. Five Americans, including a Capitol Hill police officer, have lost their lives. But more than that, the seat of our government was breached by insurrectionists, and I can’t help but see Trump appointees in the Department of Defense as complicit here. Here’s a good piece on this: https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2021/01/07/this-is-why-the-national-guard-didnt-respond-to-the-attack-on-the-capitol/
The call to Raffensperger on Monday and the op-ed from 10 former Secretaries of Defense
The call didn’t bother me much at first, I knew Trump had committed a crime and figured he’d suffer a minor consequence at worst for it. I filed the op-ed in my “These are empty words from folks who don’t have any authority or power.”
But when I look at what happened on Wednesday with points one and two in mind, I saw a pattern emerge. Something had really bugged me about this line from Trump to Raffensperger: “Trump: No, we do have a way, but I don’t want to get into it. We found a way . . . excuse me, but we don’t need it because we’re only down 11,000 votes, so we don’t even need it.” Did Trump make similar calls to the military about the “way” he “found” to overturn the election, and the Secretaries of Defense chose to preemptively address it publicly?
Trump’s ongoing refusal to concede an election he lost.
We’ve seen Trump destroy American norms throughout his four years in office.
Much of this has been dangerous, but as Republicans looked away as he blew past every point of conceding an election he CLEARLY LOST, it became an inferno. November 3, November 7, the December “Safe Harbor” deadline, and then Wednesday.
Back to point one, “How in the world was the seat of the United States government so frigging unprepared for what happened Wednesday?” What gave anyone the impression that the certification of the electoral college deadline would finally be the one time Trump would be honorable?
When Trump first ran for office I told everyone — hardcore Republicans, the few true independents I know, and fellow Democrats — that I believed him a unique danger to the American system. At that point I only knew a little but I observed something was different about him, different about the fervor he evoked. It was odd to me, but fit well with something I’d been living with and watching/studying for nearly 25 years: the rise of violent rightwing extremism. Over the past 5+ years (remember, he started running in 2015) I have seen absolutely nothing to steer me from that observation. Wednesday just proved me right.
The behavior of all of the insurrectionists, from Trump on down, was heinous and it was seditious. And we cannot stand for it.
I take no pleasure in correctly predicting that Trump was a very unique danger. And while I will (and have) excoriate those who have enabled it, I am not doing this right now.
The time is right for us to take our duties as citizens much more seriously that we have. I’d say that a lot of us took that for granted, myself included. I believed far too much in the institutions in this country and trusted the institutionalists to keep them safe. I understood that that might go a little more slowly under a conservative president and Congress, more quickly with progressives in those seats.
But Trump is different. He always was. The fact that so many of my fellow conservative-leaning citizens seemed to accept the nihilism of his approach as somehow “normal” has always concerned me. And it’s troubled me precisely because of Wednesday.
When we allow these little affronts to our sensibilities, when someone tells us a lie and we’re like, “That just doesn’t sound right, but okay…” we’re allowing smaller lies to grow into the Big Lie. “The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote,” Timothy Snyder wrote in On Tyranny. “Our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.” (BTW, if you’re still unconvinced on the severity of Wednesday, please read this article on Snyder’s book. Don’t do so with your mind already made up, please read it with my conclusion in mind: that this was an honest-to-goodness coup attempt — and then read through this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2017/02/24/20-ways-to-recognize-tyranny-and-fight-it/
Finally, I want to address something about the information ecosystem that’s long concerned me.
My entire adult life, I’ve watched as conservatism has become more and more monolithic and insular. The past 5 years the political party that represents conservatism has become “Trump’s party,” as Don Jr. said right before the attack on the Capitol on Wednesday. And even when I agree politically with a conservative proposal, I vehemently disagree with the means by which Republicans act politically.
I have never found the same level of orthodoxy with Democrats as I have with Republicans. The former is as historically fractured a caucus as the latter is monolithic. “I’m not a member of an organized political party,” Will Rogers famously quipped, “I’m a Democrat.”
While we progressives and liberals don’t all think the same, we do often come to the same conclusions. This isn’t because we’re a monolith, but instead because many of us share a core value about politics and civic life, that American institutions should make life better for as many people as possible.
Our means to achieving this vary. Some of us work through institutions, some quietly in their jobs, some through demonstrations, some in government. We’re also inspired to this philosophy for different reasons. But it’s that core belief that society should act toward the most good for the most people that drives many of us to this side of the political spectrum. I believe we start there.
Many of us also have developed the same habits of mind, consuming a variety of information regularly and with intentionality. I’ve been so inspired by my friends from all walks of life, but especially those who I know more personally than professionally — childhood friends, college fraternity brothers, family members, friends of friends.
It’s kind of my job as a public historian to consume information and try to make sense of it. But y’all have shown me something more. You’ve taken time out of your lives to stay informed, to process information critically. You have come to similar conclusions as I.
Our conclusions aren’t liberal talking points. They’re not preordained. It’s the very definition of the thoughts of the enlightened, engaged citizenry that a democracy requires. Yes, I have my biases, but I weigh evidence similar to others because we approach that information from a similar point of view, a mindset. I acknowledge these biases when processing information as a historian, an American, a Democrat, a Christian, a father, a husband, a small business owner, a public historian — you get the point.
Trump’s coup attempt failed on Wednesday. It was vital that Congress came back into session and certified Biden’s election right away. At some point yesterday, Trump issued his latest “new tone” video (DM me for my thoughts on that) essentially conceding the election. Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States on January 20, just like he’s supposed to.
But don’t be lulled by how the coup fizzled out so quickly. Trump’s video message on Wednesday signaled his intent for more mayhem, “We love you. You’re very special.” His “concession” speech yesterday had this little message for them, “And to all of my wonderful supporters. I know you are disappointed, but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning.”
My fellow historians and museum professionals:
I have said all along that we will have our work cut out for us when the pandemic is under enough control that visits are safe again. People are HUNGRY for making understanding of their lives and this moment, be prepared to help them get there. This is work we can do today. BEGIN NOW.
To my fellow citizens
the coup failed, and the system held. We will all be on tenterhooks until January 20. More will come, that I am sure of. But the system held. And I take much solace in this.
But what happened on Wednesday was serious. And we need to strive to be the kind of citizens who stay informed and engaged. I want to be someone who can talk clearly and purposefully about the day’s events and their impact. But more than that, I want to make good decisions today and for the future.
I don’t want my children to ever again see nazis invade the U.S. Capitol. EVER.
I hope you feel as resolved as I do about that.
In the meantime, I might encourage less exposure to the 24-hour news channels, whatever your preferred channel. Right now there’s a lot of conjecture there with very, very little context. Watch for the “news,” but I’d advise turning off the commentary. Too much is flying around, Washington is a rumor mill, and things are very tenuous right now.
Rather than watching someone narrate the attack on our democracy like it’s OJ in the White Bronco, spend some time reading analysis from experts.
Here are three sources I turn to regularly to get the context of the day’s events: one conservative, one liberal, and one historian. Though I trust the information they give me, I weigh it against the opinions of others, including my own.
Don’t just follow one, follow them all.
Watch where their observations converge and diverge and you’ll have a good sense of things and see how a variety of solutions emerge. Information is democracy in action.
- The Bulwark: I’ve really enjoyed following the conservative-leaning site https://thebulwark.com/ even if I do hold their founders accountable for some of their own irresponsible rhetoric that helped get us here. They understand the environment that bred Wednesday’s debacle better than anyone.
- Letters from an American: This is a newsletter from historian Heather Cox Richardson on the day’s events. She has a very good understanding of today’s context as a historian of the Republican Party. She’s also a terrific writer and thinker who documents ALL of her sources carefully: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/
- What a Day: This is a newsletter from liberal-leaning Crooked Media. It’s cheeky and full of links you can click on and dive deeper. Much less analysis but you can follow the links to more insights: https://crooked.com/newsletters/.
Finally, I’m here as you grapple with the news.
I am far from an expert on these discussions, but I have spent my entire adult life — and ten years of formal study — trying to figure out this dynamic and learning how the phrase “engaged, enlightened” citizenry plays out in our communities.
I guess I’m saying that if I have any expertise in life, it is in looking at information and making sense of it and discerning trustworthy sources for information I don’t know. There’s no orthodoxy here except this: I believe in the promise of America, however flawed, and I want to make it better where I can. So if you have questions you think I might answer, I’m happy to field them.
With that in mind, I’m thinking about doing something like this a little more regularly, to help make sense of what’s happening in the world. Let me know if you’d be interested in more of these kinds of commentaries here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/RXG3WVJ