Omar El Akkad is the author of American War. He lives in Portland, Ore.
It is difficult to watch a day such as Jan. 6, 2021, unfold – the pathetic spectacle and madness of it – and not retreat to the comforting perch of objective truth. An empire brought low not by a rival empire, not by some unpreventable natural calamity, but by a gaggle of proudly uninformed, bilious racists role-playing as freedom fighters. Surely, one day we will make sense of all this, assign to it the authoritative, damning narrative it deserves.
But what was irreparably fractured this week was the American narrative itself. Beyond the fault lines that have always run beneath the social ground of this country, there is a sense that the United States as a civic entity has no more interest in anything resembling a shared reality – if it ever did. The men and women who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday – who climbed smirking through the shattered windows and turned the House Speaker’s podium into a looter’s prize – are less members of an aggrieved political class than participants in a mass delusion, one they and countless Republican politicians now inhabit completely.
Nothing of Wednesday’s carnage should have come as a surprise, not even the Capitol police’s utter inability to maintain order in the face of a mob whose timeline and motives were publicly and repeatedly telegraphed by the President himself. Years of festering demagoguery, magnified by an ecosystem of disinformation so rampant it now makes up the entirety of many Americans’ intellectual diet, has led to this moment. Inside the halls of the Capitol, the myriad Republican lawmakers who allowed this to happen, either with their words or with their silence, sought to frame it as the misguided frustration of well-meaning but alienated patriots. Pragmatically, these politicians have their reasons: There are parts of this country where you can’t get elected unless you call a man waving a Confederate flag a patriot.
But the overarching purpose of this week’s mob violence – just as with the violence that came before in places such as Charlottesville, and the violence yet to come – is not the preservation of institutional fairness, but rather the opposite. For centuries, a select group of Americans, privileged by the colour of their skin and their financial or hereditary bearing, have been conditioned to believe that the central and exclusive purpose of all governmental and societal pillars is to serve them and only them. Donald Trump, a man who knows this conditioning better than almost anyone, exploited it all the way to the White House. It cannot come as a shock then, when he and his sect are made to watch those pillars support another weight, that they decide it is the pillars, not the privileges, that are expendable. The defining lesson of the Trump era is that there exists a subset of the U.S. population, tens of millions strong, for whom no force – be it the Constitution or democracy or reality itself – can ever supersede self-interest.
For all the talk of unity to which president-elect Joe Biden seems politically welded, there is no common ground between democracy and what happened at the Capitol this week. Indeed, it is the perpetual coddling of increasingly unhinged ideologies – the Republican Party’s spineless appeasement of Tea Partiers, then Birthers, now QAnoners and tomorrow who knows what – that is responsible for this derangement.
It is no longer hysterical to seriously consider the prospect of low-grade civil war, not when at least six sitting senators and 121 representatives have gone on the record advocating to overturn a democratic election. There is, of course, a way to stave this off, but it involves above all else a marrow-deep reckoning within a party that has so far shown no ethical or practical boundaries to its pursuit of power.
But what is more likely than outright war is simply that the occasional frenzy of political violence, the occasional storming of a legislature or attempt to kidnap a governor, will join mass shootings and preventable virus deaths as something this country just learns to shrug off. In October, six men tried to kidnap the Governor of Michigan; less than two weeks ago, a suicide bomber attacked Nashville’s downtown core. In a previous time, this might all still be news. Today, it’s as though it never happened.
And perhaps this will be the nihilistic conclusion of the Trump years: a society composed of parallel universes. Perhaps it will simply become the case that, in certain parts of this country, Mr. Trump never lost the election, COVID-19 never existed and it was really left-wing terrorists who stormed the Capitol. When Ted Cruz, as ethically diaphanous a politician as exists in America today, stood up this week and urged his colleagues to practise “a bit less certitude and a bit more recognition that we are gathered at a time when democracy is in crisis” – as though his active attempt to enable the former has not directly led to the latter – he was in a way drawing a right-wing blueprint for the coming years. Why confine yourself to a single version of the truth? If your supporters want there to have been a stolen election, why not treat it as fact? After all, what’s a few degraded institutions, a few violent outbursts, a few dead bodies here and there, if the result is an electoral base willing to follow its leaders beyond the borders of reality?
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