Two things happened this week, both of historic proportions.
On Tuesday night during a special election, Raphael Warnock was chosen by the voters of Georgia to be the first African-American to represent the state in the U.S. Senate and the first African-American Democrat elected to a senate seat by a former state of the Confederacy. His victory was shared with Jon Ossoff, who will become the first Jewish Senator elected from Georgia. The wins by Warnock and Ossoff mean that with a 50-50 tie in the Senate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s vote will give Democrats the effective majority. It was an uplifting moment for democracy after a bitter 2020 election season.
On Wednesday, a mob of white supporters of Donald Trump, incited by the sitting president, marched and overran the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt government and overturn the certification of the presidential election by Congress. Writing in the New York Times, the historian of fascism Timothy Snyder outlined how we got here:
“In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures. The level of mendacity was profound. The claim was not only wrong, but it was also made in bad faith, amid unreliable sources. It challenged not just evidence but logic: Just how could (and why would) an election have been rigged against a Republican president but not against Republican senators and representatives? Trump had to speak, absurdly, of a ‘Rigged (for President) Election.’”
Those lonely minds on social media took him up on his request to come to Washington on January 6th for a “wild time” that would stop the certification of the election of President-elect Biden and VP-elect Harris. And they did stop if for a few hours. We all watched in horror as the Capitol was overrun for only the second time in history, the first being in 1814 by the British army. Within minutes of realizing how bad this riot at the capitol was playing to the country and world at large, Republican politicians and their media enablers were saying this attack on U.S. democracy was infiltrated by Antifa (the right’s boogeyman of choice these days) and other left-wing radical groups.
No. That did not happen. In fact, many of the mob were upset that they were not getting credit for their attempted coup. At least they were upset until the F.B.I. came calling with arrest warrants, due to the stupidity of live-streaming the coup attempt on social media.
Some Trump-appointed officials at the Pentagon have decided that what happened on Wednesday was not an insurrection, assault, or even attempted overthrow of the American government by white supremacist forces organized, inspired, and directed by Donald Trump. So now the Pentagon is calling Wednesday’s events “First Amendment Protests.”
No. At least five people died in those “First Amendment Protests” which were ginned up by baseless claims of election fraud.
Mark Juergensmeyer, Professor of Sociology and Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes the three qualities marking the capitol assault as terrorism:
- symbolic empowerment (people without power asserting that they have it),
- performance violence (the intention of terrorism is to terrorize), and
- cosmic war (warfare provides an alternative worldview to normal public order).
Historian Snyder notes that twisting the truth with different names like “First Amendment Protests” is one step on the road to fascism.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.”
I have thought a great deal all week about these two historical events. Like most of you, I am still processing what it means for our country. I have also written, and rewritten, and rewritten again about those thoughts. But for now I will turn to a long-time favorite, critic Frank Rich, who wrote a stirring essay in New York magazine entitled The Trashing of the Republic. He closed it with the following:
“As the old saw has it, it can take a century (or two) to build an institution, but only a day to raze it to the ground. That’s what America flirted with this week. It was heartbreaking, but it should be galvanizing. Let’s be clearheaded: Those who were part of the problem are not part of the solution. Most of them are traitors. Let’s join hands with Senator-elect Warnock and those of good will like him to try to save a country that has for some time now been on the brink of its second civil war.”
Heartbreaking and galvanizing. That certainly describes the emotions of so many Americans at this moment. We have now seen — in stark relief — that a large segment of one party is not serious about democracy and has stopped caring about good governance. Instead the leaders of that party are focused on holding onto power using whatever means necessary. Including, now it seems for some of them, armed insurrection, following the delusions of a farcically transparent con man. Heartbreaking.
But when the Black voters of Georgia — people who have been denied so much of what comes without question to whites in America — turned out in droves to ensure that democracy worked, now that was galvanizing. These were people who didn’t throw away their chance to change the world. Now it is up to the rest of us to make sure we’ll have that democracy and that country those voters, and their children, and their children’s children deserve.
More to come…
Image: “The Bridge” cartoon by Mike Luckovich that hangs in the office of Senator-elect Jon Ossoff of Georgia.