Who We Really Are
(Screenshot from C-Span 3:43 am January 7 Joint Session of Congress Certifying Electoral College Results)
In the end, the government held, the electoral process concluded, and the Congress of the United States meeting in joint session in the House chamber certified the election of Joseph R. Biden as the next president of the United States and Kamala Harris as the next vice president. But between the moment when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) gavelled the House of Representatives to order on January 6, 2021 at 1 pm and the moment when Vice President Mike Pence announced the electoral results at 3:40 am on January 7, the United States Capitol and processes of government experienced hours of violent insurrection and domestic terrorism that invaded the halls of the Capitol, vandalized the building and artifacts, forced Senators and Congresspeople into hiding, disrupted the election certification process, and threatened the very foundation of this nation.
The outgoing president of the United States fomented the violent insurrection and encouraged the domestic terrorists to commit egregious actions intended to disrupt the electoral process and prevent his duly elected successor from taking office. The fact that President Trump failed in his effort to thwart the certification process does not diminish the threat he continues to pose to our nation. Lawmakers, public officials, business leaders, editorial writers and other academics around the country are calling for his removal from office one way or the other, and I join them in urging an end to this presidency immediately. In his brief remarks posted on Twitter late yesterday afternoon, the president continued to make false claims about the election and he told the insurrectionists that he “loved” them. He expressed no remorse, no sense of responsibility or accountability for his role in inciting unprecedented, dangerous and seditious acts intended to overthrow the government of the United States. He has clearly breached his oath of office (not for the first time), and has shown absolutely no interest in the responsible discharge of his duties. So long as he remains commander-in-chief, he has access to tools of power that could lead to even more destruction across the next two weeks leading up to President Biden’s inauguration.
While the case for removing Trump from the presidency immediately is clear, the chances of that happening are slim. Meanwhile, we must begin immediately to address the conditions within the American body politic that led so many citizens to be so gullible in their affection for a demagogue whose leadership failures have been deadly for hundreds of thousands of Americans consumed by disease, whose inability to express empathy or respond humanely to the needs of others resulted in cruel and needlessly harmful executive orders and actions throughout the last four years.
(One of the most shocking scenes from inside the U.S. House of Representatives chamber yesterday as armed security blocked the main entrance and pointed guns at the invaders.)
As I watched the news with a sense of horror and sickness into the late night yesterday, I heard many people — Senators, members of Congress, media commentators, public officials — say time and again in response to the marauders invading the Capitol: “This is not who we are.”
I beg to differ. What we saw yesterday is exactly who some Americans are, what some Americans have become in the Trump era, and what was lurking even before Trump found the secret sauce to unleashing the beast. “Who We Are” is a nation torn and twisted across centuries of racial hatred and a political system that quests for some to dominate others. “Who We Are” is a nation that has had moments of absolute brilliance and righteous justice achieved (Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act) only to see those achievements diminished, degraded, battered and discarded by those who have sought to dominate at the expense of others. “Who We Are” as a nation gathered by several million on the Mall in January 2009 to witness the inauguration of the first Black American President Barack Obama, only to ignore the seething underbelly of hatred that kept shape-shifting in the ensuing years to become the monster ready to leap out at the call of the master in the guise of a mediocre businessman with a gift for inciting crowds to violence. We are BOTH those millions cheering for President Obama and the millions who march to Trump’s drumbeat.
Many observers of yesterday’s mayhem at the Capitol noted the security failures that appeared to be almost deliberate. I think they were not necessarily deliberate, but they were definitely habitual and cultural in this sense: an almost all-white mob waving flags and chanting fidelity to the president was treated far more gently by the Capitol Police than other protesters have been treated in the past, particularly Black and Brown persons marching for racial justice. Proud Boys get doors opened by polite uniformed officers while Black Lives Matter get military-grade opposition. Is that too superficial? Perhaps, but we cannot deny the plain fact evident in the photographs and videos that yesterday’s protesters had little law enforcement resistance to their incursion into the Capitol building.
(National Guard at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer during Black Lives Matter protests — no such heavy military presence was visible yesterday at the U.S. Capitol despite weeks of advance warnings.)
Can we reconcile the radical poles of America’s identity today? “Who We Are” spans the entire ideological spectrum from far right to far left, but most of us inhabit a space in the middle where we want to have domestic peace, prosperity, freedom, security, good educational opportunities, decent jobs and economic advancement, and a government that acts wisely and effectively to protect us from harm whether from outside aggressors or unseen viruses. “Who We Are” in the middle includes tens of millions of citizens who are less ideological and more focused on building the good society of our dreams, people who don’t march in the streets but who volunteer to read to children or clean up rivers to take part in vaccine tests or help to organize local political campaigns to ensure good government.
Yesterday, while thousands of modern visigoths were making fools of themselves wreaking havoc on a building that is the most prominent symbol of our democracy, millions more Americans were going to work and doing their jobs — nurses and doctors and healthcare providers on the front lines of the real menace we face these days in the coronavirus pandemic; or teachers trying to keep students engaged in the virtual environments that Covid-19 has forced upon us; or state and local public officials trying to figure out how to keep their constituents safe and healthy with scarce resources; or parents trying to explain the television images to their children.
(Not “Who We Are” and Yet Some Are)
“Who We Are” as the citizens in the middle cannot be a refuge. We really need to get our acts together publicly and affirmatively. The large majority of people in this country need to demand an end to the incitements, the agitation, the madness that the Mad King has encouraged.
The majority have, indeed, elected a new president. President Biden is no ideologue, and his election is not about ideology but about the large desire of Americans to find balance again, to restore a sense of government as providing service and stability to the nation. We want the president to be someone in whom we have confidence, but we don’t want to wake up each morning dreading to learn what fresh hell the president has perpetrated. We need to heal the festering wounds that the images of the White House and Capitol have become, restore them as dignified symbols of a nation still trying to make the idea of democracy work in a very fractious age.
President Biden’s inauguration will not end the threats that Trump has unleashed. The new president will need a great deal of support and cooperation to restore order and domestic peace. We will show “who we are” in the ways we come together, regardless of party or regardless of our views of different political issues, to restore the idea that the world’s oldest democracy is still the best hope for civilization. We took a body blow on that yesterday both domestically and in the eyes of the world. We must work hard and every single day from now on to reclaim the hope that can and should be the American ideal.