This is about more than just an election

Storm clouds would have been a little too much. (Martin Falbisoner, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The widely accepted narrative about the 2016 election and the Trump administration goes something like this: Donald Trump, a pop culture figure riding the crest of his reality television fame, used an outsider message to draw support from people politicians typically ignored (particularly older, white, working-class people) and vanquish Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of the Washington, D.C. political class. The more optimistic versions say that he spoke to disaffected voters hostile toward an establishment that had embraced globalism; the more pessimistic say he trafficked in hatred and division to poke at the smoldering coals of racial division left over from the 1960s or 1860s. (Neither version is particularly wrong.)

As America reels with disbelief after an angry mob seized the Capitol, interrupting the ceremonial certification of electoral votes that would mark the official recognition of the end of Trump’s term, it becomes tempting to revisit this narrative. Whether you accept the optimistic or pessimistic version, it offers the promise that America will improve in two weeks when Trump gives way to the avuncular President-elect Joe Biden. The incendiary rhetoric and conspiracy theory tweets that drive the division in American politics will lose its official office, allowing for a time of healing.

It sounds nice, but ignores a painful reality that played out on Capitol Hill this week.

For as much blame as he carries for whipping his supporters into a frenzied mob, Trump didn’t storm the United States Capitol on January 6. Thousands of American people stormed the Capitol — enough to overrun the security forces guarding the seat of America’s government.

Think about that again: Enough people stormed the Capitol to overwhelm the security forces charged with guarding the seat of America’s government.

This isn’t 1814, when one of the world’s foremost military powers sacked the capital city and British redcoats held a mock Congress in the halls of real Congress. This is 2021, almost two decades after September 11 (when, incidentally, patriotic passengers on United Flight 93 downed their flight and sacrificed their lives rather than let terrorists invade the Capitol). The only way for a mob to get past security in our current century is through sheer size and the abandonment of all concern for personal safety. There have to be enough people who shrug to themselves and say, “Well, what have I got to lose?”

A politician, even one as culturally familiar as Trump, does not create a mob that large, or that desperate. And really, would it be realistic to credit Trump with such power? Is Trump competent enough as a communicator that he could incite such reckless action and summon single-minded allegiance, yet also botch the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and lose an election to the basement-dwelling Biden? It seems more likely that something deeper (and scarier) is going on.

This doesn’t absolve Trump of his responsibility for lighting a match and throwing it onto an open barrel of kerosene. Yet if we are to be serious about healing, we have to ask ourselves how the kerosene got there in the first place.

A similar question came up when George Floyd’s death under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee sparked a different fire. We know how that barrel of kerosene got there. Even those of us (i.e. white people like me) who can’t fully appreciate the impact can understand the concept of the original sin of slavery compounded by generations of legal, extralegal, and cultural racism. You cannot have a group of people suffer through centuries of oppression — culminating in what feels like a series of state-sanctioned executions at the hands of police — and expect a seamless healing process. Yes, the Black Lives Matter protests were occasionally violent, because Black Americans have been treated violently.

The January 6 mob doesn’t share the same righteousness of purpose as the racial equality protests. There is an echo of one in the other, though. Remember the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct? The cocktail of desperation and hopelessness that makes one choose to invade a police station cannot be too different from the cocktail of desperation and hopelessness that makes one choose to invade the U.S. Capitol. And think about this: For every person who takes that risk, how many more are out there watching, feeling something similar but unwilling to take the same action?

Or, more pointedly, how many are unwilling to take the same action yet?

Timothy Carney — who was at the Capitol as things got ugly — tackled some of this ground in Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. Carney’s book may be the best real-time summation not only of why Trump was elected but the broader trends affecting American politics and society writ large right now. Carney talks about the slow death of social cohesion institutions, from churches to factories, and the domino effect that has on other aspects of day-to-day life leading to hopelessness and desperation. There may be something to that; It sure sounds a lot like the motivation of someone who would rush the armed guards standing in front of a government building.

As we pick up the literal and figurative pieces of our Capitol, there are two tasks ahead of us. The first is pragmatic: Those who stormed the seat of the American government ought to be found and punished. The second task will be more difficult: We have to figure out why this happened. Because as bad as the invasion of the U.S. Capitol was, the scale of it suggests something more dangerous is happening.

Donald Trump gained leverage in his rapid political ascent by shoving a crowbar into cracks of American society — cracks other politicians either didn’t see or willfully ignored. (This embrace of the fringe was even in his since-banned Twitter video statement, which called for peace while validating the demonstrations. “We love you,” he told the insurgents. “You’re very special.”)

Those cracks will not magically seal when the crowbar goes away.

Trump will leave office in (at most) two weeks. What of the trends and forces that carried Trump to power in the first place, especially when (not if) a more competent demagogue comes along? If we assume the end of Trump is the end of the story, we may come to find it’s only the beginning.

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Grassroots messaging and mobilization consultant

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Jim Eltringham

Jim Eltringham

Grassroots messaging and mobilization consultant

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