Re-Imagining America

Updated 1/15/21 3:30 EST

How is the average citizen to deal with the feeling of helpless outrage that descended on us this last week? What should we be thinking, asking, and doing about it? What can we learn that isn’t cast in the starkly political, partisan terms that have become our first reflex?

The events of January 6 are hard to fathom. How could a sitting president of the United States —even this one— address a crowd of agitated supporters in so irresponsible a fashion? How could so many in that crowd believe not only his lies about the election, but that by surrounding or penetrating the Capitol they could alter the already legally-determined result? How could the Capitol itself have been so poorly defended? And how could so many conservative representatives and senators ignore all of this and persist in their anti-democratic, unconstitutional pantomime of objecting to state-certified electoral votes?

There are no satisfying or even modestly informative answers to any of these questions, and the pending impeachment trial in the Senate is unlikely to provide them. We’ve descended into purely gestural politics, where the futile Republican gesture against confirming the electoral count must be mirrored by the equally futile Democratic gesture of impeachment. No minds are changed, much less enlightened, by any of this.

The byzantine psychology of politicians like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — both Ivy League-educated lawyers and former Supreme Court clerks who know better — is beyond, or rather beneath, serious interest. Hypocrisy and mendacity are endemic to politics and politicians, and merely calling it out gets us nothing (though voting them out is another matter).

Again, what should we citizens be thinking, asking, and doing?

We’ve all got our habits of mind in these circumstances. The lawyers among us take refuge in parsing the technical legal definition of incitement to see if Trump’s reckless rhetoric fits the bill, but if you’re not interested in old Supreme Court decisions on the subject, let me summarize: it probably doesn’t, but it’s also totally beside the point. The man urged a susceptible mob to forcibly oppose electoral processes enshrined in the Constitution and required by law, and that should be enough to meet any reasonable standard for impeachment of a president, if not the criminal definition of incitement to violence.

Others resort to the drawing of false equivalencies between, on one hand, protestors vandalizing storefronts in Portland, or the four-year rhetorical fire directed by the left against Trump, or the anti-war riots of 1968, and on the other, a presidentially-led mob invading the Capitol to overturn a national election. But this is sheer sophistry. There is simply nothing equal in modern memory to what happened last week, either in its damage to our stature as a nation, or to our understanding of ourselves as a people.

Because the real damage done last week was that it has become impossible to know who we, the people, are; impossible to ignore that a large segment of the American populace has rejected what was a common consensus about how our admittedly odd form of democracy is supposed to work, and what in fact it means to live in a nation of laws and not of men. This represents either a flat-out failure of our educational system to inculcate even a grade-school understanding of civics in the adult population, or a failure of the rudimentary morality required to live up to its modest standards.

My personal interest, therefore, is not in the mob that stormed the Capitol last week — they were a gang of self-selected zealots and neurotics most susceptible to the torrent of lies and incitements spewed out by Trump and his minions. They are more pathetic than frightening, and people like them constitute a fractional minority of Trump supporters. I’m interested in the arguably sane people. I’m interested in the people with the education and wherewithal to have letters published in the Wall Street Journal editorial page, as they did this week, expressing undaunted support for Trump and a belief in his eventual vindication. I’m interested in the reported 70% of Republicans who express a belief that November’s results were fraudulent.

As best I can imagine it, a general taxonomy of these non-delusional diehards might look something like the following:

Policy Hitchhikers. These are people who would never have considered admitting someone like Trump to their fraternity, country club, or business partnership, but were thrilled to have him and Mitch McConnell reduce their taxes and the regulatory falderal of running their businesses, and stack the federal judiciary with like-minded Republicans, all the while allowing them to chuckle sardonically over dinner at the club at how Trump trolled the libs with his utter contempt for political correctness (though they would continue to practice it in front of the grandkids, who happily attend charter schools).

Culture War Veterans. Pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay, pro-death penalty, not so much practitioners or deniers of racism as resentful of being blamed for it, as when the word “systemic” began to be used to describe the nature of the problem. Trump relieved them of their growing sense of cultural obsolescence, for which they have rewarded him with their undying devotion.

Celebrity Hounds. Loved Reagan too, if they were alive back then, for the same reason: a famous name disassociated from politics suddenly enters it with the outsider’s promise to be different, to shake things up. These are people — a good many of them women — who loved “The Apprentice.” Had Trump not appeared on their TV screens for the better part of a decade, he would have remained a local New York punchline, a figure of pure tabloid fun. Instead, he portrayed a fictional Donald Trump who pretended to fire people in a fabricated TV entertainment, and a large number of adults apparently thought they were watching a weekly documentary about an actually great man. His money and vulgarity added to this allure, because what’s fun about the rich and famous is they aren’t like you and me, don’t have to live by our values. For these disaffected or simply bored millions, Trump’s presidency, his existence, has been another form of escapism — from the soft tyranny of expertise, the perceived condescension of coastal elites, the complexity and nuance of traditional political discourse. A return to the boring agenda of adult governance is like withdrawing an addictive drug that they’ll continue to fight to receive.

That’s all I got. Of course these are mere categories that mesh and overlap in the Venn diagram of real life. But those are the limits of my imagining of what induced upwards of 74 million Americans to vote for Trump, and to tolerate his deadly antics of last week. I’m sure I’m missing something, a crucial empathy with the voiceless downtrodden, the small business owner liberated from the yoke of bureaucracy, the earnest patriot who pines for the mythic national pride and unanimity of his parents’ prime. But try as I might, and as those words suggest, I fall into caricature and condescension of the very kind I revile in the right, and that’s no way to truly understand my fellow citizens.

Yet this is the exercise we’re called to now. We need to find new and more generous and more humane ways to imagine one another if we’re to avoid more days like January 6th. We need to re-educate ourselves, yes, but we need more than anything a renewal of mutual imagination.

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