Around 1:30 pm on January 6, I turned on the TV so I could, as I told my girlfriend, “watch the shitshow at the Capitol.” At that time, I was talking about the hot mess of looming objections to the presidential ballot certification, orchestrated by 140 members of the House and a small but notable cadre of Republican senators. I tuned in midway through Senator Ted Cruz’s shamefully cynical invocation of an irrelevant incident from 1876 juxtaposed, on the screen, by the gathering on the Capitol steps. I watched with tired indifference up through the moment when another Republican senator, James Lankford, was interrupted by a member of his staff saying that, “the protesters are in the building.”
Over the last four years (ignoring the decades-long arc from Gingrich to the Tea Party, and the broader history of colonialism and white supremacy that preceded it), we’ve watched an erosion of norms and endless expressions of bold-faced complicity. Four years of kleptocracy, criminality, abdication of duty, greed, racism, xenophobia, and nationalism, aided and abetted by an increasingly cynical armada of right-wing propaganda networks. Looking at that previous sentence, it seems at once so extreme and so insufficient—to invoke so many absolute evils and yet to feel that none of them adequately encapsulate the scope of the crisis. Even thinking back to the blind rage I felt on election day in 2016, I would not necessarily have predicted that the Trump era would end so biblically, devolving straight to the pestilence, transpiring against a now-familiar backdrop of fires and hard rains.
Four years of gaslighting by politicians and pundits who, when asked about the president’s most recent inflammatory tweet, statement or action, had the audacity to say, I didn’t see/read/hear it. Or, if they did, that he didn’t mean what we all knew he meant. A collective feigned or willful ignorance. So long as whatever happened didn’t happen right in front of them, a Representative Scalise or a Senator Cruz could look into the camera, or to Norah O’Donnell across the table, and parrot the old familiar talking point: I’m not going to get distracted from doing the will of the American people.
And then came a loud knock at the door of the House chamber.
At that point, it was no longer possible for Republicans to say they could not see or hear the problem, or ignore the proverbial writing—at least in theory. Members of the house huddled behind desks and donned emergency gas masks to protect themselves from the pepper spray that had been released in the rotunda, and the sergeant-at-arms and his deputies drew their guns. Video emerged of one representative in the midst of a fever-pitched prayer for the protection of those in the House and a restoration of sanity. Shaky camera footage revealed a gunshot reverberating through the halls of congress, and an unsteady hand led the camera down to a rioter wounded by the shot, as others reached for her pierced neck to staunch the flow of blood.
“We tried to stop the bleeding,” another rioter later told Fox News, “and then we just watched her eyes go white.”
For four hours we watched this unfolding collage of American carnage. We watched Trump flags flood the Capitol steps and unfurl over the balustrade. We watched insurrectionists burst through the glass and climb through the windows and toss chairs and siege-trophies out to the emboldened mob. We would learn in the days to follow of gallows erected on the Capitol, of rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” and of Speaker Pelosi’s staffers huddled beneath a table in a darkened room as insurrectionists attempted to break through the door. We would learn that five people lost their lives. We would learn that the amount of time separating the evacuation of the Senate Chamber from the rioters’ incursion was a matter of seconds.
“A few minutes earlier,” Chris Hayes wrote on Twitter, “and we could have had a mob beating senators to death.”
For four years, we had watched the green rot fester around our deeply wounded republic, and now it had finally seeped into the core.
In March 2017, I wrote an essay for Guernica called “Donald, in Passing,” about a man named Donald who worked on the same floor as me in a large office complex. An elderly divorce lawyer whom I would frequently see in the hallway, I described him as “a staunch Republican fiscally and morally. He was upset when Scalia died. He was happy when Donald Trump was elected.”
The article lamented the disappearance of respectful dialogue between people of profoundly disparate worldviews or political or ideological persuasions—talking to “the opposition,” as I both described and countered in the piece. The occasion for the piece was Donald’s sudden death, after he fell down the stairs of the Oculus, a transit hub in New York, and hit his head on the marble steps.
“Donald, in Passing” was written in months of collective shellshock and anxiety. The political lens was fixated on the narrative of the disillusioned white working class that had helped then-candidate Trump eke out a technical victory, and book stores were selling out of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Even though a more unapologetic vein of progressivism was both present and emerging into a broader public consciousness, the general tone was a dazed appetite for reconciliation, encapsulated in Barack Obama’s farewell address, when he warned that “We rise or fall as one.” While there was anger, fear and fury, there was still some sense in mainstream media circles that Trump was an accident, that he was malleable, that his victory did not necessarily reflect the sentiments of most Americans.
It was amid that atmosphere, and following the death of someone in whom I had detected a live spark of that distinctly American public discourse, that I wrote that essay.
“This man and I didn’t agree on a single thing,” I wrote. “But the conversation was like a throwback to some time before Newt Gingrich, when it still seemed like there was room for deep philosophical discussions about the scope and nature of government. These conversations have never been separate from implicit or overt issues of race and class and privilege and oppression—but the discussion always furthered that progressive arch by challenging preconceived notions and learning both where the battle lines are drawn and what the opposition’s weaknesses are. Most importantly, it reminded me that the opposition is not stupid or ill-informed and definitely not inhuman. Maybe ‘opposition’ isn’t even the right word.”
I re-read that essay in the early morning hours of January 7. And as I did so, my thoughts diverged from politics to the memory of the sun-spotted face of a balding man with a pointed nose and a suit that he was shrinking inside of, and I was reminded why I really wrote the piece all those years ago. Because Donald, the lawyer, was a kind human being. I wanted to insist that it’s not naïve to want to be civil, to reach out, to hope for some common understanding, some resolution, some reconciliation. It’s not foolish to be a humanist. It’s a radical act of hope.
Four years later, in the face of so much loss, it seems ever more radical and even less possible. Loss of blissful ignorance, of Black life, of millions of jobs, of hundreds of thousands of COVID victims, of time to address climate change, of the will to acknowledge each other, of family bonds. My relationships with multiple family members have been frayed, if not irreparably damaged, by the cumulative weight of profound disagreements. I don’t call my stepbrother because I know where the conversation will lead. I haven’t spoken directly with my stepfather in years.
The irony is that in the last in-person conversation I had with my stepfather, in 2017, he told me, “You’re gonna be fine in this world because you’re able to talk to anybody. Doesn’t matter how rich or how poor or how fucked up or whether or not they agree with you. You have a way of relating to everybody.”
If he was right, it was only because I truly believed in the importance of that dialogue.
At that time, Trump was already in office, but the full weight of controversy, outrage, doom-scrolling and Facebook arguments hadn’t yet borne down on me. One day, I finally broke. We got in a fight over some comment on Facebook and said things we couldn’t take back, and our relationship—though I still love them to death, and would overlook so much to be there for them—has never been the same. One by one, I’ve broken ties with conservative relatives, acquaintances, friends.
Which was deeply disheartening. As a working class kid—a first-generation college student whose first college went bankrupt in the Great Recession and who finally completed his education at a Catholic school in the South, and coming from a family where almost no one had a passport—who found myself flying around the world on business for a hundred-million dollar international non-profit while living in Brooklyn, I felt like the main thing that had carried me between these disparate cultures and classes was what my stepfather attributed to me: “a way of relating to everybody.”
But now, when I look at the footage from the Capitol—when I watch those who stormed the people’s house with riot gear, guns, pipe bombs, and flags of the old Confederacy and the new cult of personality—I can’t pretend we are speaking the same language, or living in the same country. I don’t believe that we are capable, in this moment, of dialogue.
It’s impossible to agree to disagree with someone when there is no mutually agreed upon reality. It’s impossible to agree to disagree with a person who refuses to accept the equal right to life of a person who looks different or worships another god. It’s impossible to build a democracy with those who have given themselves over—mind, body, and soul—to authoritarianism.
Donald—my affable yet cantankerous lawyer friend—didn’t live to see this day. And if he were alive, I wouldn’t be able to ask if his views had changed, anyway. Our respective offices would’ve been closed in the lockdown. I would probably be left to wonder if that frail, elderly man would survive the pandemic. That’s just one more illustration of the severing of our civil bonds: It’s hard to restore a sense of union when society has been effectively atomized.
When congress reconvened in the late hours of January 6, Senator Cory Booker said, “We brought this hell upon ourselves.” Representative after representative implored each other and the country to remember the better angels of our nature. But even amid that moment of profound reckoning, more than a hundred members of the House and six members of the Senate refused to yield to the bare truth of the moment.
Just over one week later, when the House debated making Donald Trump the only president in history to be impeached twice, the majority of Republicans doubled down, calling, ironically, on Democrats not to fan the flames of division, reverting to the same lies about the president’s innocence and lack of culpability, and—in perhaps the most insultingly shameful contortion of logic—portraying themselves and the president as the real victims.
“It’s always been about getting the president, no matter what,” Representative Jim Jordan said from the chamber. “It’s about cancelling, as I’ve said. Cancelling the president and anyone that disagrees with them.” And, in a stunning but by now familiar exercise in what-aboutism and false equivalency, Representative Matt Gaetz stood behind the lectern and brazenly stated that “I denounce political violence from all ends of the spectrum, but make no mistake, the left in America has incited far more political violence than the right.”
In the end, only ten Republicans could admit the bare truth laid before them and vote to impeach the president. The remaining 197 Republican representatives elected complicity over country.
The word “fascism” is rooted in the Italian word “fascio”—a bundle of sticks. And while the majority of our representatives made an appeal to truth and reconciliation—to that contest of ideas and mutual respect in which a democracy can be forged—the notable minority persisted in laying those bundles at the steps of the capitol, for kindling.