Wednesday, January 20

We should have been prepared for it, but the show on Capitol Hill was a shock | Rape of the US Capitol


“AAre you watching this I was crossing the street, five minutes late to pick up the children, and after reading the text, I stopped to move. Whoops! Instantly, I texted someone else. “Is the television on?” “No.” “Turn it on.” After the pickup, we ran to a doctor’s appointment, where the receptionist had the television on behind the desk. “This is crazy,” he murmured, as someone in the waiting room read a news report aloud to his teenage daughter. When we got home, some neighbors had come out of their apartments to work, masked, in the hallway. “The number of people who support this seems low, but it doesn’t have to be a majority,” said one grimly.

The absorption into daily life of disastrous events is something the world has become accustomed to over the past 12 months, which is not to say that every new disaster is not shocking. This is particularly true in America, where no matter how many times one is reminded that millions of Americans have opinions that seem, to millions of people, actively crazy, their public expression is never less astonishing. When the Trump-supporting mob stormed onto Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the most astonishing thing was less that was happening, that after four years of dire predictions, our imaginations had yet to prepare us.

This was, in part, a selectivity of memory. “It can’t happen here” is a phrase that, even when used in conjunction with darker warnings about Trump, betrayed a fundamental faith in American democracy that overlooks its savage foundations. The white supremacy project, which remains strong as an overt principle of even liberal government policy until well into the 20thth century – black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal – should at least have raised as a possibility a white mob storming the government at the behest of a racist president. The fact that they looked, in their homemade costumes and gas masks, so utterly ridiculous wasn’t even out of place to keep the precedent – that end of the extra-political spectrum has always gone for costumes and flaming theatricality.

From a processing point of view, the strangest thing on Wednesday was that an event with the force of an anticipated conclusion still broke a fundamental rule of superstition: that by anticipating the worst, we invite the universe to pleasantly surprise us. The word “coup” has been used in relation to Trump many times since November. However, before the president incited the mob, even in candid contexts, it was used, if not hyperbole, then at least with the expectation that by naming it we would lessen the likelihood of it happening. You could take Trump seriously as a national security threat, fully believe in his efforts to corrupt the election, and still not fully endorse the idea that he would encourage a takeover, not just because he’s vague, chaotic, and silly, but because as an extremely broad principle, nothing tends to unfold as predicted.

There was still to live the day. As with 9/11 and the onset of the pandemic, the unreality of Wednesday’s events collided with everyday affairs to make them seem even weirder. It’s a function of human resilience that whatever happens, you still, as Sylvia Plath put it in The Bell Jar, have to “eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.” Many of us abandoned the work portion of that observation and spent the afternoon trying to distribute our assignments as we flipped through the news channels in disbelief; however, life continued. People from other countries sent text messages. I tried to explain what was happening to my kids and didn’t get much further than, “Do you know Donald Trump is a terrible person?”

Once again, the goal posts changed. With each breach of moral standards, Trump has expanded the range of public behaviors that can still be absorbed. Their supporters smashed windows and doors with graffiti and vandalized Congressional offices, but they were not an armed militia, which, I caught myself thinking, before turning to analyze the thought in amazement, was something to be thankful for. It could have been worse, as those coming out of the Capitol building were yelling at reporters that it would be next time.

In the hallway outside my apartment, my neighbors and I went over how crazy it was, how we couldn’t believe it, what it all meant, and where it would go. “It’s Germany 1933,” said one. And whether this was true or not, we all nodded our heads and then went back to our houses to make dinner.

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