Trying to find some understanding a year after the insurrection
A Thought Experiment.
(This is adapted from Dave Pell’s Please Scream Inside Your Heart, Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.)
Today is the one year anniversary of America not doing anything to punish politicians who tried to overturn a presidential election. It’s also been more than a year since The Big Lie took hold and the misinformation campaign shows no sign of slowing. In short, we still have a false positive problem. Tens of millions of Americans are positive about falsehoods. According to a CBS news poll on our views about the insurrection, “four in 10 Republicans have a different conception of who was involved in the first place, saying most of those who forced their way into the Capitol were left-leaning groups pretending to be Trump supporters.” It gets worse. An ABC/Ipsos poll found that 52% of Republicans say those involved in the riot were “protecting democracy.” And if you’re looking for a positive, ignore this About a third of Americans think violence against the government can be justified. “A majority continue to say that violence against the government is never justified — but the 62 percent who hold that view is a new low point, and a stark difference from the 1990s, when as many as 90 percent said violence was never justified.”
At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if 46% of Americans believe it’s still 2021.
These poll results can be frustrating, alienating, and more than a little scary. My first reaction when seeing numbers like these is to get angry with the duped and fooled; the misinformed and disinformed who believe preposterous lies at the expense of what they can see with their own eyes. This is the kind of blind allegiance that takes down democracies. It all adds to an already sizeable dumpster of hate I feel towards those who are dragging us towards the precipice. You probably feel that hate, too.
Well, don’t. Redirect your contempt from the lied-to to the liars.
Consider this thought experiment.
On the morning after Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, I was in a state of near-catatonic depression. I needed some perspective. I needed to snap out of it. I needed a little cheering up.
So I called my dad.
He had lived through thousands of days worse than this. As a teen and the only survivor of his family, he narrowly escaped a round-up of the remaining survivors in his Jewish ghetto and crawled on his hands and knees through mud into the brutal winter of the Polish forest, where he survived alone for months before joining a partisan group. He’d seen it all, the worst of the worst, so he’d put this blip on the democratic radar into perspective and make me feel better. After we shared our common disbelief at the choice that Americans had made, he told me that he didn’t understand how people could have voted for Trump, and then said, “You know, it sort of reminds me of vhen they voted Hitler into power.”
So I called my mom.
My mom survived Kristallnacht, escaped to France with her sister, came of age in a place that was an orphanage even though no one wanted to call it that, and eventually settled in America where she helped design college courses on genocide, hate, and antisemitism. She said something that defined my thinking the subsequent years. “The real message here is that we all need to become activists. Right now. Today. You know, last night I kept thinking back to my childhood. Maybe if we had organized and fought back against Hitler’s rise, right from the beginning, we could have prevented what happened. Sorry, I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of cheering you up.”
But then she added one more thing, and it was a vital thing, given that she knew as well as anyone what was possible in the coming years: “We didn’t like the way Donald Trump ran for president, but he won the election. This is America. He deserves a chance to lead.”
A few days later, I was in a room filled with about fifty disappointed, highly educated liberals. As the fever rose in the room, a few people started to quote arcane election legalese and argue that there was still time, a week after the election, to convince electors not to back Trump.
I interrupted, quoted my mom’s comment from our phone call earlier in the week, and argued that resistance was fine, even noble. But trying to undo the democratic process was not only completely nuts, it would do more damage to the country than the election results had already done.
The room fell silent, a cool breeze blew in my direction, and I’m pretty sure I heard Ennio Morricone’s whistled theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’ve never been less popular at a social gathering than I was at that one (and believe me, that’s saying something).
Of course, such emotionally driven post-election notions quickly wore off from that room and hundreds of others across the country as we all got back to the business of democracy.
That transition from rage to resistance was helped by the words Hillary Clinton had shared in her concession speech.
“Our campaign was never about one person, or even one election. It was about the country we love and building an America that is hopeful, inclusive, and big-hearted. We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.
“We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.”
But what if Hillary Clinton hadn’t given that speech? What if she had spent the months leading up to the election arguing that Trump was working to rig it (which, given the Russian interference and the man in question, wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to believe)? What if after the election, Clinton refused to concede and insisted that Trump and his cronies had cheated? And what if it didn’t stop there?
What if just about every significant Democratic politician joined that chorus? What if Barack Obama and Joe Biden said Trump cheated and investigations had to happen before the election could be certified? Let’s say that Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Elijah Cummings, Elizabeth Warren, John Lewis, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Dianne Feinstein, and Al Gore joined the chorus. While we’re at it, let’s assume that your favorite state and local leaders not only agreed that the election was rigged but were also working in legislatures and courts to overturn the results. A few weeks into the fight, maybe there were a handful of folks who finally congratulated Trump, but they were called traitors by most of the Democratic leadership. When you had inner doubts about the rigging or wondered what toll the fight was having on America’s democracy or global status, you’d look to the party elders—Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Howard Dean, Madeleine Albright, Bob Kerrey, and George Mitchell— and the most they offered was silence. And filling that void would be your trusted news sources, from CNN and MSNBC to the New York Times and the Washington Post, all bombarding you with news of the steal; a din only out-volumed by the election-thieving stories your friends were sharing on social media platforms with algorithms tweaked to turn rage into revenue.
Is it possible that the people in that room with me would have been compelled to rise up? And would there be one or two from that room and one or two from another, and so on, that would find themselves on the steps of the Capitol, thinking of themselves as patriots?
This thought experiment is not intended to offer solace or sanctuary to anyone who would ultimately breach the nation’s holiest house after being incited by the president, their party, and their media sources. And make no mistake, those who propagated the most dangerous falsehood of a lie-filled presidency and post-presidency should be shamed and shunned. If they’re not punished, the lie will live on and American democracy will be even more endangered. But don’t hate the misinformed. Be as clear-eyed as my dad about the threat our democracy faces. Be as smart as my my mom when it comes to directing your energy towards activism. And be as forgiving as you can to those who view their version of reality filtered through one of the most coordinated and consistent disinformation campaigns in American history.
As frustrating as this one year anniversary feels, it’s worth remembering that the first victims of The Big Lie are those who believe it.
Adapted from Please Scream Inside Your Heart. Order at Amazon, Bookshop, or get the Audiobook featuring Peter Coyote.