By Jacob Derin
The attack on the Capitol last week inaugurated a new era in the dismal history of Trumpism. Of all the lines Donald Trump has crossed, or shoved the country over, in his four years as President, this was the one that will define his legacy and shatter the country for years to come. When violence came to the Capitol, it showed America that words are no longer enough to bridge political divides.
Yet, instead of confronting this problem, the American political universe is split into two conversations that do not overlap. One camp simply denies that Trump supporters carried out the riots in the first place, and the other wants to make this about the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet another strand of the political conversation tries to equate the Capitol riots with the sporadic violence over the summer. The result is a terrifying quagmire of moral confusion.
The first claim is simply false. Antifa did not infiltrate the protests, nor was this some elaborate false flag operation. This was exactly what it looked like: a very stupid and equally deadly attempt at a violent coup d’etat.
I have heard so many people ask, “Would this have gone the same if the rioters were Black?” That is simply the wrong question in my book for multiple reasons. After a rebellion against the lawful government, incited by the sitting President, the most important questions are “how do we stop this from happening again?” and “how do we get this lunatic away from the nukes as quickly as possible?”
Also, it’s the wrong question because politics more than race was the salient variable here. Trump didn’t act quickly to send in the national guard or mobilize any police response not because these were mostly white people attacking the Capitol but because they were his supporters, representing his interests. The police were largely overwhelmed by the mob and were unable to effectively respond because there simply weren’t enough of them.
That being said, there are serious questions to be asked about the behavior of the Capitol Police, including the removal of barriers, taking selfies and standing down. I do not have the answer to those questions. They deserve answers, and I hope that we will have them soon. I suspect that the light deployment of police was in part exactly because of the heavy criticism the government endured after its crackdown on protests over the summer, though, as of now, we just don’t know.
The equation of the Capitol riots with the events over last summer is nothing less than sophistry. What happened at the Capitol was a rebellion against the government. It was a devastating blow to the rule of law and our status as a functional nation. It can in no way compare to sporadic looting at Black Lives Matter rallies.
Many lofty words have been exchanged over the past week about “freedom of speech” and “democratic norms.” We’ve heard so much about them that they’ve lost all meaning. Perhaps we’ve even seen the images from the riots so often that they, too, have lost all meaning. They shouldn’t. What happened at the Capitol building last week wasn’t a warning or a sign that things are “getting really bad.” It wasn’t even just “an assault on democracy.” It was a breach of the final line which separates a functioning state from a failed one: violence replacing words.
It occurred to me, watching the terrorists and rebels murdering a police officer and menacing the lives of our nation’s top elected legislators, that words had failed me. I don’t mean that I couldn’t speak, or even that I didn’t know what to say. I had plenty of verbiages to throw at my television screen. No, what I realized in that instant was that nothing I or any other human being on this planet could say would matter to these people. There existed no combination of words that could change the minds of the people who committed those crimes.
This is the most critical lesson of liberalism and the most sacred heritage of the democratic tradition: speech is the only alternative to violence. In ancient Athens, the world’s first democracy, men learned rhetoric as the primary method for exercising political power. In Christian mysticism, Christ is identified with logos, “the word,” which brought the world into being. Speech and words form the polity itself, and when they become impotent, so does the State.
What we saw on the Capitol steps, as officers of the federal government were overwhelmed by barbarians at the gate, was not only the result of policy or human failures but a glimpse of the chaos which lurks underneath our political reality. The United States is a legal fiction, nothing more than words on a page, animated by belief. Once that belief dissipates, it does too.
The line that we crossed doesn’t necessarily doom us to this fate, but it makes it, for the first time, a non-zero probability. At the same instant the mob breached the Capitol doors, it shattered the final bulwark against Trumpism’s fully-fledged assault on American federalism—it brought violence into the realm of political discourse.
The United States capital is now effectively under military occupation to secure it against the threat of violence. All 50 state capitals are facing a similar threat. The democratic process has failed, and all that is left to us, and the State, is to protect itself from insurrection through armed force.
Even as I write these words, I know that they will convince no one who isn’t already convinced of their truth. Need I add my voice to the chorus, which has been repeating this truism, for four long years? It can happen here.
Extremists across the country saw what happened last week and are eager to repeat it as often and with as many casualties as possible. To deter them, everyone who participated in the Capitol attack must be arrested and given the maximum possible criminal penalties. I cannot overstate how important that is. This cannot stand.
One image from the protests stayed with me, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough attention.
Somebody set up a gallows in front of the Capitol. To my eye, this is a symbol that can mean one of two things. It might be a reference to the white supremacist book The Turner Diaries, in an event called “The Day Of The Rope,” where all “race traitors” who married outside of their race or otherwise conspired with “the enemy” are hanged for treason. Or it could be a reference to a component of the QAnon conspiracy theory known as “The Storm,” a similarly apocalyptic event wherein Donald Trump will unseal indictments against satanic pedophiles in the U.S. government and execute them.
These people mean what they say, and I take them at their word.
If this country has any hope of pulling itself back from the brink, it must find a way to embrace the power of words again and reject the horrors of violence. I just hope it’s not too late.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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