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The Breakdown: January 6, 2021

Where is a cop when you need one? Well, some of them were taking selfies of themselves posing with rioters. Others were barricading the doors of the Capitol and getting their heads bashed in with fire extinguishers. In any event, they all were one way or the other too busy to arrest the ringleader who had slipped away and returned to his current address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

While the debacle of January 6th was still in progress at the Capitol, people were also asking two other questions. How did we get here? And where do we go from here? The answers to those questions will be discussed for a long time.

From my vantage point, when Covid-19 arrived in this country it exposed a number of problems in American society that explain how we got here. Bigotry, ignorance, the deficiencies of its schools and health care—one could go on. Some of these have been endemic in the country since its beginnings, but all of them have been aggravated by its socio-economic system and by its leadership, especially of late. If you missed the lessons that COVID-19 offered in its course the past year, then Trump and his mob of knaves and fools offered a one-day crash course on January the 6th.

Bigotry and ignorance are intertwined in all of America’s problems, and they have been even before 1776. Like viruses they spread quickly in America in part due to the diversity of the new country’s population. Which is also one of its greatest strengths—America is as much a contradiction as it is a country. The mixture of Europeans with the Native Americans, Africans, the Hispanic peoples to the south and the creoles from the Caribbean has been a source of its ingenuity and creativity at the same time the latter peoples were the object of the racism and bigotry of most of its European transplants.

Bigotry and ignorance have not merely been tolerated or ignored by the Republican Party. They have been exploited and encouraged by it. Since Nixon the party’s dominance of national politics has been based in large part on its appeals to white racism. The political career of Ronald Reagan, lionized by the mass media since his death, is only one example of this strategy. When he ran for president in 1980, his campaign adviser Lee Atwater told him to open his campaign in a little town in Mississippi called Philadelphia. Why there? Because in June of 1964 the local Klan—which was the same thing as the country sheriff’s department—murdered the three civil rights workers there. Atwater said, “You can’t say ‘nigger nigger nigger’ anymore, so you say ‘states rights.’” Atwater told Reagan to go to Philadelphia, Mississippi and say ‘states rights’ and he would carry the South. And that’s what Reagan did. Trump is from this perspective the predictable culmination of the last fifty years of Republican party politics. And January 6th was the predictable culmination of four years of Trump.

Besides bigotry, white Christian fundamentalist religion has been the other pillar of the Republican Party. But while racial bigotry is always denounced—or almost—religion occupies a special place in America, so even fundamentalist religion has never been challenged head on in the political arena. Except for lunatics like Jim Jones, religion in general is treated as a positive force in American society. The blight that something like 35 to 40% of American adults think the universe is 6000 years old and that dinosaurs and kangaroos went on a cruise together on Noah’s Ark is not discussed as a serious problem for a society with pretensions to democracy. How can such people make laws for rational people?

Trump became president by exploiting the twins of racism and religion. But that is not the whole story of his victory in 2016. He won by also taking another lesson from Reagan’s presidency, another thing that shows the ignorance of so many Americans. The political power of television. In the Sixties, the presidency was becoming for most Americans simply a television show. After the debacle of Watergate and the interlude of the bumbling Gerald Ford, Republican Party leaders found in Ronald Reagan an actor who was happy to simply read his lines, only deviating from them occasionally with devastating witticisms like “There you go again.” It would seem a logical progression from Reagan to Trump.

Even so, there is an important difference between the paths of Reagan and Trump to the White House. Trump was not nurtured and groomed for the job the way Reagan was by his so-called “Kitchen Cabinet.” In fact, for the most part, party leaders opposed Trump. One of the most surprising things about Trump’s nomination was how ineffectual were the party grandees’ efforts to block him. This can be written off to the sorry competitors they had to work with. With the exception of the dull but stolid John Kasich, the rest of the field next to Trump looked either like wimps (Jeb Bush) or cringe-inducing weirdos (Ted Cruz). Bit players at best next to the blonde bombshell of The Apprentice.

The chaos that followed Trump’s installment in the White House was the result of the very things that led to his victory—bigotry and ignorance—and the chaos was aggravated and accelerated by the very quality of Trump that made Republican big shots were wary of him. He was long known to be incapable of following any script but his own. And his own script consists from one second to the next of simply whatever pops into the brain adorned by his highly stable $70,000 cantilever hairdo.

Republican leaders set aside their aversion after Trump won—what else could they do? The consensus seems to have been they would manage him somehow despite his psychological oddities. But they weren’t alone. The press inexcusably ignored Trump’s mental problems until events on January 6th made his recklessness and lunacy glaringly evident to most people in America. With the rather large exception of the seventy-four million idiots who voted for him in November.

The mainstream media had ignored the menace of Trump’s lunacy from the very beginning. Though he was known to be a pathological liar his whole life, for four long years when he lied, the press said politely, “The president claimed…” or “The president said without basis…” instead of “The president lied.” When he uttered the most bizarre statements—that he had fallen in love with Kim Jung-un, that people should inject cleansers—his words were reported usually with no comment on what sort of mental state they reflected. If there was comment, it was something anodyne: ‘unusual.’ The press too never publicly owned up to the fact, mentioned above, that presidential politics had long been a television show. Which was crucial to understanding Trump. When he talked about his ‘ratings’ which were always ‘through the ceiling’ he was not talking about his ratings in opinion polls, but rather his interviews and appearances on television. But even as Trump’s words and deeds grew more outrageous and bizarre the various news organizations were loath to admit they were part of the problem—they helped to make it a TV show, from which they make hundreds of millions of dollars—because that admission would undermine their role as merely impartial observers. Rather than players with a stake in the outcome. After all, who promised to put on a livelier show with higher ratings? Clinton or Trump? Yet even so, they were still surprised by January 6th. Given what preceded they should have seen it coming. For as a TV show, even the Trump presidency finally did follow a common Hollywood script. If you can’t come up with anything else, just end the show with a big fireball. That’s basic Hollywood doctrine. Why hit ‘em over the head with a five-lb. maul when you can hit ‘em over the head with a 10-lb. maul?

Well, it was an interesting experiment having an idiot and a lunatic for a president while it lasted. But now apparently it has failed. And I can have the bitter satisfaction—along some other writers and psychiatrists and Mary Trump—of having predicted that it would end in a big catastrophe unlike any America has ever seen before. Still, a bitter satisfaction is better than no satisfaction at all.

The whole sorry sordid story that led to where we are now is captured in a few photos taken on January 6th. There were the photos that showed some members of the Capitol Police remove the barriers for the rioters and then pose for selfies with them—the problem with police in America goes beyond the particulars of this or that city police department—the Few Bad Apples Theory. Then there were the rioters themselves, most of them wearing fatigues. Mental five-year-olds who are still playing Army only now with live ammo, with a mental eight-year-old as their leader. And then the bottom of the whole rotten barrel. A man wearing a hoodie with the skull and crossbones on it and the words, “Camp Auschwitz. Work Makes Freedom.”

So, to understand how we got here, the reality-based community in America—in particular the white middle-class—must also own up to some version of the history of the country that does not whitewash all the crimes committed against various peoples that have helped to create their comfortable lives. Guilt is stupid and changes nothing. What is needed is a clear-eyed sense of how the problems have been created and what can be done to fix them. A large number of well-meaning people have some grasp of what the problems are, but they really aren’t politically organized to act so as to change things. I think, however, there are signs among younger Americans that they are ready to do that, to organize and assert themselves. The granddaddy of all the problems is climate change which is involved in every other social crisis and it also greatly aggravated by the delusions of the right wing. The second major task is more specific. It is to destroy the Republican Party. Noam Chomsky has called it the most dangerous organization in the world. It is a criminal organization that dwarfs organized crime. Compared to the mobsters, the people who are the Republican base—the white lumpens and the religious right—are more dangerous due to their delusions. After all, mobsters, to live and flourish outside the law, must have a grasp of social reality. Not so the masses of the Republican rank and file. In fact, their leaders encourage their ignorance and delusions. It enables them to prey on their flock and, besides, a large number of stupid people are needed for the functioning of the economy. So real fundamental change must set for its goals the suppression of the Republican Party as a criminal organization and its destruction as a political force. As I write (the early hours of January 14th), ten House Republican have voted to impeach Trump, and Mitch McConnell has talked to Nancy Pelosi about impeachment. He has told the press that he will consider conviction. The talk is that he sees it as a possible way to throw Trump out of the Republican Party. All is in flux. Now we may speak of impeachment as perhaps the ‘less good’ alternative insofar as his expulsion may enable the Republican party to survive. Whereas if he remains in the party, he may tear it to pieces. But who thought three months ago we might speak of Trump’s impeachment and conviction as the ‘less good’ option? Truly the ground shifted on January 6th.

A corollary of this should be the capture of the Democratic Party by its left wing. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies. It’s easier to take over than to start over. The neo-liberal old guard Pelosi et al must be put out to pasture. Biden’s presidency should be an interregnum.

These things will take time. But the first step can be taken immediately. That is to resist the call that will certainly be made by many of the old guard in the Democratic party to let Trump walk so as to “heal the divisions in the country.” That must be resisted. Mercy is out of the question for this vicious monster. Every path to lock him up and heap shame on him must be followed. If those appeals are ignored, it can be done. Cyrus Vance Jr. is likely waiting for January 21st to shift his investigation into high gear. And a number of women accusers are pursuing him through lawsuits. The goal should be to destroy Trump not only as a political leader, but also to make him an object of derision.

Besides the legal campaign, a relentless campaign of vilification is necessary. It is useless to argue with followers who dress up like Conan the Ball-bearing—as Twain said, it is easier to fool people than it is to convince people they have been fooled—so making him an object of public derision and contempt is a political necessity. For such idiots, the effect of beating up on Trump in the mass media until he is a helpless contemptible loser should not be underestimated. This is a man who launches a six-hour tirade of tweets in response to some minor criticism. Now when his mental state makes him most vulnerable and he’s deprived of fighting back through Twitter, a relentless campaign of abuse in the press may hasten his crackup.

To step back and look at the broader picture, there is, in addition to the big anti-Trump turn-out of younger Americans in the November election, another promising sign. In response to the January 6th insurrection, there seems to have begun a broad reevaluation of our society’s woes spreading to institutions that might seem to have no connection to that event—or a tenuous one at best. Medical centers like Harvard and Columbia are being accused of showing cronyism and connections in the way they’ve distributed the covid vaccines. A doctor has called the way the State of Florida is handling the vaccinations “lawless.” Amazon, Google and Apple have thrown off their platforms Parler, a right wing social media app that had been growing rapidly in recent months. Now the head of Parler complains it may be impossible to have any web presence at all. The City of New York has cut all its business ties with the Trump organization. Deutsche Bank and other banks have followed suit. Even the PGA has gotten involved. It will strip Trump’s New Jersey club of its 2022 national championship, declaring that to be associated with his club “would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand.” This was said to be especially galling to Trump. He better get ready for more unpleasant news, for this process seems sure to continue. And who knows where it will lead? The magic of the marketplace works in mysterious ways.

Daniel Beaumont teaches Arabic language & literature and other courses at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Slave of Desire: Sex, Love & Death in the 1001 Nights and Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. He can be contacted at: daniel.beaumont@rochester.edu

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