Barbarians at the Gates

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler – CC BY 2.0

I worked on Capitol Hill for a couple of years – in the 1970s. I used to visit the Capitol, primarily for pleasure. Here was America’s center of political life  designed and built with classical Greece in mind. The architecture and paintings of the large Capitol building do in fact mirror the polis of Athens.

However, the election of Donald Trump, a corrupt businessman, to the presidency in November 2016 brought to a head decades-long boiling undemocratic forces in America. January 6, 2021 was a dark day during which Trump launched an unsuccessful coup.

Like an experienced tyrant, Trump invited his followers from all over America to Washington. He was determined to keep his power. He told his followers to go to the Capitol in order to prevent Vice President Mike Pence and the Senate from certifying the popular victory of Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States. He kept telling the angry mob that the Democrats had stolen the election.

Trump’s private militia walked to the Capitol and entered the grounds of the poorly guarded citadel of American democracy.

It did not take long for the Trump troops to break through the defenses of the US Capitol: ill-prepared, disorganized, and frightened guards policing the building.

We get a clue of the violence and wrath of the Trump army from the hearings the US House of Representatives has had about the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

What the hearings revealed

I watched those hearings. I listened to the testimony of former Trump officials. They reluctantly admitted they were angry with Trump for ignoring the dangers of the insurrection. While his followers were destroying the Capitol, he was watching Fox News and never called the Pentagon to put down the vandals in the Capitol. Some of the Trump White House officials resigned in protest.

I carefully heard the presentations of the members of the select committee that collected the incriminating evidence against Trump. They made passionate speeches that summarized the evidence of wrongdoing by Trump while expressing their ideals of what should be done to prevent another insurrection. The two Republican members of the select committee, Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger, were just as eloquent in denouncing Trump as their Democratic colleagues.

American carnage: Awful truth out in the open 

I listened to Jamie Raskin of Maryland carefully. More than any of his committee colleagues and witnesses, he zeroed in the heart of the Trump coup. In his concluding remarks, he said this:

“American carnage. That’s Donald Trump’s true legacy. His desire to overthrow the people’s election and seize the presidency interrupted the counting of Electoral College votes for the first time in American history, nearly toppled the constitutional order and brutalized hundreds and hundreds of people. The Watergate break-in was like a Cub Scout meeting compared to this assault on our people and institutions… the crucial thing is:.. what this Committee, what all of us will do to fortify our democracy against coups, political violence, and campaigns to steal elections away from the people…

“Donald Trump has only expanded his Big Lie to cover January 6 itself. He asserts the insurrection was the real election, and the election was the real insurrection. He says his mob greeted our police officers on January 6th with hugs and kisses.

“He threatens to take one of America’s two major political parties with him down the road to authoritarianism, and it is Abraham Lincoln’s party, no less. The political scientists tell us that authoritarian parties have two essential features in common in history and around the world: they do not accept the results of democratic elections when they lose; and they embrace political violence as legitimate. And the problem of incitement to political violence has only grown more serious in the Internet Age as we have just heard.

“But this is not the problem of one party, it is the problem of the whole country now. American democracy, Mr. Chairman, is a precious inheritance, something rare in the history of the world and even on earth today. Constitutional democracy is the silver frame, as Lincoln put it, upon which the golden apple of freedom rests. We need to defend both our democracy and our freedom with everything we have and declare that this American carnage ends here and now. In a world of resurgent authoritarianism and racism and antisemitism, let’s all hang tough for American democracy.”

In an interview with Face the Nation he added:

Madison said that in a democracy, the people have the right to the most awful truth, which is the truth about the nature of government and their rulers. And we need Americans to look very carefully at what happened [on January 6, 2021].”

As a former professor of constitutional law, Raskin grasped the danger of the Trump coup. Trump failed this time, but what about next time? Trump is the uncrowned king of the Republican party. And despite the fact that during the failed insurrection some Republican members of Congress criticized Trump, most of them look at him as their candidate for the 2024 presidential election.

That possibility is frightening Raskin. He is right all Americans should know the most awful truths of American politics. Trump is that awful truth. He is always ready to overthrow the government. He is an egomaniac who has the tastes of a king.

I also saw the videos depicting the violence and vandalism of the followers of Trump. They trashed the Capitol. They wanted to kill Pence and members of Congress. Their abominable behavior reminded me of the crusaders capturing Constantinople in 1204.

This confrontation right at the center of Congressional debates and lawmaking infuriated all Democrats and a few Republicans. Congressional leaders were scared.

Will Americans learn a lesson from this crude and vicious attack against the Capitol and democracy? Will they condemn Trump to obscurity and prison for his crimes? Will they denounce the Republican supporters of Trump, denying them reelection?

The January 6, 2021 insurrection has a lesson for the Democratic members of Congress as well. The insurrection is a warning that democracy is in deep trouble. President Joe Biden is not taking democracy seriously. He forgot his promises on climate change and he is now supporting the oil companies, which are fueling climate chaos.

Biden does not deserve reelection. Another Democrat like Raskin should replace Biden.

Ceaseless crimes equal immunity from procecussion?

We should be grateful to the House select committee for revealing the awful truths of our democracy. Yet, Frank Bruni of the New York Times says the committee is wasting our time with all these revelations about Trump. Bruni wants us to forget the ceaseless illegalities of Trump:

Trump benefits from the extremeness and relentlessness of his wrongdoing. He’s so offensive so much of the time that the offenses blur, no single transgression sustaining the kind of attention it should because there’s a next one seconds later and another just after that,” he wrote.

Bruni also speaks of the power of the media to confuse us, which indeed undermine the findings and conclusions of the select committee. And how does this happen? Bruni explains,

“[T]his hyper-connected and nuance-free age of ours barrages us with bad news, much of it rendered in a hyperventilating fashion that comes to seem more affectation than alarm. Unable to care about all of it, we can wind up caring about too little of it.”

True, media harm America. But instead of suggesting a remedy, Bruni uses theology to neutralize the work of the January 6, 2021 committee, saying:

“It’s doing transcendently important work in an environment that just about forbids transcendence.”

Enemies of democracy

I find it strange and disturbing that any newspaper would be undermining the honest work of the select committee just because the architect of the insurrection was a former president who harmed democracy and the reputation of the country.

I do hope, however, that Americans understand the gravity of Trump’s failed coup. Yes, it’s an awful truth that America has been breeding a series of tyrants like Trump. They go under the name of billionaires. Trump was simply the most exuberant of them. These billionaires are at the gates of the US Capitol. They hate democracy. This is the bitter truth coming out of the hearings.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.