It has been a long time since I’ve lived in my hometown of Washington, D.C. I don’t have much sentimental affection for the place. But as I joined my fellow Americans in watching a mob lay waste to the Capitol building on Wednesday, I felt grief as well as rage. I wanted to scream, but I wanted to cry too.
Let’s not resort to euphemisms about what happened. There were no “very fine people” among these rioters. They are trash. They trashed the people’s house so they could feel right at home. They are heartless and brain-dead. They laughed and preened and took selfies as they smashed windows, threatened the lives of public servants, vandalized Congressional offices, and made a mockery of a building and a flag that stand for the idea of America the Beautiful, unrealized as that idea too often is.
Another thing about them, by the way: They were almost exclusively white.
Also largely white: the docile police who facilitated their entry into the Capitol, who failed to curb their criminal behavior until way too much damage had been done, and who, in some cases, fraternized with the insurrectionists as if they were all members of the same secret society. Maybe, with time and investigation, we’ll learn that in fact they were.
The last time I saw large-scale destruction in Washington, I did so firsthand, at the end of my teens, when I was downtown the night that news spread of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The city erupted in riots. The rioters were Black. One needn’t justify those looters’ lawlessness to acknowledge that they at least had reasons to be angry. A leader who had brought precious inklings of hope had been slaughtered like an animal at a motel in Memphis. The city in which the rioters lived — the nation’s capital — denied them home rule (the city was then run like a plantation by a House “Committee on the District of Columbia” dominated by white racist Dixiecrats) and denied them adequate public education, among other basic civic services. Even so, the vandals’ targets during that tsunami of rage did not include Washington’s federal monuments.
More than a half-century has passed since. And just where are we now?
The night before Trump’s mob rampaged through the Capitol, there had been an electoral victory that would have been unimaginable then. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, a pastor who had inherited Dr. King’s pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, had been elected to the United States Senate despite every attempt by his opponent, Kelly Loeffler, to tar him with the racist tropes (including a false accusation of child abuse) that have been used by white women to demonize — and sometimes literally castrate — Black men as far back as one cares to go in the history of the country in general, and the state that gave us Gone With the Wind in particular. Warnock won because of Black voters and a remarkable Black political organizer, Stacey Abrams, who defied the systemic efforts of both local officials and the John Roberts Supreme Court to suppress and vitiate minority voting rights.
The joy of this democratic triumph will endure — but not necessarily more so than the horrific spectacle that desecrated democracy the next day in Washington.
There are 74 million Americans who voted for the crime boss in the White House, who spent his entire time in office ginning up that mob. Seven of Warnock’s soon-to-be colleagues in the Senate continued to support Trump’s effort to overturn a free and honest presidential election even after his stormtroopers trashed the place. To believe that any of them will abandon Trumpism after Trump is gone is a fantasy.
So what is to be done? I’d say for starters let’s not forgive, let’s not forget, and let’s not delude ourselves. Let’s stop saying, “This is not America” every time “rogue” white cops kill a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or when white supremacists foment violence, whether in Charlottesville or Kenosha or Washington. Let’s stop pretending that if we read cynical best sellers like Hillbilly Elegy in book clubs and empathic magazine and newspaper interviews by mainstream journalists with those Trump-loving “folks” in diners and bars that we’ll suddenly unearth some conscience that isn’t there. Let’s stop taking seriously NeverTrumpers like David Brooks who as recently as August enthused about the “intellectual ferment” in the Republican party and touted to Times readers four senators who embody the “post-2020, post-Trump Republican future”: Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse. (No Black men need apply, of course.)
You can’t go home again to the Republican party. It’s the party that invented the modern mutation of the toxic racial politics that has flipped between both parties since Reconstruction – and that Trump brought to its current apocalyptic apogee. It was just as Dr. King was murdered that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, criminals both, embraced the “Southern strategy” of exploiting white racial grievances after they saw that the party’s 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater had flipped the once solidly Democratic South by opposing the Civil Rights Act (even as leading Republicans in the Senate supported it). And so it has been in the G.O.P. ever since, from Ronald Reagan’s vilification of “welfare queens” and “young bucks” on food stamps, to George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign, to the party’s Obama-era elevation of Sarah Palin and veneration of the Tea Party to capitalize on the racist backlash against America’s first Black president. Yes, we all love the NeverTrumpers and the Lincoln Project’s brilliant and brutal ads, but with the conspicuous exceptions of Stuart Stevens and Joe Scarborough, too few of them have owned up to their complicity in some of this history even as they rebrand themselves on MSNBC to utter silence from their liberal co-stars. We should start to take such NeverTrumpers as Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt as serious allies only when they fully account for their outsize roles in this sordid past.
But even if many NeverTrumpers still pretend that their party only started palling around with white supremacists on the day Trump came down the escalator, they deserve full credit for rejecting him on that day or soon after. The Vichy Republicans who enabled Trump in the Capitol, starting with Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, deserve zero credit for their about-faces in the midst of an attempted coup. The same goes for Mike Pence, who was the sniveling front man for a pandemic response that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The other Vichy Republicans who enlisted in the administration (not to mention Vichy Democrats, like the onetime Trump chief economic adviser Gary Cohn) cannot be allowed to melt away into the landscape like their collaborationist antecedents did in France after Hitler and Marshal Pétain’s downfall, claiming they had no idea there was a Final Solution. Rats like Betsy DeVos, Elaine Chao, Mick Mulvaney, et al., don’t get moral credit for leaping off a sinking ship after it has sunk. Quite the contrary: Law enforcement must scour their every dealing while they were present at the crime scene known as the Trump White House.
If they are not indicted, they and the rest of the collaborators should be subjected to the cancel culture their party is so fond of moralizing against even as they betrayed their country. That’s why we should applaud Simon & Schuster this week for canceling publication of Hawley’s book, which would have detailed that “intellectual ferment” promised by David Brooks. (Simon & Schuster admirably did the same four years ago with a book by the right-wing “provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos.) It’s not a First Amendment issue, as Hawley is now whining. He will easily find a right-wing publisher. He can also publish his book himself with some of the money he raked in by fund-raising off of his seditionist campaign to void the count of the 2020 election by tossing out Black votes.
In the same vein, it’s time for the New York Public Library to strip the Wall Street financier Stephen Schwarzman’s name from its Fifth Avenue mother ship. Schwarzman, an unofficial but powerful Trump adviser, this week declared that he was “shocked and horrified” by what happened in the Capitol. Prior to that, he was “Wall Street’s top political donor,” in Reuters’ estimation — contributing some $30 million to PACs benefiting Trump, McConnell, and Susan Collins. After Election Day, as Business Insider reported, Schwarzman told a meeting of Fortune 500 CEOs that he endorsed Trump’s pursuit of legal battles to overturn the results and dismissed some of his peers’ fears that there was any chance of a coup. As if that were not enough, he poured some $15 million into the Georgia campaigns of Loeffler and David Perdue (best known for stirring up a rally with a racist mispronunciation of Kamala Harris’s name) via the GOP “Senate Leadership Fund.”
As I found in reporting my article about Roy Cohn and Trump three years ago, Manhattan’s liberal and Democratic elites joined Republicans in swarming around both men, promoting Trump’s rise in the 1970s and beyond as they sought favors from him or his powerful lawyer. Among them were the Democratic Governor Hugh Carey and Democratic Mayor Abe Beame; S.I. Newhouse, then the publisher of Condé Nast; A. M. Rosenthal, then the executive editor of the Times; Morley Safer of CBS News; Barbara Walters of ABC News; and Mathew Hiltzik, the publicist aligned with Hillary Clinton, Kristin Gillibrand, and Bill de Blasio. So I ask trustees of the library, if you are in favor of toppling monuments to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis below the Mason–Dixon line, can you really countenance the library serving as a monument to a donor who gave millions of dollars to Donald Trump and Kelly Loeffler? Schwarzman’s name defiles one of New York’s bastions of civilization as surely as the MAGA movement he helped bankroll did the Capitol. Look up the NYPL’s trustee list online: It’s a who’s who of liberal elites, some of them affiliated with the same media organizations, from Condé Nast to ABC News, that sat idly by or actively enabled Trump as he rose during the Cohn years.
Conservative media elites abandoning Trump at the last possible moment should simply be laughed away. Who do they think they are fooling? Murdoch’s loyal Trump stooges — the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, columnists like Kimberley Strassel (WSJ) and Michael Goodwin (the New York Post) — are suddenly excommunicating the guy who was their dear leader only last week. What made them see the light was not that his thugs trashed the Capitol but that his most recent outrages, no less odious than those that preceded them, cost the GOP the Senate. It was particularly amusing that the Journal concluded an anti-Trump editorial by quoting a critic of the Hitler-appeaser Neville Chamberlain: “In the name of God, go.” This piece was published hours after Murdoch’s Fox News had proved the sole channel to the left of Newsmax to carry the Trump “Save America” harangue that incited his audience to terrorize the Capitol.
As the old saw has it, it can take a century (or two) to build an institution, but only a day to raze it to the ground. That’s what America flirted with this week. It was heartbreaking, but it should be galvanizing. Let’s be clearheaded: Those who were part of the problem are not part of the solution. Most of them are traitors. Let’s join hands with Senator-elect Warnock and those of good will like him to try to save a country that has for some time now been on the brink of its second civil war.