The Fire This Time
Given the lack of news from Russia and, oddly enough, Eurasia — I could stretch out some economic coverage, but frankly I doubt it would offer much value and I’d rather keep my powder dry for next week — it’s impossible to avoid writing about the insanity that took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. I don’t have much to say, so today’s column will be short and bittersweet. The loss of 4 lives as a result of a president comfortable with courting open insurrection to remain in power is just the latest, if a particularly terrifying, stain on the political institution of the presidency and the power it wields across the three branches of government. What really struck me, though, was how when I found out it was happening, it didn’t seem shocking, surprising, or ‘un-American’ at all. If anything, I was surprised it had taken this long — the timing was, of course, politically timed in such a way that perhaps I should have known better.
The fissures ripped wide open for everyone to see and struggle with by the pandemic in the United States don’t always. neatly map onto acts of violence, but it is terrifying to consider the ground truth about the geography of the hatred on display. The counties that voted for Trump accounted for less than 30% of US GDP as of 2018:
Per a Rand study tracking gun ownership from 1980 to 2016 among households at the state level, fewer than 35% of adults have a firearm in the house in only the following states in descending order: Delaware, Maryland, California, Illinois, Connecticut, New York, Hawaii, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. A 2017 Pew report breaks it down further — 46% of those living in rural areas own a gun vs. 28% in suburban areas do and 18% living in urban centers. There’s a visible cost when two parties holding an iron duopoly of power and claiming to represent so many leave so many behind and, beyond the mounting death toll from the coronavirus, events like this prove the point. Radicalization isn’t just economic and white nationalism is clearly the primary motivator for groups like the Proud Boys, but what we saw in the Capitol also spoke to this divide in American society, only ossified by the evolution of identity politics — not that we actively address matters of race, sex, gender, sexuality, their historical legacies and concomitant spatial inequality that exists, but that it’s become too easy to invoke them in place of an actual good faith policy debate encouraging individuals to radicalize on either side of the spectrum when they don’t “win.” The trouble is that one side of that spectrum has a lot more guns and means of committing acts of violence.
It’s comforting that so many Republicans actually drew a line around the certification of the election results, damning that so many refuse to countenance impeachment or else aren’t telling Vice President Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and ever let it go this far. On the whole, political institutions I think have actually survived better than I expected the last 4 years, despite the obvious signs of capture by Trump loyalists, abuses of power, and general disorder. But they won’t ever be the same. Maybe it’s a good thing that we lose the patina of institutional exceptionalism attached to the American system of government. There’s a reason it has failed spectacularly most places it has been exported to. Presidential power held in the executive branch easily breeds corruption. That we survived the last 4 years of it being strained to its limits is evidence, however, that there is something exceptional in its ability to absorb this much damage and still, somehow, function. Both houses reconvening to certify the vote as quickly as possible was a wonderful symbol, if one offering little material relief from the carnage they’ve wrought through cowardice, inaction, duplicity, and their own fear without consequence.
What comes next is the scary part. It seems that most of the old guard Republican Party finally hit a breaking point, even if they aren’t out in public screaming at Trump. They know they can’t tie themselves to his brand. After all, it lost them the White House and Georgia. And it’s become impossible to imagine that a would-be Attorney General Merrick Garland will not seek charges against Trump, whether it be for what is effectively sedition or else a litany of other abuses of power, tax fraud, whatever it takes. It was my belief that Biden would be best served coming into office by offering Trump a deal: never run again and stop politically organizing and I don’t prosecute you and your entire family. In practical terms, it would be a necessity to offer him some kind of assurance so he didn’t do exactly this while ultimately proving irrelevant. I’d have prosecuted him anyway, else we aren’t a nation of laws. Now, considerable political attention is going to be paid to precisely what happens next to Trump legally, and the same people that stormed the Capitol building are going to be activated by that process. There’ll be more political violence this year if our institutions do the right thing and charge the outgoing president with the crimes he’s committed in plain sight. That the survival of our institutions seems to necessitate that outcome now speaks to the profound tragedy of American politics the last 40 years.
Till then, all I can say to Trump and his team was best said by John Mooney:
Lawyer, lawyer, who are you? Drink a little poison fore’ you die
The hangman’s noose is looking good on you. Drink a little poison fore’ you die
It’s days like today I miss being in the US the most, when the strange mix of horror and revulsion I feel at what the country too often is and weird, almost primal hope that it gets it right after exhausting all other options hit. Hopefully it’ll be at least the littlest bit saner when I finally make it back to visit.
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