December 7, 1941.
September 11, 2001.
January 6, 2021.
These are three dates that will live in infamy. But the last is the most troubling because the first two were aggressions committed against the United States and they had the effect of bringing the country together in a common cause. (That national unity was squandered when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.)
But the mob that defiled our Capitol building was not an external enemy. They were domestic terrorists. Actually, it was more like April 13, 1861 and the attack on Fort Sumpter.
Now the building has been secured, at least the first wave of the officials who let down their guard have resigned and law enforcement officials are methodically working through all the ample video evidence the mob left behind to find and begin prosecution of the perpetrators. It’s time to start sorting through the invisible, but worse, wreckage.
Why wasn’t law enforcement prepared and why did they seem to treat the Trump protesters so much more gently than Black Lives Matter protesters last summer? Are there technical and strategic explanations or is there something deeper that goes to the culture of Capitol police?
What do we do with Trump, who clearly incited insurrection? He’s not decent enough to resign, so should be be impeached, should the 25th Amendment be invoked or should he just be allowed to get out of town? And once he’s gone, what next? Should he be prosecuted? Should he be prevented from ever holding office again?
And, most significantly, how did things get this far and what can be done to pull back and to restore some sense of civility and decency to our politics?
There’s no excuse for what Trump’s mob did in Washington. These are thugs. But they’re also a tiny fraction of the 75 million people who voted for this guy. To tar half the country with the actions of several thousand individuals would be no more fair than to blame all BLM protesters for those who tried to bomb a public building in Madison or who set a police cruiser on fire here.
Look, I confess to not understanding how anyone could have voted for Donald Trump the first time, much less the second time after we knew exactly how he would govern. And yet, he got 11 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. (Luckily, he motivated Democrats even more as Joe Biden got 15 million more votes than Hillary Clinton.) But even after the horrors of January 6th we cannot afford to just write all Trump supporters off in the same way that we can with those who breached the Capitol.
The most important question we have to deal with going forward is, what is so messed up in our political culture that so many of our fellow Americans would vote for a man as awful as Donald Trump to begin with? Trying in good faith to answer that question as thoroughly and honestly as we can might be the most important national project of the foreseeable future. It’s kind of like treating Donald Trump as a public health issue.
Twenty years from now, what will January 6, 2021 mean? Will it be seen as the day when the last of our civil norms were broken and our democracy spiraled faster to its death? Or will it be, like December 7, 1941, a day that rallied the country to save democracy and liberal institutions? I wish I didn’t have to ask the question.