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We’re Not Better Than This

So many people were unprepared for this moment because they still believed in the American myth.

capitol insurrection
Frank Thorp V/Twitter

Right now a large number of supporters of President Donald Trump are inside the U.S. Capitol building attempting to overthrow the government. This is ludicrous and horrifying, pitiful and disturbing in equal measure. The coup attempt is the last gasp of an ugly regime that has shamed every citizen of the country it led for four years. It is also pretty much what we all deserve. It is who we are. It is who we will be for decades to come. It is entirely predictable and fitting, a logical development of everything that has happened over the past few months and years and centuries that got us to this point.

The good news is that it will fail. The protesters inside the Capitol, at the most, are armed with pistols and sticks, thanks to their fear of DC’s strict gun laws and the impromptu nature of their show of force. They are outgunned by the combined force of the National Guard and police that will soon descend upon them.

You will notice that we are now speaking about guns and force and violence. That is because what we are seeing today is a baser form of politics than the U.S. has supposedly practiced in the past. For 240 years or so this country has believed in a foundational myth that the strength of its institutions were enough to insulate it from the chaos that plagues most other nations when people realize that power by and large only comes through force. This myth was so strong that it endured through a literal Civil War, because the “right” side won.

Many, many Americans still believe in this myth — that the Constitution is good, that our processes are strong, that our government is secure. On CNN, Jake Tapper and a panel of anchors have been moralizing, repeating “shame on the president,” and fantasizing about what they would like him to tweet in order to calm things down. As I was typing this the president tweeted to “stay peaceful” and support the Capitol Police. Perhaps he started to notice that this thing sort of got away from him a little. Perhaps next he will decide that actually that’s a good thing, and he might as well ride this lightning and see where it goes. Tapper recently called this a “bloodless coup attempt,” which was stupid to say then and is even stupider now that there are images of a gunshot victim on a stretcher exiting the building. I get that he has to fill airtime and keep people informed but it seems counterproductive to do so when you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on. For example, Tapper, a bit later, moved on to interviewing Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher who said that he hadn’t seen anything like this since he deployed to Iraq, which was unacceptable because “This is America,” which was funny to me because it is a perfect encapsulation of the myth that so many people have believed in since the Civil War: that violence and unrest and war and coups are things that happen in places outside of the U.S., but not here.

I don’t mean to harp on CNN, but I’m going to because that’s what’s playing in my ears right now. I’m sure the other networks are just as bad, just as unprepared for this moment and just as deluded in their assessment of what is going on. What is going on is a more direct expression of force than the American government has experienced in quite some time. You can call it war or unrest or revolution or a coup, and we should probably debate the relative semantics of those words at some point. But right now all you really need to know is that there is a large group of people who have realized that they can, in this specific instance, exert force and violence in order to accomplish their goals.

This is a very simple concept, but one that white people in America often do not have the requisite experience to understand. I did not understand it until I went to a country that was actively at war. My experience there was largely boring and sad and mundane, but it did give me the very basic understanding of power that the Myth Believers in our government and media seem to lack. The rules are simple: If someone can shoot you with a gun and get away with it then you have to do what they tell you. It is not about norms or institutions or anything it is just about guns and power.

America runs on these same rules as well, of course. Our government is very good at applying guns and power to people it can get away with shooting, as we saw over and over again this summer. Black people in America by and large inherently understand these rules because they are governed by them more directly than your average white person is. What makes the images on our TV screens today so shocking is that they represent an application of these same principles — if you have more guns and sticks than the other guy you can tell them what to do — that is outside the scope of what we typically think of the guns and sticks being used for. We expected the police to have the upper hand from the start as they nearly always do but instead they stood aside and in some cases chatted pleasantly with the people who had just overpowered them.

This will all end soon, of course. The protesters are going to get cleared out, the coup will fail. Mitch McConnell and the country’s military leaders know it’s far better for the stock prices of the Fortune 500 companies to let Biden do his thing for four years rather than fully tossing out the concept of Democracy for a gameshow host. Together those people control enough guns to be able to tell the QAnon dumbfucks in the Capitol rotunda right now what to do.

But like many of the Trump Administration’s unsuccessful depravities, you have to worry if the next coup will be better planned and executed. I worry that for the Jake Tappers and Chuck Schumers and Joe Bidens of this world the myth of American harmony may still survive, leaving them once again unprepared when a smarter and more powerful foe decides to again weaponize the country’s most fearful, stupid and vile citizens in service of their goal. (Biden’s public statements suggest that this is exactly what’s going to happen.) A better-prepared fascist could have succeeded where Trump did not, could have laid plans so that his popular uprising had real institutional support, so that the cops did more than just stand by and let them have their fun but instead joined their collective force. If the Mitch McConnells and Mitt Romneys in the GOP and Raytheon board members in the Department of Defense ever think their chances of making money are better served by overthrowing the government, then the government will fall. Stopping that outcome will take a lot more power than a reliance on the intangible belief that, in America, things are different. There is a way to build that power in systems that are fair, and just, and democratic, but first we have to kill off the myth that we are inherently better than this. We are not. If what we saw today isn’t enough to drive this home, then we have only ourselves to blame for whatever happens next.