Editor’s note: This essay by David Corn first appeared in his new newsletter, Our Land. But we wanted to make sure as many readers as possible have a chance to see it. Our Land is written by David twice a week and provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, books, television, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but right now you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here.
There is a notion that great tragedies unite a nation. Remember the increase in civility that immediately followed the shock and horror of 9/11? But this idea is largely a myth, and the first-year anniversary of the Trump-incited insurrection at the US Capitol is a reminder that calamities do not bring together a country. In fact, they can further divide.
Anniversaries are prime time for pollsters. Surveys conducted to mark our first full trip around the sun since Donald Trump’s brownshirts, fueled by his Big Lie, stormed into Congress seeking to block the peaceful transfer of power, show that the past 12 months have only served to widen the gulf between rational adherents of democracy and those citizens willing to be led by a demagogue into the dangerous wasteland of criminality and authoritarianism.
In a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll, 92 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents said Trump bears a “great deal” or a “good amount” of blame for the January 6 riot. Only 27 percent of Republicans agreed with that. Similarly, 88 percent of Ds and 74 percent of indies noted that there was no evidence of significant electoral fraud in 2020. Sixty-two percent of Republicans said there was. (These people are wrong.) Seven out of 10 Trump voters believe Joe Biden was not legitimately elected. (Ditto.) An ABC/Ipsos poll asked if the rioters at the Capitol had been “threatening democracy.” Overall, 72 percent said yes, with 96 percent of Democrats agreeing. Yet 52 percent of Republicans said the marauders had been “protecting democracy”—as if the violence that claimed several lives was justified. These Republicans are living in a bizarro Fox-shaped world, far from the realm of decency and sanity. Their reaction to this terrorist raid on the US government is to dig deeper into the hole of paranoia and create more distance between themselves and the reality-based mainstream.
Immediately after this terrorist attack on American democracy, it seemed for the briefest of moments that the hatred and rage of that day might have scared people—particularly GOP leaders—into realizing that Trumpism had gone too far and that the gulf in the body politic it has caused needed bridging. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy each excoriated Trump for triggering this assault on constitutional government (though they pulled up short of endorsing impeachment). And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had been Trump’s obsequious lapdog for years, barked on the night of 1/6, once the raiders had been vanquished, “I hate it being this way. Oh my god I hate it…But today…all I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.”
Of course, none of these men stuck with this stance of responsibility. They all folded as it became obvious that the January 6 riot would exacerbate, not calm, the stark political tensions that Trump and his minions had inflamed and exploited over four years. These polls show that. And we should have seen this coming. Let’s look at some previous national traumas:
- President John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Eight months later at their presidential convention, Republicans enthusiastically nominated the most extreme contender in decades: Sen. Barry Goldwater. (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he proclaimed in his acceptance speech.) And at this gathering, GOP delegates enthusiastically voted down a resolution to denounce political hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, and the John Birch Society. Following a time of immense national sorrow, they remained eager for all-out political war with the Democrats, and they were unwilling to bend to demands to disavow the fringe.
- After the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, there was no national coming together. Instead: urban uprisings, the “police riot” at the Chicago Democratic convention, and Richard Nixon’s embrace of a racist and divisive Southern strategy to win the election. He and his henchmen were looking not to mend societal rifts but to capitalize on them.
- After the nightmare of Watergate and the subsequent election of Jimmy Carter, the religious right and the New Right—a collection of archly conservative organizations and political action committees—adopted sleazy and harsh political tactics to demonize liberals and Democrats. Healing the wound to the country’s political psyche—the collapse of trust—was not a priority. They readily deployed fear and hatred—the libs want to destroy your family and the nation!—to frighten right-leaning Americans into sending them money and heading to the polls. This fearmongering helped elect Ronald Reagan president.
- Days after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that targeted a federal office building and killed 168 people, including 19 children, Wayne LaPierre, then the head of the NRA, was unapologetically defending the gun group’s crusade against federal agents, including its efforts to delegitimize the US government with its rhetorical assault on “jack-booted government thugs.” With the rubble still smoldering, he and his allies saw no reason to cool it. Meanwhile, in Congress, Newt Gingrich, the new House speaker, continued the slash-and-burn/vilify-the-Democrats politics that had helped him reach this pinnacle of power.
- September 11, 2001—it did appear afterward that the country might pull together. President George W. Bush urged Americans not to blame Muslims, and leaders of both parties spoke of a new commitment to comity and bipartisanship. But months afterward, top Bush strategist Karl Rove suggested that Republicans should argue that Democrats would not protect Americans as well as GOPers in the so-called war on terror. And in less than a year, Bush and Dick Cheney were exploiting the attack to justify a war in the Middle East unrelated to 9/11, cynically selling the invasion of Iraq (which initially was an unpopular idea) with false statements and lies about WMDs. They also opposed the formation of an independent commission to investigate the attack and the intelligence and policy failures that preceded it. (Eventually they were forced to yield on the establishment of the panel, but the Bush White House refused to fully cooperate with the inquiry.) In 2004, the keynote speaker at the Republican convention, Sen. Zell Miller, an archly conservative Democrat supporting Bush, accused Democrats of caring more about “partisan politics than national security” and of making the nation “weaker.” The kumbaya did not last long.
- School shootings and other mass shootings. Despite all the thoughts and prayers, they never lead to a national moment of calm consideration and consensus, even though a large majority of Americans support a variety of proposed gun safety measures. In fact, gun lovers have the audacity to regularly accuse gun control advocates of exploiting tragedy if they dare use the occasion of gun massacres to raise policy issues. After the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012—26 people dead, 20 of them children—conspiracy nutter Alex Jones claimed this tragedy was a hoax. Four years later, he was a VIP at the GOP convention in Cleveland. (Jones was recently found liable by a Connecticut judge for defamation related to his Sandy Hook comments.)
And look at the Trump years. Charlottesville, George Floyd, the Las Vegas shooting, a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans (with many of those deaths preventable). None of these dreadful events spurred civility and productive conversation across the political divide. (Right-wingers red-baited the Black Lives Matter movement as a Marxist threat to the security of the nation.) Awful occurrences tend to widen the tears in our social fabric, as they compel people who cling to misguided and unfounded notions to cling harder. They become not reasons to reassess, but ammunition for the continuing political and cultural battles. Trump and his cultists now point to January 6 as the natural—and justified—reaction to the real insurrection that occurred over a year ago when the election was stolen (fact-check: not stolen) from Trump.
The latest news out of the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack is that it has obtained firsthand testimony that Trump was sitting in the dining room next to the Oval Office watching the assault on television while it proceeded. As Trump gazed at the screens, members of his staff pleaded with him to go on television and tell people to stop. McCarthy, on the phone, was beseeching him. And at least twice his daughter Ivanka went in to request that Trump do something to halt the violence. Still, Trump persisted…in watching, no doubt hoping the chaos would bolster his scheme to overturn the election by preventing the congressional certification of Biden’s victory. This is a crime that we don’t need any further evidence of. (There are plenty of other matters for the committee to probe.) We all witnessed it that day: Trump did nothing, as his people—QAnoners, white supremacists, Christian nationalists, Proud Boys, toy soldiers, and others—rampaged at the nation’s citadel of democracy to thwart constitutional governance.
To be repelled by Trump’s action—or inaction—and the conduct of his mob on January 6 would be too much of a shock to the system for a Trump loyalist. It would require disowning a foundational belief in Trump. And as McConnell, McCarthy, and Graham have illustrated, the political tide of this cultism is too tough a current to swim against. Any opportunity for January 6 to yield common cause or a valuable reckoning was a mirage. One crucial point of Trumpism is the lack of desire to reconcile or seek commonality. In many, if not most, cases, national tragedies do not heal; they clarify the rifts that exist. They reveal where the fight is and what work must be done.