A little over a decade ago, I was tear-gassed for the first time. It was the first day of September in the Twin Cities, and the anti-globalist, anti-war protesters were milling about with giant papier-mache heads of the people they hated. Mark Hemingway was there. My future wife and mother of my child was inside. It was painful. Afterward, I left and set up my laptop at a nearby rooftop bar and had the best Guinness I’ve ever ordered in my life. The reports about the protesters were overwhelmingly sympathetic. These were justified because of the wars. The New York Times said so.
A few years later, I covered Occupy Wall Street, and the tone was similar. These people taking over public parks, shitting all over the place, yelling at each other in circles, and setting up occasional rape tents were to be accepted, because Wall Street exists and is a thing. The sympathy for them was even greater than for the war people because of a lot of guilt about how media is funded. Zephyr Teachout wrote a thing.
Around the same time, there was another form of protest, something very different, which emerged. It was called the Tea Party. It was, unlike the anti-war, anti-globalist, anti-Wall Street folks, a fundamentally dangerous and racist entity, bent on destruction and violence, that threatened the very foundations of representative government and only existed because people couldn’t accept a black president. They were basically the Klan. Alan Grayson said it.
It was odd. In all my years of covering the Tea Party, I never saw them be rude to a cop, even by accident. They were upper-middle-class people who drove up in SUVs. They had no designs on destruction or occupation. Their taxes paid for that park, so they would clean up after themselves. They took pride in it — that they weren’t like the dirty, filthy leftists who left graffiti and literal shit on the ground.
Of course, it was these people who were absolutely marauded by the media. Their shouting at politicians — confined of course to town halls — was an act of political sabotage that threatened everything we hold dear. They were basically terrorists. Mediocre politician Joe Biden literally called them “terrorists.” He can be a nice guy, but he’s also kind of an asshole that way. That’s Delaware for you.
Politics is interesting in America. There’s a repeated pattern that emerges when you look into it. Certain factors and elements rise up, and the media lies about them aggressively. They frame the new emerging development as something it is not — as the most extreme version of what it could be. And then the call engenders a response — the very thing the media frames this development as comes to fruition in a new and more virulent form.
This absolutely happened in response to the 2012 election. As I said a few years ago about Democratic attacks on the misogyny and heartlessness of Mitt Romney, if you cry wolf about extremism long enough, you lack the vocabulary when the actual beast shows up. The rise of Donald Trump is a piece of that — a takeover of the Republican Party by a politician who represents everything the media has framed a cliched view of the party as for decades: a rich, old, white racist who likes to fire people. Yeah? So suck on that. Go write a million pieces, they don’t care.
What happened yesterday didn’t depress me the way it seemed to depress other people. Maybe that’s because I don’t view the institution of the Capitol as sacred the way others do. As a former staffer, I’ve known too many stories about the nooks and crannies where Ted Kennedy did stuff to get too verklempt about it. And the invaders stayed inside the velvet ropes in Statuary Hall, which I actually care about. But it’s disturbing for a lot of reasons, two in particular that stick out.
The first is a comment from an apolitical friend who wandered into the room where the roiling crowd was on the screen in the early afternoon yesterday: “Is that Black Lives Matter?” No, it’s not — but also, it is. An apolitical viewer of the summer of 2020 would learn one distinct lesson: If you want to be heard, if you want to be listened to, you need to go into the streets, make a ruckus, set things on fire, and tear down icons of America. This disrespect will be welcomed, hailed, and supported if your cause is just and your motives are righteous.
Just about everyone who showed up on Capitol Hill yesterday believed that about why they were there. The only difference between the horned man standing in the Senate chair or the smiling man hauling the speaker’s podium out the door and the fellow who attempted to tear down Andrew Jackson’s statue or the criminal who set fire to St. John’s Church is a matter of jersey color.
The second is that blaming this on Donald Trump isn’t just too simplistic, it’s whistling past the graveyard of our norms. Of course, he egged on his crowd to go up to the Capitol and be loud and irritating. But he didn’t tell them to break down doors and crash the gates, and he didn’t need to. Blaming this on Trump assumes this type of attitude will go away when Trump himself does. That’s way too easy — it’s wishful thinking. The iconoclasm of the right is a real development, and it is here to stay. You’ll wish for the old man in the tricorn hat waving a Cato Constitution when you see the new right blasting statues with graffiti.
The crowd was not a Tea Party crowd. They brought their folding chairs and their canes. They drove more than they flew. They spat their dip on the ground. They peed on the trees. And they didn’t just disrespect the cops guarding the Capitol, they crushed past them.
Capitol Police are fine people. They’re nice and generally accommodating. But they’re also the TSA of Capitol Hill — mostly used to telling people to go back and get their badge, not deal with a security issue. They rarely train. Most of them would fail a basic fitness test. But that’s understandable because what’s typically required of them is not a major security conflagration, but removing some loud Code Pink lady from a hearing, or grabbing a jumper from the Gallery. The norms of politics prevent them from having to be more aggressive.
On the eve of the protests yesterday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who gives all the evidence of having a brain mostly composed of pudding, demurred on offers of extra law enforcement, saying they were unnecessary and would cause confusion. The result was a group of Capitol Police who seemed woefully unprepared for the crush of the massive crowd that showed up, without riot gear or moveable barriers or the equipment necessary to peacefully quell a potentially violent gathering.
The breach yesterday has been long in the making. Even as a young staffer I was shocked at how unsecure the Capitol was — there are numerous gaps in their security that you will easily witness if you spend any time there. It’s only the intimidating columns, the confusion about which door you can use, and the institutions and norms that keep people at bay. And those, alas, are now gone. They are dead, they are in the ground, and they are not coming back.
This same reality applies to the conservative movement. The obvious result of yesterday’s conflagration will be a feeble attempt at a purge by the Mitt Romneys, Liz Cheneys, and Adam Kinzingers (ha!) of the GOP. This will fail because their constituency is not just outnumbered, it is utterly dominated by the populist iconoclasts. A party of the right that rejects the mob of people who spent their hard-earned, working-class money to drive to Washington, D.C., and wave a flag as deplorables will never win, or deserve to, any more than a party of the left could reject naming something Black Lives Matter plaza.
What will happen next is obvious: A total crushing, anti-free speech effort that treats Trump-supporting groups like Branch Davidians. An effort to restore the fundamentally unserious neocons as the voice of reason in the room. A hardening of the bounds of the People’s House to keep people away from politicians. A use of any levers of government power — including audits, regulation, and lawfare — to harass conservatives now categorized as seditionists and terrorists by the incoming president who falsely claims to want to unite the country. And above all, a doubling down on all the policies and efforts put in place to crush exactly the type of people who showed up at the Capitol yesterday in a foolish, desperate attempt to make themselves heard.
The rioters failed in their effort and ensured their marginalization. But marginalization doesn’t mean evaporation. They’re still here. They’re still Americans. And they’re not going away. How our politicians handle that will dictate a lot about the next several years. And that shouldn’t give people a lot of hope, considering that four years after his election and two weeks before his departure, the only person they’ll apparently listen to is still Donald Trump.