3-Minute Civics: This violence was always going to happen

  • Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 1/10/2021 6:51:17 AM
Modified: 1/10/2021 6:50:59 AM

When it was last my turn to write this column, we were about to go to the polls in a momentous election that would decide the direction of the country. I wrote then about democracy and the necessity for each of us as individual citizens to take responsibility for maintaining our democracy, lest we lose this fragile and precious gift that we often take for granted.

Now, two months later, I write following an attempted coup in the nation’s capital. This is a civics column, so I’ll be precise: It was an insurrection incited by the president of our country in an attempt to hold on to power, which makes it an attempted auto-coup, or an “autogolpe.”

No matter what you call it, it was horrifying: A mob overtook the Capitol in Washington, D.C., breaking doors and windows, ransacking and looting offices, shutting down proceedings. The vice president was whisked away by the Secret Service. Members of Congress escaped or hid, some wearing emergency gas masks. A woman was shot and later died; four others died as well, including a Capitol Hill police officer. Insurrectionists brandished a Confederate flag in the Capitol – an act not even managed during the Civil War, and a gallows was erected on the west side of the building.

The insurrectionists tried to pull down the American flag that flies over the Capitol building and replace it with a Trump flag – just as one does in a coup.

Watching all of this unfold, I, like most people, was horrified. I used to work in the United States Senate. I’ve walked through the Capitol building more times than I can count. The disrespect and destruction wrought by people who were angry because their guy didn’t win or because they were fed lies about an election and thought it was their right to assault our country shocked and hurt. I could do nothing but watch all day and late into the night.

It was shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Why? Poisonous, race-based extremism has been building to this moment for a long time.

Nearly five years ago, as Donald Trump was beginning his defeat of Republican primary candidates one by one on his way to the nomination, I wrote an op-ed about the untenable position the GOP was trying to take as they decried Trump on the one hand while refusing even to give a hearing to President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland – a moderate – on the other hand. The GOP couldn’t have its extremism and defeat it, too, I wrote. They were so caught up in their devotion to bringing down a president they hated that even as they practically rent their garments in despair over Trump’s success, they continued to sow the very seeds of contempt and division that made Donald Trump’s political rise possible in the first place.

You never read that op-ed. No one did. Why not? Three separate editors, upon reading it, told me that they didn’t need another piece about Donald Trump. (To be clear, this isn’t about my piece having been rejected. I’m a writer. That happens all the time.) But the op-ed wasn’t really about Donald Trump. The op-ed and the GOP for quite some time had been about extremism and what happens when extremism is encouraged and rewarded.

So was Donald Trump responsible for inciting this insurrection at his rally in Washington on Wednesday – and the many, many times he encouraged violence before that? Oh, yes. And he should face consequences, given that we are supposed to be a nation governed by the rule of law. But he is not the only responsible actor.

We have in this country a political party that has been hijacked by its most extreme members. The Republican Party today is not what it used to be – a party that differed from its opposition on policy and principle, and where most understood that the good of the country and its citizens was the common object.

There was a time when most of the GOP did not wink at racist, violent groups on the one hand and then decry violence after it has occurred on national television on the other hand. But today, extremists have taken over that party, and the country is the weaker for it.

If you have been listening at all these past few years, you have been hearing the calls to violence. So the insurrection is shocking, but it’s not surprising. It was always going to come down to something like this.

The question is: What comes next?

At noon on Jan. 20, this country will have a new president. Those who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our federal, state, and local governments have a decision to make: Will they work in good faith with the new president and for the benefit of the people? Will those who have consistently handed out lies to a public in need of truth finally admit to their own responsibility for the depths in which we find ourselves and now begin governing in earnest? Or, having glimpsed the inevitable conclusion of race-based extremism, will they continue down the path of destruction until the fabric of our nation disintegrates even further than it already has?

We as citizens have decisions to make as well. What will we demand from those who lead us? And what do we do when our leaders fail us? All leaders will be unsuccessful or even a bit misguided in their pursuit of good government some of the time. But no leader should lead us down a path of self-destruction.

Democracy is fragile, and ours is under attack. Shall we save it?

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)

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