Analysis & Comment

Opinion | We’ve Seen the Ugly Truth About America

There are two images. In one, National Guard troops, most with no identifying information on their uniforms, stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in anticipation of violence from people peacefully protesting the killing of George Floyd. In the second image, thousands of protesters — domestic terrorists, really — swarm the Capitol. They wear red MAGA hats and carry Trump flags and show their faces because they want to be seen. They don’t seem to fear the consequences of being identified. More images — a man sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s office, his feet on a desk, a smirk on his face. A man carrying a stolen lectern, smiling at the camera. A man in the Senate chamber doing parkour.

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, Congress was set to conduct a largely ceremonial count of the electoral votes. There were rumblings that a few ambitious, craven politicians planned to object to the votes in several states. The president openly pressured Vice President Mike Pence to thwart the vote ratification — something not in Mr. Pence’s power to do.

But I don’t think any of us expected to see radical, nearly all white protesters storming the Capitol as if it were the Bastille. I don’t think we expected to see Capitol Police basically ushering these terrorists into the building and letting them have the run on the place for a ridiculous amount of time while the world watched in shock and disgust. I don’t think we expected to see some of those police officers taking selfies with the intruders. I don’t think we expected that the violent protesters would be there by the explicit invitation of the president, who told a raucous gathering of his supporters to head over to the Capitol. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” he said.

On Wednesday, the world bore witness to white supremacy unchecked. I nearly choked on the bitter pill of what white people who no doubt condemned Black Lives Matter protesters as “thugs” felt so entitled to do.

After the Capitol was cleared of protesters, Congress returned to work. Politicians peacocked and pontificated in condescending ways about the Constitution and flawed state voting procedures that, in fact, worked perfectly. Senator Ben Sasse smarmed about being neighborly and shoveling snow. He took a bizarre, jovial tone as if all the moment called for was a bit of charm. Senator Mitt Romney tried to take the role of elder statesman, expressing the level of outrage he should have shown over the past four years. It was all pageantry — too little, too late.

Barack Obama famously spoke of a more perfect union. After this week, I don’t know that such an ambition is possible. I don’t know that it ever was. I don’t know that this union could or should be perfected.

Politicians and pundits have promised that the guardrails of democracy will protect the republic. They’ve said we need to trust in checks and balances and the peaceful transition of power that the United States claims is a hallmark of our country. And many of us have, however tentatively, allowed ourselves to believe that the laws this country was built on, however flawed, were strong enough to withstand authoritarian encroachments by President Trump and Republicans. What the days and weeks since the 2020 election have shown us is that the guardrails have been destroyed. Or maybe they were never there. Maybe they were never anything more than an illusion we created to believe this country was stronger than it was.

As Americans began to process the Trump-endorsed insurrection, the blatant sedition, public figures shared the same platitudes about America that they always do when something in this country goes gravely wrong. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase; Joe Biden; Maria Shriver; Republican senators; and others declared that this is not America, that we are better than this, with “this” being the coup attempt, or Trump’s histrionics, or the politicians who, with a desperate thirst for power, allowed Trump’s lies about the election to flourish, unchallenged.

This is America. This has always been America. If this were not America, this coup attempt would not have happened. It’s time we face this ugly truth, let it sink into the marrow of our bones, let it move us to action.

With everything that took place in Washington on Wednesday, it was easy to forget that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their Senate races in Georgia. Their victories were gratifying and cathartic, the result of solid campaigns and the hard work of organizers on the ground in the state, from Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight to Mijente and many others. Years of activism against the state’s dedication to voter suppression made these victories possible. The easy narrative will be that Black women and Black people saved this country. And they did. And they should be celebrated. But the more challenging narrative is that we now have to honor our salvation by doing something with it.

For the first time in many years, Democrats will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Real change is not as elusive as it seemed before the Georgia runoffs because Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s administration is well positioned to enact many of their policies. If the Democrats dare to use the power they have amassed, a brave new world might be possible.

In the coming weeks, we’ll undoubtedly hear the argument that now is the time for centrism and compromise and bipartisan efforts. That argument is wrong. There is no compromise with politicians who amass power, hoard it, and refuse to relinquish it when the democratic process does not work in their favor. There is no compromise with politicians who create a set of conditions that allow a coup attempt to take place, resulting in four deaths, countless injuries, and irreparable damage to the country both domestically and internationally. These people do not care about working with their colleagues on the other side of the proverbial aisle. They have an agenda, and whenever they are in power, they execute that agenda with precision and discipline. And they do so unapologetically.

It’s time for Democrats to use their power in the same way and legislate without worrying about how Republican voters or politicians will respond. Cancel student loan debt. Pass another voting rights act that enfranchises as many Americans as possible. Create a true path to citizenship for undocumented Americans. Implement a $15 minimum hourly wage. Enact “Medicare for all.” Realistically, only so much is possible with a slender majority in the Senate, but the opportunity to make the most of the next two years is there.

With the power they hold, Democrats can try to make this country a more equitable and generous place rather than one where the interests of the very wealthy and powerful are the priority. If they don’t, they are no better than their Republican counterparts, and in fact, they are worse because they will have squandered a real opportunity to do the work for which they were elected. Over the past four years, we have endured many battles for the soul of the country, but the war for the soul of this country rages on. I hope the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress can end that war, once and for all.

Roxane Gay (@rgay) is a contributing Opinion writer.

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