On January 11, in Georgia, President Biden delivered a speech on civil rights to boost a new federal election law. There are, he said, “moments so stark that they divide all that came before from everything that followed.… They rip away the trivial from the essential. And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions, and about our democracy.”
By a juxtaposition of names and themes, Biden went on to imply that the January 6 demonstrators were spiritual descendants of the Ku Klux Klan. In line with the media prophets who have called that event a “Reichstag Moment,” Biden also affirmed that the “battle for the soul of America is not over…. We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6th marks not the end of democracy” but rather a “renaissance.”
Most reports on the speech were struck by Biden’s characterization of his own radical change of perspective: “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet!” And he closed with a challenge: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
The practical correlative of these statements is President Biden’s aim to overturn (if necessary) the Senate filibuster rule in order to assure passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021.
The majority mood of Congress is not far different. Democrats marked the first anniversary of the January 6 riot with a program of inspirational speeches, policy briefings, and musical performances, topped off by a candlelight vigil and prayer. “I did not seek this fight,” Biden said at the Capitol, “but I will not shrink from it, either. I will stand in this breach.” Stand in this breach was a speechwriter’s garbled memory of Henry V (“Once more into the breach”) and George H.W. Bush (“This will not stand”); but the intention was what mattered, and the words certainly conveyed a sense of purpose. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry launched the vigil on the Capitol steps with a prayer for God to help “all those who are traumatized,” and Chevel Shepherd closed the day’s peculiar ceremonies with her rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and “God Bless America.”
That would have been enough—as the Passover song has it—but the Democrats, these days, don’t know when to edit, and Shepherd had been anticipated by another musical interlude. Nancy Pelosi introduced Lin Manuel Miranda, who introduced the cast of Hamilton to sing “Dear Theodosia” via Zoom. Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, as the website genius.com helpfully explains: “Burr and Alexander Hamilton both had children very soon after the Revolutionary War. Here they take a moment to coo, and to realize the human element of the country they are just beginning to build.” The relevance of the song may have been allegorical—the traitor Burr being the prototype of Trump—but the moment was so ripe a specimen of kitsch that even Mediaite affixed to the story a customer warning: Not a Parody.
During the business part of the January 6 anniversary, Democrats summarized all the new laws they have drafted to stop a recurrence of the anti-constitutional behavior of Trump (or any successor in demagoguery). Adam Schiff spoke for the Protecting Our Democracy Act. Jerry Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, and Zoe Lofgren did the same for the No President Is Above the Law Act, the Inspector General Independence Act, and the Efficient Transition Act. John Yarmuth and Mary Gay Scanlon added some good-natured miscellaneous remarks. Yet the overall mood was typified by Kamala Harris, who said (with a rehearsed gravity): “Certain dates echo throughout history…dates that occupy not only a place on our calendar, but a place in our collective memory.” She placed January 6, 2021, alongside December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.
According to a Quinnipiac Poll released on January 12, President Biden now enjoys an approval rating of 33 percent. But a more stunning number is one we have had to work with for a long time. The extreme mutual distrust that prevails between the barely 50 percent of voters commanded by the Democrats at election time and the 40-plus for Republicans stems from a divided awareness of two recent episodes of popular protest and violence. The well-known Trumpian outbreak came on January 6, 2021. Most Republicans have refused to call it an attempted coup or an insurrection, and those are perhaps inflated terms, but it is frivolous to treat it as a kind of picnic-gone-wrong.
The left-wing outbreak was more diffuse; it impressed by duration and fecundity. But for those who pieced together the evidence unassisted by the liberal-corporate media, these attacks—week after week, in city after city—were bound to make onlookers wonder what country we were living in. The riots of 2020, done under the legitimate cover of mask-wearing citizens, started as a protest against the killing of George Floyd and later police shootings, but the acceleration to violence was recurrent in Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Kenosha, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Chicago, and it showed a consistent pattern: from “mostly peaceful” BLM daytime events to vandalism, looting, and arson at night. The total property destruction has been estimated at $1-2 billion. At least 25 deaths have been implicated, but many left-liberals not only have successfully screened out any knowledge of the riots; they have also denied their likely relationship to the subsequent rush on gun purchases and the national rise in violent crime from 2020 to 2021—a disaster they prefer to see instead as an effect of Covid.
Yet no one acquainted with right-wing media can doubt that anger over the 2020 riots fed the wildness of the January 6 riot. It was, as every sane person realizes, a symbolically horrifying episode, without precedent or comparison. But saying so will not drive away memories of 2020, which witnessed the worst public disorders in half a century. The small businesses in Minneapolis and Kenosha forced to close down that summer or burned to the ground were often owned by Asians or Black people, or for that matter white people with no history of racism. What may intensify the divided awareness of 2020 and 2021 are the opposing inferences drawn from the current magazine literature on the Democrats and the far right. Republicans are fascinated by the awkward revelations in a Time story by Molly Ball that reported admiringly on—but also revealed the stratagems of—the bipartisan managers who coordinated with left-wing crowds in case they were needed after Election Day. Democrats, meanwhile, cite the Atlantic article by Barton Gellman that suggests a sinister and growing insurgency, composed of a new layer of Trump-backed state officials and a far-right citizens’ army.
The national Republican Party has been gutless in all its dealings with Trump since 2015. And with few exceptions, it connived at the subsequent anti-constitutional behavior of a president who was also its leader. This was a political dereliction of duty that cannot go uncorrected if our constitutional regime is to survive. Democrats suffer from a less conspicuous vice—but one that is is getting worse, and is pampered by the liberal-corporate media: namely, their utter dishonesty about their now almost complete ownership of the extra-political culture of the US—journalism, higher education, K-12 public and elite-private education, medicine, mental health, professional sports, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and, increasingly, the large sector of corporate life represented by interests as diverse as the makers of soft drinks and the major airlines. This fact is perceived by the 40 plus percent; it is also resented, and the resentment won’t go away when you tell the owner of a one-room shack in Kentucky or Ohio that he is the embodiment of white supremacy.