President Biden and Vice President Harris commemorated the 1 year anniversary of the January 6 attack on our democracy with morning speeches and a day of remembrance inside the Capitol rotunda with Representatives and Senators giving a number of moving speeches in their respective chambers. The tone on TV news and blue check Twitter was somber and reflective. The President referred to the violent events of Jan 6, 2021 as a terrorist attack on our democracy, and said that the threat was not yet over — that the perpetrators of that event still hold a “dagger at the throat of America.”
Only two Republicans were present in chambers when the moment of silence was held for the nation’s traumatic experience one year ago — Representative Liz Cheney and her father, Dick Cheney, the former VP and evil villain of the George W. Bush years. That this man — a cartoonish devil from my formative years as a young activist — was, along with his steel-spined force of nature daughter, one half of the lone pair that remained of the pathetic tatters of the once great party of Lincoln.
What do you do if you’re in a 2-party system and one of the parties is just sitting on the sidelines, heckling (and worse!?)? How do you restore confidence in a system that so many people love to hate, to the point of obsession? Will we be able to re-establish a sense of fair play, as Biden called on us to do today in his speech?
The Big Lie is about rewriting history
We don’t need to spend a ton of time peering deeply into discerning motive with seditionists — we can instead understand that for all of them, serving the Big Lie serves a function for them in their lives. It binds them to their tribe, it signals a piece of their “identity,” and it signals loyalty within a tight hierarchy that rewards it — all while managing to serve their highest goal of all: to annoy and intimidate liberals. Like all bullies, their primary animating drive is a self-righteous conviction that “I am RIGHT!” at all times and about all things, and that disagreement is largely punishable by death or, in lieu of that, dark twisted fantasies of death passed off lamely and pathetically as “just joking, coworker!”
For both the populist right-wing base and the plutocratic political class, the Big Lie functions as a “narrative reversal” device. It rewrites the actual story of what happened into its opposite: recasting Trump as the innocent victim of leftist Antifa operatives who wanted to… stop the guy they voted for from being certified the winner?! It makes no sense in the rewrite but it doesn’t matter, because the whole thing is just a prop — a kind of rhetorical Trojan Horse that lets them skate by on a thin veneer of plausible deniability for their nefarious intentions, while continuing to pursue “revenge” for invented crimes that they “make real” through a propaganda engine on a scale that would make Joseph Goebbels weep.
Propaganda is just gaslighting, scaled up — and you can manufacture it cheaply and amplify it cheaply these days on Facebook. It also gains potency through recycling — the oldest conspiracy theories like the antisemitic Blood Libel and the white supremacist Lost Cause mythology have a kind of built-in resonance because they’ve endured for decades and centuries already. They’re deep in the blood and bones of collective memory of certain groups, almost waiting to be activated. It’s like having built-in marketing juice, or pre-existing search engine ranking — it’s easier to piggyback on them because the “recalcitrant” conservative pockets of society still cling fervently to them as simple, soothing stories about the world that sound like a cross between a fairy tale and a Greek myth.
The truth shall make us free
Lies can be so powerful, because they embody our deepest darkest desires — the ones that we daresn’t name except in encrypted chatrooms. Powerful people have a way of weaving lies into myths, by blowing enough hot air into them that they seem to take flight of their own accord. But ultimately the Big Lie is a gossamer dirigible that cannot withstand the flames of Congressional investigation forever. And there is still a chance that the national sentiment could keep shifting in favor of the reality-based rendition of historical events — perhaps rapidly so given the gravity of even the tiniest dangles offered so far by the Jan 6 Committee, which seem to indicate to myself as well as to a number of professional natsec-type folks that Liz Cheney & co. have the proverbial goods on Trump and his merry band of Confederates.
The “dagger at the throat of America” is not hyperbole or exaggeration — Biden is referring to the ongoing effort to cling to the former president’s lies and throw the nation out with the bathwater of butthurt. He’s talking about the continued and amplified efforts at the state level to put laws in place that would allow Republican simple majority legislatures to override the will of the voters and install partisan candidates of their choice, up and down the ballot. The President is talking about the coup continuing in plain sight by an unscrupulous array of bad actors from elected officials at all levels to local power brokers, lobbyists, cynical political operatives, and leeches to power of all kinds. He names a continued threat and his commitment to looking it squarely in the eyes, as leaders should do. As we should do too.
Another resonant historical voice spoke to the power of narrative on Rachel Maddow tonight: Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has both studied and lived history over the past half century and counting, described how the repetition of the authentic story has an inherent power to counter the false narratives currently filling the void of public knowledge. There is so much we yet don’t know about the stories behind the January 6 attack (front of House) and the coup plotting over the course of 2 months (back of House) that was undertaken instead of participating in a peaceful transition — a devastating blow to national security far greater than the breach that had occurred following the Bush v. Gore contest, in which the delay to begin the transition was later named as a key structural weakness in the chain of events leading up to the September 11 attacks in 2001.
It was only 8 months in to the Lesser But Longer Bush’s rein at the beginning of the new millennium, and even though the “lights were blinking red,” everyone at first failed to act and then later dramatically overreacted, in part to try and cover up the earlier hubris of nazel-gazing dereliction. They dragged us hastily into a series of Middle East swagger war quagmires we would not be able to extract ourselves from for another 20 years — until Joe Biden came to town and had no more fucks to give.
We citizens have an important part to play in this narrative war we find ourselves unwittingly cast in: to bear witness. To pay attention, to care about our democracy, understand its fragility, and work diligently and at times urgently to preserve it, recast it, and renew it for each new turn of the wheel. We’re at an inflection point in history, as Biden noted earlier today, and we can ask not what our country can do for us by faithfully telling its story — the true story; the “God’s truth about January 6th, 2021.” He inked a fair bit of this fair history into the historical record via his remarks this day — they carry the most weight of any single individual in this nation or indeed this world. We shouldn’t deify our leaders, but we should hold in some awe, a reverence for the mighty powers they wield. Those powers are only legitimate when they represent the will of the people — no taxation without representation, as the Tea Partyers used to say (having fallen strangely quiet of late).
Let we the people exercise our collective will, and let it be known our intentions and patriotism and adherence to the rule of law. Let us learn to handle our careworn democracy like a treasure that is more than a mere Treasury; as a collection not of mere stories but a rich integrated history; as an unbroken chain of ideals instead of a schizophrenic tennis match between aristocracy and democracy.
Let us tell the truth honestly of our past, and speak directly about where we want to go in the future, as a collective nation. We must agree on a set of rules for playing the game that disallow trying to move the goalposts after the match is over. We must change the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation, or it’s all for nought — and this ~250-year experiment in self-governance will come to a bitter end.