Standing By

Watching the five-year-long car-wreck as my country acts like an increasingly grotesque parody of itself, until its inevitably tragic conclusion

Alexandra Petri usually uses her column in The Washington Post for satire or parody, but her entry on January 7, “We Love You. You’re Very Special. Go Home” takes the only tone possible for anyone reacting to the riot of January 6th: sad, angry, still trying to process the simultaneous absurdity and horror that is the culmination of the last five years of absurdity and horror.

It’s a wonderful essay, because it seems to express the feeling of baffled disgust and disappointment I’ve had daily since November of 2016: none of this can possibly be happening, but everybody else sees it, too, so it must be happening. I particularly love Petri’s description of seeing people vandalizing Speaker Pelosi’s office, scaling the walls of the Capitol building, or walking through the halls waving Confederate flags: “Like most things in the age of Trump, this had all the visible markings of a cruel parody but was the thing itself.”

There was so much focus on the absurd pictures coming from the scene that it was easy to think this was just a bunch of the usual comically incompetent chucklefucks playing dress-up, instead of violent insurrection. In fact, the reprehensible, traitorous, lying shitstains are even now, as the toll sits at five people dead because of a desperately pathetic, complete lie, trying to spin it as a bunch of rowdy good ol’ boys who let their patriotism get them carried away and took it a little bit too far. For a while, they were even trying to spread the bullshit lie about their favorite boogedy-boo-bad-guys, even on the fucking floor of the House of Representatives which their goons had just shat in, and said that it was Antifa’s fault. Five years of lying so brazenly, so shamelessly, so absurdly, that you can’t believe it’s real, and so it’s easy to stop seeing it as real. At least, for those of us who want to hold onto our sanity.

Which helps explain why I was watching these assholes desecrate the nation’s capitol, but my reaction was to point and laugh and say “look at these dumb fucks!” Even while congresspeople were huddled in their offices, doors barricaded, scared for their lives. Even while people around the Capitol were dying — either because they’d been whipped into an entitled frenzy by the fucking worthless piece of shit calling himself President, or because they were police officers put in danger by him.

And that leads to a horrifically perfect example of how all of this has been simultaneously comically absurd, and tragic. Two examples. One of the people who died was a man who suffered a heart attack, reportedly after he’d tasered himself in the testicles. Another was a woman who was reportedly trampled to death, after she’d been waving a flag that said “Don’t Tread on Me.” Are these stories true, or more Twitter bullshit? I have no idea. And the fact that I can’t discern between actual tragedy and ridiculously tasteless black comedy is a perfect demonstration of what we’ve been living through for at least five years. It’s near-impossible to tell what’s real anymore.

Except, of course, we all know that it’s not. We’ve been able to tell what’s acceptable and what’s lies and bullshit for years now. We all knew that it’s inexcusable to brag about sexual assault, even when people tried to tell us it’s just “locker room talk.” We all knew that it’s unforgivably racist to accuse the first black President of not being born in this country, even when people said, “Who, us? Racist? Race has nothing to do with it!” We knew that it was inexcusable to tell Americans to “go back where they came from,” and doubly inexcusable to do so when they’re elected Representatives. We knew it was racist, pitiful deflection from their own failure to call it the “China virus.”

We know that the allegations of election “irregularities” are a complete lie. They have been proven to be a lie over and over and over and over and over and over again. And still these pustules insist that we not only entertain the idea, but that we just accept that it’s grounds for a fucking deadly protest against the United States Capitol.

It’s all unforgivably stupid. And because it’s so stupid, it’s been easy to underestimate how severe it is. A lot of the types of people who like to say “Let that sink in” on Twitter have been quite eager to tell us all that they “could see this coming;” yeah no shit, everyone could see this coming, it was inevitable. Undermining the press, undermining Congress, demonizing Pelosi and AOC and Hilary Clinton and Ilhan Omar and any other woman who was convenient: you don’t have to be a genius to draw a straight line from that to the deadly invasion of the nation’s Capitol while in session, intended to interrupt the verification of the next democratically-elected President.1Bolded and repeated to discourage any attempt to reframe what this was.

But slacktivists have been shouting “coup” and “tyrant” as casually and frequently as Michele Bachmann reacting to the prospect of universal health care, and telling us every day for years that democracy its just about to end at any moment. All while giving us no tools to fight against this insurrection other than telling us to knit pink hats and to vote. It’s not at all surprising, after being barraged with constant self-serving lies from all sides for years, that some of us are unable to recognize a genuine coup attempt when it happens.

As should be obvious by now, I don’t have much of value to add to the national discussion, except to say that for most of Wednesday I was so furious that I was actually having tunnel vision and concerned that my blood pressure was getting dangerously high.

But finally, too late to be useful to anyone, I feel like I better understand why nothing over the past five years has made any sense. It’s because people like me have been over-thinking it. I’m only used to seeing traditional, Dick Cheney-style evil, and I was completely unprepared to handle people who are evil, shameless, and stupid.

You see people taking selfies as they desecrate a federal building, threaten the lives of elected officials and staff, and demand to overturn a democratic election, and you think Nobody could possibly be that stupid. You think there must be a difference between the people who were there for lols and Instagram photos, and the people who came planning to kidnap or even murder the Speaker of the House. The guy smiling for the camera as he strides out of the building holding a podium, and the maniacs in the mob who crushed a police officer under their weight as he screamed. But there is no difference.

And not only is there no difference, but one directly leads to the other. What we saw on Wednesday was similar to the video footage of the police officer murdering George Floyd; he knew he was on camera, and he didn’t care, because he knew he could get away with it. The contemptible, pus-leaking cysts guilty of this felt free to be photographed and videoed because they knew they could get away with it. They’d be coddled and furiously defended. As Petri’s essay says, they were demonstrating what they could do if no one stopped them.

And no one stopped them. Almost all of them were allowed to walk free. Their leader told them he loved them and that they could all go home. For the rest of us, none of it seemed real, because that’s not supposed to be how it happens. People aren’t supposed to be able to do that. It makes no sense. The thing that I needed to learn is that just because evil is stupid, doesn’t make it less evil or less dangerous. Stealthy assassins and special ops are probably just the stuff of movies; one chucklefuck with a gun allowed (and encouraged) into the office of the Speaker of the House could do more damage to this country than some tactical strike.

I’m disgusted and still angry, but I’m still optimistic and more determined. I still don’t know how to meaningfully engage in the process, but I’ll keep looking for opportunities. And more importantly: I’m finally relieved of the obligation to look for consensus. The constant frustration of the last five years disappears now that I’ve seen that it’s so simple: there’s no larger strategy, there’s no attempt to argue in good faith. They’re doing exactly what they seem to be doing, which is brazenly and shamelessly lying for their own, transparently evil, benefit. We’re under no obligation to humor evil bullshit as genuine political discourse.

The fact is just that some people are exactly as shitty and evil and selfish as they look. Trying to reason with evil and bullshit doesn’t work, and neither does ignoring it until it tires itself out. We just have to replace it with decency and intelligence. We’re already on the way to achieving that — in fact, this week should have been about electing two Democratic Senators in Georgia, instead of debating whether it’s “divisive” to suggest actual repercussions for a tantrum that killed five people.

We’ve seen exactly what happens when we let the evil and selfish people have their way. We should have no reservations about removing them and punishing them. Let them rot in prison, and if any jackass tries to suggest that it’s a bad idea to make people see the consequences of their own actions, because it will just stoke division and anger on the right, ask them what exactly the fuck they thought they were seeing on Wednesday? The people who’ve spent years being told that they’re entitled to whatever they want, and that black people and muslims and immigrant caravans and gays and transgender people and Antifa socialists are all coming to get them, are already afraid and angry. Instead of spending even more time bending over backwards to worry about how it’s going to affect a bunch of middle-class white people who can afford assault rifles and plane tickets to DC on a whim in the middle of a fucking pandemic, maybe ask what message you’re sending to the millions of decent people in America if you don’t pursue justice.

Ever since the people behind The Lincoln Project presented us with Sarah Palin and forced a nation of smart people have to listen to her for an entire year of a Presidential campaign, I’ve been watching all of this baffled. I’ve thought that people this blatantly, shamelessly, stupid, so laughably incompetent, couldn’t possibly be that harmful. As it turns out, only people so shamelessly stupid are capable of being so destructive.

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    Bolded and repeated to discourage any attempt to reframe what this was.

2 thoughts on “Standing By”

  1. Couple of things. 1) As far as things “to do,” I think Timothy Snyder offers a great primer in his book “On Tyranny,” which offers as I recall 20 specific things we should be doing to fight the rise of fascism. I plan to read it again. 2) There was a point, when that immigrant caravan was being made to be a giant bugaboo of the right, where I read a quote from someone who was concerned about the vacation homes of them and their wealthy friends on Lake Michigan being occupied by these invaders and I just thought… even the people who you would ostensibly think would have a modicum of intelligence, are clearly stupid. (I mean, logistically, how were they even going to pick out these homes as a place to go, and also, does one even realize how absolutely small the, what was it, ten thousand people are against the size of the United States? Even if somehow we had to pay for those immigrant’s lives for the next generation, which we absolutely would not have, it would have been less than a rounding error in the national budget. I mean, come on. A sense of freaking scale, people. But then, these were the same sorts of people who thought the odds of them being personally affected by a terrorist action in the year after 9/11 of being about 50%. Smart people knew that the odds, while never zero, were very very very close to zero, and those people were and remain right.) These stupidities I put in part down to human frailties (we are bad with large numbers unless specifically trained not to be) and in part down to a generations-long effort to diminish the capacity for rational thought among the general populous.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation!

      I think you’re right about the immigrant caravan fear-mongering, but I think it’s overly generous to assign much of that to a misunderstanding of large numbers. Or even a misunderstanding of geography (how are refugees coming from Central America going to be a threat to homes on Lake Michigan?) If I’ve learned anything in the past week + 4 years, it’s that I’m WAY too eager to say “don’t assume malice when ignorance/incompetence is a sufficient explanation.” It’s undeniably racist (I’ve been over-eager in the past to make a distinction between “racist” and “classist,” which I realize now is a pointless and harmful false distinction). It’s also incontrovertibly rooted in selfishness. Even if you could convince more people that our economy is more than capable of accommodating tens of thousands of immigrants without even noticing, there would still be an insistence that it’s unfair “on principle.”

      My evidence is how willing so many people were to say that COVID was “just like the flu,” as if tens of thousands of Americans dying from the flu every year was no big deal. The difference isn’t the number of people; it’s that the people dying from the flu aren’t perceived as a threat to them or their property.

      I think the inability to understand large numbers definitely applies to voters (I want my vote to count!). And it also applies to people like me, who have tried to stay at least somewhat moderate. Even while images from the Capitol riot were coming in, I was still insisting that it was a lunatic fringe of morons, and that it was over-dramatic to call it a “coup” because there was no direction to it. I feel like I’ve been underestimating how many people you need for a stupid idea to be nonsensical fringe talk and instead turn actively dangerous. I know it’s not the same thing as what you describe, but I feel like it’s a similar idea — our idea of who’s a representative sample has been twisted and manipulated whenever it’s convenient for someone. Sometimes they’re a dismissible fringe that you shouldn’t DARE associate with the “moderate Republicans,” sometimes they are the voice of 74 million people, all depending on who’s talking and what they’re trying to sell.

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