A few weeks ago, I was contemplating writing a piece for right about now suggesting that as a symbolic gesture and public service, one of Joe Biden’s first orders should be to tear down much of that ugly hurricane fencing around the White House and the surrounding neighborhood. After four years of corruption and skullduggery, as an emblem of a renewed openness and transparency, let the public see their new elected leader’s home and office without all the barriers.
So much for that plan.
Now Washington is an armed fortress, still reeling from the January 6 fatal assault on the Capitol by thousands of Trump supporters, an armed gang of white supremacists and other assorted, extremist tools and cranks determined to use force to stop Congress from officially certifying the votes of the Electoral College in favor of Biden and the new Vice President Kamala Harris, a woman of Black and South Asian heritage.
Since this attempted coup, seven-to-twelve-foot-high walls of security fencing have locked up the city in anticipation of Wednesday’s swearing in. Up to 25,000 National Guard are patrolling the District of Columbia, hoping to prevent another domestic terror attack. The bridges from Virginia are being shut down and law enforcement officials and citizens have been told to keep an eye out for IEDs and other explosive devices.
Additional fences first were put up around the White House last spring, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Remember the images of peaceful crowds being cleared with gas, rubber bullets and batons so Trump could have a photo op? He stood outside St. John’s Church at Lafayette Square clutching a Bible, which for some reason didn’t burst into flames at his touch or turn into a swarming ball of vipers.
Then in the fall, the fences were reinforced and expanded yet again in anticipation of post-election trouble. But who knew the real danger would come not from Donald Trump’s perceived enemies but from his friends, deceived and deluded white men and women who have bought into every lie and dark conspiracy? Irrationally, they ignore their own self-interest, instead stoking hate and elevating Trump into a smarmy god, behaving like the victims of Jonestown or those cargo cult worshippers in the South Pacific convinced that the next celestial delivery of toasters and mobile phones will drop from the sky any minute now.
Now, in the wake of the January 6 attack, and in anticipation of this week’s inauguration, we see even more protective walls with razor wire at the White House and Capitol. The National Mall is closed and city streets barricaded. And all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that will soon have taken more than 400,000 American lives, thousands every day, many of whom could have been saved but for the malfeasance and indifference of Trump and Republican governors and members of Congress—those who have turned the virus into a political football (much as they have with the election results they knew were accurate but denied to make their president and his devoted base happy).
They eschew the most basic safety measures and misrepresent or hide scientific data to score points and make hollow arguments about freedom of expression and cancel cultures (when what’s really meant is their taking responsibility for their actions).
In the last couple of days we’ve learned, according to The Washington Post, “When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced this week that the federal government would begin releasing coronavirus vaccine doses that had been held in reserve for second shots, no such reserve existed, according to state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans…
“Now, health officials across the country who had anticipated their extremely limited vaccine supply as much as doubling beginning next week are confronting the reality that their allocations will remain largely flat, dashing hopes of dramatically expanding access for millions of elderly people and those with high-risk medical conditions.”
It breaks the heart to see such suffering inflicted by lies and idiotic, venal and needless behavior, just as it bruises the soul to see Washington under siege, even as the city tries to celebrate the end of Trump’s grift and the beginning days of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—days in which they will have to fight to pull this pummeled nation off the ropes of disease, unemployment, a shattered economy, conspiratorial delusions and a worldwide environment teetering on the edge of doom.
I lived and worked in DC for several years and often return. During the early months of the Obama administration, I was on the Hill one Friday with other writers for meetings with several members of Congress, including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. An aide walked us from one of the Senate buildings over to Reid’s office in the Capitol. As we saw the sun bouncing off the gleaming white cast iron dome, she said with complete sincerity, very “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-style, “I’ve been here three years and still get a thrill every time I look across the street and see it.”
Dorky and wonky, yes—so of course, I knew just what she meant. The dome is a bright and shining icon for the principle of American representative democracy. But I also know I cling to that notion as someone who’s white and privileged.
I know that both the Capitol and the White House were built with slave labor, that African American men in bondage quarried the marble that clads the bricks and cut the wood and stone, that enslaved women and men served in the households of the early presidents, senators and representatives.
And I know that as our country’s original sin, slavery and the brutal way we have treated human beings who are Black, indigenous and other people of color are at the root of our entire history from 1619 onward. To that long record of intolerance, add what has happened over the Trump years, plus the ridiculous GOP challenges to votes cast in states with majority-Black cities, and now, the January 6 riots at the Capitol. Can you imagine the police response, the bloodshed and arrests if the protesters trying to break through had been people of color? You know the answer.
The core of the hatred, the madness, the resentment from the throngs that invaded Washington this month and various state capitals across America over the last year is not, as some would have you believe, simply about economic misery, misinformation and community dysfunction. It’s not just about supporting Trump or even refusing to wear a mask against COVID.
Much of it’s the fear of the inevitable majority minority, about a quarter of a century away from now, when white Americans no longer dominate, when their sense of superiority by pigmentation is challenged perhaps as never before. Without skin color to tell them who’s on top and in charge, there’s little left but grievance, intolerance and a senseless lashing out. Unless, of course, this new world is understood and embraced.
There’s a certain fearful symmetry to the fact that a racist president who fancies himself a mob boss should find his administration ending with an actual mob, a lawless gang violating the halls of Congress screaming they were “instructed” or “invited here”by the president. “I answered the call of my president,” insisted one. “Fight for Trump!” others screamed as they vandalized the Capitol, shattered windows, battered down doors, stole documents, murdered one policeman and injured more than sixty others.
For this, Trump has been impeached a second time, charged with inciting insurrection against his own government. The Senate trial should proceed and President Biden will quickly have to decide if a further reckoning is necessary, not only when it comes to Trump but also the members of his cabinet and Congress who continued to pursue and endorse blatant falsehoods about the election—even after their chambers had been violated by those who would have executed them in a frenzy fomented by their wingnut commander-in-chief. To make this happen at the same time as Biden and Vice President Harris pursue an agenda vital to the nation’s survival will require an adept and perhaps impossible threading of the needle.
But enough of this trauma. The end of Trump’s time at the top, an end to this national nightmare and global shame, cannot come soon enough. Let us hope that “the better angels of our nature” that Lincoln tried to summon in his 1861 inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War can this time make a miracle. Clean up the stinking mess left behind, stanch the bleeding and then let the healing begin, but not without justice and not without an end to the self-serving lies.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.