"We've Lost the Line!" The Trauma of Jan. 6
We have been unable to fully grieve Jan. 6 because we lack a shared narrative of what it means
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When I sat at my desk to start this week’s essay, I thought I would write about the momentous final hearing of the House January 6 Committee. You have likely read analyses of the committee's criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. Former president Donald Trump is charged with insurrection and other crimes relating to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election and remain in office illegally.
It is a charge without precedent in the history of the American presidency, and it is a necessary and just action. In his autocratic aspirations and utter disregard for rule of law, Trump stands apart from other White House occupants.
I took no pleasure when the hearing confirmed several intuitions I had about Trump's state of mind and behavior based on my study of authoritarian leaders, from his intention to go to the Capitol on Jan. 6 to be with his followers (the triumphal moment for a coup and cult leader) to an intense need to stay in power at any cost.
"Trump's desire to stay in office indefinitely stems from the same fear of meeting a bad end...or becoming a nobody," I wrote in early 2020 in Strongmen, realizing that he would likely not leave quietly if he lost the election. "Nobody will care about my legacy if I lose...the only thing that matters is winning," Trump told his former advisor Hope Hicks when she expressed concerns that his attempts to overthrow the election were harming his reputation.
Once the committee's final report is released, I will assess where its work leaves us in terms of protecting our democracy from future autocratic actions. Today, though, with the sights and sounds of that day renewed by footage shown during the hearing, I am called to write about something different: Jan. 6 and trauma.
I know from responses to my tweets about Jan. 6, 2021 that I am hardly alone in feeling physically sick every time I see video of the assault on the Capitol. I was nowhere near the Capitol that day, and I was not physically attacked, as were hundreds of Capitol Police officers and some journalists. Nor was I a first-hand witness to the "war scene," as Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards described the nightmarish hours when the vastly outnumbered force struggled to prevent a breach of the building. And yet I feel agitated and inexpressibly sad when exposed to the sights and sounds of that awful day--no matter how much time passes.
I wanted to write about the trauma of Jan. 6 because I feel that we have been unable to adequately express our grief and shock about it as a nation. This is, in part, because we lack a shared narrative of what it means. That is by design. Republican elites and media have led half of the population to see Jan. 6 as a patriotic and positive event, as a minor protest liberals exaggerate to demonize Republicans, or as something to forget about altogether.
Some of us may feel pleasure in ridiculing Republican politicians for their hypocrisy on the subject of Jan. 6. We laugh at Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) becoming a meme for egging on the insurgents with a fist pump and then running for his life. Yet the third act of his drama --his quick subordination to the party line, which requires him to "forget" about the threat to himself and his colleagues-- is actually tragic. So is the fact that Former Vice President Mike Pence has shown more hostility to the Jan. 6 Committee (he arrogantly asserted "Congress has no right to my testimony") than to Trump, who tried to have him killed.
How can you watch Officer Eugene Goodman face down a human tide of hate alone and not feel sick (and intensely grateful for Officer Goodman's courage)? Having studied autocratic takeovers, I knew on that day that it was highly likely that the arrival of reinforcements had been delayed by design. We now know, too, that warnings about the attack were ignored by the Department of Homeland Security. During a coup, some must act, and others must stand down so the operation can proceed. This knowledge that the Capitol Police were set up to fail makes the horrible scenes more difficult to watch, at least for me.
The presence of individuals from the Oath Keepers and other groups who view violence as a way of changing history made it easier for the Republican mob to consider those guarding the Capitol that day as an enemy to be eliminated. I will never forget the desperation in the Metropolitan Police officer's voice: "We've been flanked and we've lost the line!" 140 officers were injured on Jan. 6, and five died in the weeks and months after, four of those by suicide. 153 other officers resigned or retired in the year following the insurrection.
It will take years to understand the scope of the coup conspiracy, and the Jan. 6 Committee has shown admirable tenacity in trying to get past the wall of omertà (I am using the term for the Mafia code of silence deliberately).
In the meantime, my distress at viewing the footage of Jan. 6 is also because I know from my studies what fanatics in service to a cult leader are capable of —and because many in the GOP would do it all again tomorrow. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) recently declared that had she organized the coup it would have succeeded because there would have been more arms.
When I went to Washington D.C. in November to attend the Democracy Summit organized by Nikole Hannah-Jones —my first trip since Jan. 6— I happened to see the Capitol from my Uber and surprised myself by promptly bursting into tears. As we approach the second anniversary of Jan. 6, I will sit with that sadness, queasiness, dread, and righteous anger.
If you have similar reactions, be kind to yourself, know when you need to take a break from the news, and then, when you are ready, use those feelings to fuel your efforts to protect our democracy. They are your moral compass and your sign that you are alive to injustice. That might feel like a burden, but it is also a gift.
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