Yesterday Proves That Americans Value The State More Than The People

HORRIFIC. TREASONOUS. AN ACT OF TERRORISM. These were just a few of the words used to described the violent insurrection that took place yesterday at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump, directed by the President’s own, perennially aberrant wrath from a rambling speech in the morning, broke through barricades, climbed walls, broke glass– all with the premise of disrupting the process of electoral college certification that was supposed to be taking place. Shots were fired, killing one, an Air Force veteran— and four people died in total. Suddenly, a growing, bipartisan list is calling for the President to be removed from office in his last few days before he is replaced by president-elect Joe Biden. Should anyone be surprised? Republicans shouldn’t be– they created this. Really, no Americans should be surprised by the attack itself. What we should be appalled by, though, is what the Capitol attack proves, unequivocally: That many Americans value the State more than they value the People who comprise the State. That’s something we should probably talk about for a minute.

Yet Another Tale of Two Protests

Commenters were quick to point out the appalling inconsistency of letting a mostly-white crowd of pudgy, MAGA-hatted, Realtree’d, husky-jeans’d Republicans violently trash the seat of US government when Black Lives Matter protesters had been tear gassed for far less. Chemical agents have been a hallmark of American police violence for generations with dubious ethics and legality, but tear gas may well have competed for Time’s 2020 person of the year. I wrote about this last year. I compared the Detroit protests to the McCloskeys in St. Louis— the gun-waving lawyers that apparently everyone hates. I also followed the protests in Detroit. So it was a bit jarring for me to watch livestreams of people breaking the glass on the doors of the Capitol– and just being, you know, allowed right in.

Say what you want about our Judeo-Christian heritage. In America, we don’t have a king or queen– we don’t even have a God. We have the State. And yesterday, the Capitol served as the metaphor for that State under attack.

In contrast, some things that apparently did justify tear gas and brutal violence from cops? Let’s take a look:

  • Wet’suwet’en and other indigenous peoples protesting the Coastal GasLink Pipeline (2020).
  • Lakota, Dakota, and other indigenous peoples protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (2016-2017).
  • Disabled protesters being forcibly removed from the US Capitol during an action against proposed healthcare cuts.
  • Detroit Will Breathe protesters sitting in the middle of a downtown street during a low-traffic Saturday evening.
  • Protesters in Portland, Oregon– both nonviolent and violent- were savagely beaten by a notoriously violent police force.
  • Mostly nonviolent protests in more than 100 cities across the United States– ranging from Bentonville, Arkansas, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, Spokane, Washington, to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
“But storming the seat of government– THAT is the last straw!”

Enough has been said about the different responses to protesters and the fact that white protesters seem to get away with a whole lot more than black or native protesters. Yeah, it’s vile. What we should be looking at, though? That it took a historic attack on the seat of US government– something that hasn’t happened since the British Crown stormed the Capitol in 1814- to elicit mass resignations, condemnations from the President’s own party. That is the thing that is surprising, and we need to talk about what that means.

The other horrific stuff, apparently, just wasn’t enough. Nah. That stuff was all A-OK.

We can go back to the beginning. Pussy-grabbing? Locker room talk! Boys will be boys, you know? Mocking a disabled reporter? Well, fuck the MSM! Those lying, George Saros-controled [sic] snakes! Kids in cages? That was fine! If they didn’t want to be in cages, they shouldn’t have been born in a poor country! The decimation of US diplomatic credibility? Entirely excusable! He’s just standing up for America! America First! The four trillion dollar deficit, or the tax cuts that didn’t “trickle down”? It’s the Democrats’ fault! The unconscionable mismanagement of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has since killed 370,000 Americans, a number that may well double this year? Oh, it isn’t Trump’s fault! It’s the Chinese Communist Party, which created the virus! They’re in cahoots with Bill Gates!

But Her E-mails, Man.

So, all of that– to say nothing of the President’s statements that his supporters defended with cries of, “he didn’t mean that!” Inject yourself with bleach! Shoot the refugees! Beat up journalists, it’s a “beautiful sight”! The Second Amendment people should kill Hillary Clinton! None of these things were beyond the pale.

Of course, to some, it was all well and good to storm the Capitol. It’s captured quite well in this interview from WWJ950. Christy Strawser interviewed Michigan attendees returning from attending the fracas, in this case 73-year old Sylvia Halpert, who lives in an RTA opt-out suburb and makes Bible-related crafts on Etsy for extra cash. Halpert said:

… she felt safe at the event that caused a curfew in the nation’s capital and brought out the National Guard because, “you just do what God wants you to do and everything’s great.” She added it was “great fellowship.” There was one regret, though, about the event that left the foundation of democracy shaken for many, breached the Capitol for the first time since the British invaded, and claimed the life of a 14-year Air Force veteran. “I just wish we could have a party with everyone who was on the bus,” Halpert said.

Wow. Seriously, Sylvia?

The absurdity here knows no bounds, of course.

While we still have a long ways to go before we can talk seriously about democracy and pluralism given the egregious racial disparities in how protesters are treated– given yesterday and, well, most of 2020- more than enough think pieces have been written about how we should seek to understand the dysfunctional soul of the jaded white working class. Or, you know, how Trump supporters are all racist and will never understand the real meaning of Christmas, or whatever. You know, Michelle Goldberg stuff. Maybe it’ll all be better if we read J.D. Vance! Then we will truly understand why we should hate poor people and vote Republican!

Nah. The real tragedy of yesterday’s terrorist insurrection is the fact that it took an attack on the very sovereignty of our country by disrupting its place of government to actually elicit the criticism and condemnation of Trump that normal, sane people had found lacking for four years. It’s time to reëvaluate some things if we’re indeed going to recover from this at all. That has to begin with deconstructing and dismantling the frankly perverse reverence we have for this Pollyanna vision of the divine State. Say what you want about our Judeo-Christian heritage. In America, we don’t have a king or queen– we don’t even have a God. We have the State. And yesterday, the Capitol served as the metaphor for that State under attack. Even Mick Mulvaney, Stephanie Grisham, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, and many other perennial Trump apologists– found this to be a bridge too far. 

Mounted police in downtown Detroit in front of the Shinola Hotel (rooms starting at $201 a night) at a Detroit Will Breathe / Black Lives Matter protest in August, 2020.
Epilogue: Finding A Better Story To Tell

The monumental renovations of the German Reichstag in 1999 preserved some of the defacement and damage that was done to the building by Soviet troops in 1945. (The building, located along the edge of the Berlin Wall, hadn’t been used as the seat of German government following the division of the country 1945-89) You can walk through the halls of the seat of government of this wealthy, democratic, sovereign state and still see graffiti scrawled by 18-year old Russian kids. Sasha loves Masha, эта машина убивает фашистов, or whatever.

Contrast to the ideas of the American State as that great, paramount, immutable Thing That Is Not To Be Trifled With. In 2016’s TV series Designated Survivor, which held on for a solid season or two, domestic terrorists blow up the US Capitol. What does the government do? They rebuild it exactly as it was. This isn’t a matter of saving money on set costs. It’s explicitly a statement about how the US holds onto its tradition, blah blah blah. (Completely implausible, of course, as Kiefer Sutherland’s character is supposed to be a city planner– come on, people!). This isn’t even a ra-ra, Semper Fi, Kill Turists [sic] Dead, kind of a show.

Doesn’t our stalwart, austere embrace of the sanitized vision of the State desperately need some revision for a 21st century that is increasingly diverse, increasingly threatened by existential threats of climate change (or fascism, for that matter), and consequently needs to be increasingly pluralistic?

Okay, so the Capitol wasn’t blown up, we know this– and the damage that was done was probably minimal. Trash can be cleaned up. I don’t have any starry-eyed affinities for the slaveholding aristocrats who founded this country (“but they were great men!” once bemoaned a Margaret Thatcher-loving paramour of a younger, more naïve me in one of the conversations preceding our inevitable breakup). And, obviously, I certainly don’t think we need to blow up the Capitol. I just wish we had a bit more respect for human beings over the mythologized, architectural incarnation of the State.

This can be as much a matter of architectural consideration as it can be one of representation– and certainly one of language and politics. I am hoping that this insurrection serves as a wake-up call to anyone who hadn’t previously put this into words.

Trump supporters at the TCF–maybe-Cobo-now-Huntington-can’t-even-keep-it-straight Center in November 2020 protesting the vote count following the presidential election. Donald Trump lost by several million votes including a 155,000 vote margin in Michigan, but his supporters continue to claim without evidence that massive voter fraud was committed. Dozens of lawsuits challenging the election from various procedural, Constitutional, and even criminal standpoints, have been thrown out.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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