January 6, 2021 - a day that will live in infamy – was the day the mask was ripped off, and it became clear that the United States is involved in a generational struggle to save our democracy.
The attack on the Capitol is, or should be, our 9/11 moment – a moment when all our comforting assumptions about the sanctity and security of our democracy are shown to be illusory, and we are confronted with the harsh reality that we live in a far more dangerous world than we knew, where malevolent conspirators aim to kill our fellow citizens and officials, and violently overthrow our government.
Only this time is worse than 9/11. Like the familiar horror movie trope, this time the killer is in our House. We can no longer deny the reality that one third of our fellow citizens support violent authoritarian white supremacy, and are cheering on insurrection, sedition, and treason so that they can continue to keep colored people subordinate and kill them with impunity.
I did not want to know this. I wanted to believe that signs of social progress such as the election (twice!) of a black man as President and the acceptance of gay marriage meant that we were progressing as a country and a society. Now we cannot deny that only two thirds of us were progressing – while the malevolent one third were seething with resentment that they had to take any note at all of a black or gay man except to kill him.
I grew up in the Jim Crow South. I know these people – racist, violent, willfully ignorant and proud of it, continually aboil with outraged victimhood. The violent minority are the berserker shock troops of the movement, allowing the nonviolent to enjoy their racism without getting their hands dirty. Hate crimes are never unambiguously condemned, it’s just that some ol’ boys went “too far.”
Contrary to stereotypes, they come from all social classes. Some may be your neighbors. Some may be your friends. (They are not your friends.) All too many are your police, your military, and your elected representatives.
Civil war is here. It never really stopped, it just went underground during Reconstruction, re-emerged as Jim Crow, then took root in the Republican Party as part of the post-Civil Rights Act “Southern Strategy.” Republican elites for decades wooed racists for their votes, always believing they could control and manipulate the rubes as needed. With Trump, the racist authoritarian base took over, and now the Republican Party is a treasonous authoritarian criminal conspiracy that must be destroyed for the republic to survive.
This is our generation’s 9/11. This is our Pearl Harbor. If we are to pass the torch of liberty to future generations, a sacred trust our forefathers fought and bled and died to pass on to us, we must steel ourselves for the decades-long battle ahead.
The fight, in general, will not be waged with force of arms. It will be waged at the ballot box, in the legislatures, in the courts, and in the public spaces of civil society, from Facebook to cable news to the local public library.
Below is an outline of the strategies I think crucial in order for us to win.
#1 Detoxify the information space, and re-establish a single verifiable reality.
Our news suffers from pollution – it is rife with disinformation spread by malevolent actors here and in Russia. The pollution originates in white supremacist watering holes on the internet or in right wing think tanks financed by billionaires such as the Kochs, then is spread by a right wing echo chamber of fringe “news” sites, Russian botnets, Fox News, and Republican party hacks who bring it into the mainstream media, thus validating the disinformation and polluting the news for everyone. Republicans are almost hermetically sealed off from any dissonant facts – as a relevant example, a recent poll shows that a majority of Republicans believe that the attack on the Capitol was perpetrated by Antifa – an organization that for all practical purposes does not exist.
In order to de-pollute the news, and re-establish a single shared reality, we must attack pollution at every step in the transmission process.
First, Joe Biden must state unequivocally and repeatedly that the attack on the Capitol was an attack by white supremacist Trump followers. This simple message will ripple out into civil society, and people of good will can and will take effective action. Shunning and shaming of the perpetrators and enablers is necessary, and potentially highly effective.
Particular pressure must be placed on the purveyors of information. The banning of Trump from Twitter and other social media platforms has been reported to have decreased online disinformation by a remarkable 73% in just a week. More of this is needed.
In my own opinion, we need to outlaw hate speech, as nearly all European countries do who had the grisly but instructive experience of living under the jackboot of the Nazis. We must also make disinformation a crime – true news organizations must adhere to standards of evidence, and any outlets that do not are not purveying protected speech.
#2 Prosecute everyone who perpetrated, participated, planned, financed, aided, abetted, or defended the seditious attack on the Capitol.
Many have made the case for accountability, and I wholeheartedly agree. This will get a whole lot of bad actors off the street, and serve as a salutary warning to other white supremacists who might otherwise imagine that their own seditious activities could be costless. However, we must go further. The attack on the Capitol was not an isolated event, but an almost inevitable outgrowth of an anti-democratic movement led by a wannabe dictator. We must strike at its roots.
#3 White Supremacist organizations are terrorist organizations. Treat them that way.
Looking at the attack on the Capitol through a counter-terrorism lens leads to some useful conclusions.
Step 1 of a counter-terrorist initiative is: neutralize the leader. This is particularly important when the leader is a charismatic figure who is attributed with godlike powers. Such a figure must be removed. If possible the leader is not killed, which might transform him into a revered martyr, but is captured, humiliated, and brought to justice as an ordinary criminal. This breaks the spell of invincibility the leader has projected, discourages adherents, and greatly reduces future recruitment.
At the moment, the attack on the Capitol is seen by adherents as a qualified success, and has not discouraged continuing fever dreams of insurrection. Trump must be held accountable, stripped of his post-presidential perks, disqualified from ever holding public office again, prosecuted for his many crimes, banned from any public statement in any form ever again, and imprisoned for the rest of his life. Anything less is playing with fire near our currently very vulnerable Constitution.
Similar treatment must be meted out to Cruz, Hawley, and all other Senators and Representatives who actively fomented the sedition. In my opinion, this includes every Senator and Representative who voted to overturn Joe Biden’s election, but this broad an intervention is unlikely to occur. Cruz and Hawley might be sacrificed, as they are widely loathed within their own party. Anyone who gave “tours” on January 5 to persons committing sedition on January 6 should similarly be held accountable, as should anyone who was live-tweeting Speaker Pelosi’s location to the attackers. All should be expelled, and if not expelled due to Republican intransigence, censured and banned from public office, which take only a bare majority.
We must then find the malefactors within the Capitol Police, the Pentagon civilian bureaucracy, and within the military who coordinated with the attack, cooperated with the attackers, and delayed or denied aid to the defenders.
Long term, we need to add white supremacist organizations to our terrorist watch lists, and put them under the same surveillance that Islamic terror organizations have been subject to. We need to do a thoroughgoing reform of police and the military, rooting out the white supremacists that have infested them.
The same goes for the Republican Party. It must expel its White Supremacists and disavow any appeal to them in campaigns. If it does not, the GOP must be counted as just another terrorist organization and must be destroyed.
#4 Strengthen democracy at the ballot box.
White supremacists within the GOP have used a number of anti-democratic measures to suppress the votes of Democrats, and to entrench minority rule even when outvoted. All that needs to change.
The Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Republican-dominated Supreme Court in recent years, needs to be re-enacted in stronger form. Voter suppression and gerrymandering must be outlawed. Voter registration should be automatic, as it is in almost all other developed countries, and mail in ballots available to all. Ballots need to be hand marked, and touch screen voting machines should be banned. Should the Supreme Court, packed with Republican operatives over the decades, disallow any of these crucial measures, immediate unpacking of that Court by expanding it to 15 members at a minimum will be in order, and takes only a majority vote of both Houses.
In the end, these measures to strengthen democracy at the polls will usher in our lasting victory. But first we must do all the other steps to isolate, weaken, and ultimately destroy the white supremacist infestation of our polity. As I have said before – we can’t heal the body politic without cutting out the cancer.
The above four measures to save our democracy will not be easy, and final victory will not be quick. But people of good will DO outnumber the white supremacists - if not by the margins we heretofore naively assumed, yet still substantially and decisively if we work together.
Let us begin.