Title: What We Knew All Along
It has been a long, preventable, predictable four years. This isn’t an essay about vindication. This is an essay about defeat.
By Conor Mulvaney
On November 7th, 2016, at 5:03PM, I (and so many others), ran to social media to make one final appeal. It was mere hours before Election Day, and I had hoped that there were people in my life whose minds could still be swayed. I was younger then- because yes, there is a lot of developmental distance between 23 and 27- and perhaps for it, more naïve. I still had the ability to hope that people might change.
I had spent the months leading up to the election trying to post and speak about then-candidate Trump from a rational and unemotional place. I wrote about his use of despotic language, his unfitness for office, and the innumerable, credible accusations of sexual violence held against him. I repeated the language of then-stately Republican leaders, who despite our ideological differences, could at least agree on the danger a Trump presidency posed to American society. I had made what I thought were logical appeals because as far as I was concerned, there may not have been a choice that felt “good”, but there was at least a choice that was right.
But by that Monday evening, I had exhausted my capacity for rational conversation and fell to my knees in a state of emotional desperation. If logos hadn’t worked, perhaps pathos and ethos might fare better in moving them. In my final post before Election Day, I entered into the public ledger what I hoped might be enough to force people to reconsider their affiliation with a man I could so visibly see as despotic: “I am a gay man who is scared of what my life will look like Wednesday morning.” I had hoped by personalizing my fear, assigning to a face people knew as opposed to speaking of it in abstractions or policy points, people might consider the cost of their vote.
They didn’t. One woman told me not to believe everything I read. Another told me to get my head out of the sand. Another mocked the gravity with which I was treating the situation. For all of my fear and my awareness of risk to myself and other marginalized folks I love, I was told it was unreal. Untrue. Needless. I wasn’t allowed the experience of my own reality, because it might mean they would have to give up theirs.
Twenty-four hours after that post, I found myself heading into Midtown to watch the returns and pray for the world from its very center. By 11PM on November 8th, 2016, the Midwest had collapsed under Secretary Clinton. I ran what felt like a thousand equations in my mind, and each time, was dragged back to a harsh reality; there was no pathway to a Clinton presidency. Donald J. Trump would be the 45th president of the United States.
By Wednesday morning, the world woke up to this life-changing news, and while so many responded in fear and grief, a worryingly large group responded in revelry. Social media, just as it had done in the months prior, devolved into a fractious nightmare. Our grief was met with indifference at best, and cruelty at worst. By Thanksgiving, I had fully awoken to our new, painful reality. There were people who willfully ignored the threat Trump posed, but also so many who willingly embraced it.
An annual gathering of friends grew uncomfortable when many, as we went around and shared our gratitude, identified one President Trump as the thing for which they were grateful. It was framed then as a joke, but behind it was the ugliest trust: they wanted- needed- the people they loved to know they felt righteous in their choice. It was as much of a statement as it was a battle cry, a line drawn in the sand. These same folks would later ask me why it felt so important that I bring politics into everything.
Family dinner that year, already more dreaded than large gatherings of raucous, drunk Irish Staten Islanders typically are, similarly drew lines in the sand. As I walked into my cousin’s house after spending far too long in traffic on the Belt Parkway, I was greeted at the door with a big hug by the woman poised to become one of the future matriarchs of my family. She excused herself for a minute, before returning from her bedroom wearing a Trump hoodie, letting me know she wore it “just for me”, before devolving into a laughing fit. Even to family, my fear was a joke. Something to ignore, to mock, to belittle.
Fanaticism of one despotic, cruel strongman came at the cost of any ability to see the pain of a community. We knew Trump was a fascist-in-training; all of the pieces (the racism, the affection of autocracy, the protectionism, the open embrace of political violence, the hyper-nationalism) were there. We saw him- and the cult of personality around him- as a threat of real proportion. Beyond the threats to our own queer, BIPOC, trans, undocumented, etc. identities, we saw in him the threat to democracy. The threat of violence as he whipped his supporters into a frenzy, again and again. But the concept of fascism’s broader embrace hadn’t yet become a regular talking point within progressive spheres. Even we underestimated just how much these four years would cost. Earlier in Trump’s candidacy, Lindsey Graham, senior United States Senator from South Carolina, tweeted: “If we nominate Trump, we [the GOP] will get destroyed… and we will deserve it.” For some reason, a later sentiment that if we elected Trump, the nation would be destroyed never seemed to cross Graham’s mind after November 8th.
The most marginalized of us responded in the ways we had been practicing for decades. We dusted ourselves off, we taped together signs, and took to the streets in what had been the largest single-day demonstration in United States history. The idea of #TheResistance had fully emerged, a hashtag so of the Trump era that it is as righteous as it is memetic.
It was easy to feel hopeful then; somehow, America’s better parts would persistently overcome our more awful ones. To believe from such a place of privilege that “we’re better than this” and to ignore the truth that this is what we’ve always been. Yes, on November 3rd, 2020, America seemed to overcome the despotism of the Trump era. We had batted back fascism for at least a few more years. But just how much had we lost?
Ultimately, it has been a long, preventable, predictable four years. But this isn’t an essay about vindication- tragically, this is an essay about defeat. What we knew (and warned about) all along grew more and more clear as we approached the second Election Day of Trump’s presidency. So thoroughly had his supporters pledged fealty to his madness, so often had his party abandoned their “very serious concerns” about his governance in exchange for power, so characteristically had the President himself stoked baseless fears and fed dangerous conspiracy, has his Presidency come to a fittingly violent and unAmerican close. In the death throes of his reign, Trump has fed American society to the wolves.
Yesterday, in a final (but also likely not actually final) attempt to subvert the will of the American people ahead of the imminent certification of his opponent’s victory, Trump spoke from behind plate glass for some seventy minutes to a growing crowd of rampant supporters gathering on the National Mall. In his speech, Trump cooed as he continued to stoke flagrant lies and baseless conspiracy about the illegitimacy of his defeat:
It can be difficult to see the terrorism behind your actions when the most powerful man in the world calls you an amazing patriot. As he chastised his otherwise (and historically, most) ardent supporter, Vice President Michael Pence, for being unwilling to abandon his constitutional duty, he fed a hungry crowd exactly what they wanted: permission. He insisted the mob, now foaming wickedly at the mouth, march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, which had just convened in the requisite Joint Session to certify the results of the November 3rd election. “You will never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength. You have to be strong,” Trump implored, once again saying the quiet part out loud. He stoked them further- stating he would lead the procession of fools to the Capitol’s steps. But he didn’t, nor did he ever intend to. He simply wanted to light the match and walk away. To watch the world burn, in his honor.
Over the last few years, I’ve grown more and more keenly aware that I’m “living through history”. Whether this is a feature of the self-awareness that comes with age or a characteristic of these increasingly turbulent times, I’ve experienced moments over the last four years where I’ve known that “this changes everything”. To this effect, I’ve started collecting the morning editions of papers describing what feel like momentous (if not also tragic) occasions. My conversations with many have echoed this sentiment. At lunch, a dear friend who has similarly spent much of the Trump presidency slack-jawed, understood immediately what we would soon be watching: dangerous political violence. She brought up the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. We both laughed nervously.
What unfolded next, Minority Leader Schumer would later remark, was a second “day that will live in infamy” in American history. The Capitol was breached, and breached violently, as the Joint Session quickly disbanded and as many members of Congress (the presiding Vice President among them) as could be were secreted away. Reporters on site, planning only to report on what has historically only ever been a ministerial duty, instead pivoted to ask the gathering insurrectionists what cause they had for sacking this temple of democracy. Many replied simply: “revolution”.
What began as a protest grew into what it was always intended to be: insurrection. Rebellion. Terrorism. In the hours that followed, these “amazing patriots” desecrated the halls of Congress. They ransacked offices, stole podiums, appointed themselves would-be kings as they assumed the presiding officers’ chairs. For the first time in over 200 years, the Capitol was invaded by a violent, organized group seeking to overthrow the American experiment. They came brandishing pipe bombs, molotov cocktails, and zip-ties to presumably take hostages. They came ready for war, led by a self-imagined God-General, all in service of their own worst impulses and the fragile ego of a mad man.
In the hours that followed, reporters and pundits on nearly every major outlet, ever-prepared to (pointlessly, I’d say), “report from the middle”, asked how this could have happened so suddenly? It’s a disturbing level of ignorance and just another shade of America’s passive and tacit support for the President’s crimes. Beyond even the President’s insistence on holding a “Save America” rally on the day the Congress of the United States would certify his defeat and the end of his incumbency was the reality that this rotten fruit grew from seeds planted long before a single vote was even cast. For months the President insisted he would only lose the election if it was stolen. In a now chilling moment, he whistled to his supports, specifically the neofascist white supremacist group The Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by”. In the two months since Election Day, the majority of his caucus was silent as he spewed and spouted baseless, fictional claims of “voter fraud”. His army of Twitter-minions spread the demand to #StopTheSteal. Yesterday’s terrorist attack on the Capitol didn’t erupt from nothingness, it was the culmination of a series of orders openly given over the last four years of a fascist presidency. Like I said, this is what we knew, and tried fruitlessly to warn about, all along.
Ultimately, the coup was unsuccessful, and after an initially lukewarm (and some suggest, sympathetic) response from Capitol police and slow National Guard response, the insurrectionists were driven from the Capitol building. Hours later, Joseph R. Biden and Kamala D. Harris would be certified the duly elected President and Vice President of the United States. But that’s not enough, is it?
An unsuccessful coup is still a coup, no differently than an unsuccessful murder is still a crime. It shouldn’t be permissible that just because Trump and his supporters were too feral to carry out this attempt at destroying our democracy, because that creates the exact permission structure needed for insurgents to try, and possibly succeed, again. Nor is it acceptable to call yesterday anything less than what it was: a treasonous attack on American democracy, carried about by white supremacist and domestic terrorists, at the direction of the President of the United States. But we’ve learned to accept the unacceptable in these last four years, it seems. If the Trump presidency has shown us anything, it’s that we all know just how much rot lies in the roots of American society.
We’ve endured over the last twenty-four hours many an argument drawing a gross false equivalence between this summer’s nationwide marches for racial justice and an actual terrorist attack. I’ve been asked by many, rhetorically as if to imply I’m trapped in some “gotcha!” moment, to clarify the difference between these inherently dissimilar moments in American history. It’s a delusional grasp for moral superiority, yet another “both sides”-ing that boldly asks, “if you can protest for racial justice, why can’t I overthrow democracy?”
So, let’s do it. I’ll entertain you. Let’s clarify the differences, “for educational purposes”. The first, and perhaps most obvious of which, is that there is a keen difference between intending to subvert democracy and defending its core values. The vagueness of this point, though, is quite the source of problem. Any like-minded individuals will surely understand into which bucket I’m sorting terrorism or protest. But any person still allegiant to Trump still reading this (which, wild if true) will almost categorically view it in the opposite fashion. It’s almost as if when the President spends several months insisting baselessly that an election was rigged, people believe they are defending democracy, not destroying it.
The second, especially to anyone unwilling to perceive it, is a little more difficult to suss out. “The protestors rioted and destroyed property”. Yes, this is certainly true. Having been forced to endure centuries of imperilment, degradation, and discrimination, an entire component of American society took to the streets after witnessing yet another murder by police of an unarmed Black man. They took to the streets, and in their grief and rage, demanded attention from those who had spent lifetimes ignoring them. Well, we’re paying attention. So something worked. While this will surely be interpreted as justification for “senseless violence”, there is an ocean of distance between “looting Target” and “looting the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives”.
Both are violent, yes. Much of American protest and social action has been violent, but the reality is that the latter example isn’t American protest, it is anti-American terrorism. This summer’s marches were borne of a collective grief; yesterday’s terrorism was borne of a mad man’s orders. The condemnation is never about the violence. If so, there would have been as many calls decrying the armed invasion of the Michigan statehouse and plot to kidnap the state’s governor over public health measures. All of which, naturally, followed another order from the President: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
Third, and perhaps the most sinister point, is that yesterday, an armed militia was able to enter the heart of American democracy with little injury, minimal loss of life, and only a handful of arrests. The National Guard did not move on them like an Army, clearing church steps for a photo op. The terrorists were not forced onto an embankment and tear gassed into submission. Nobody lost an eye. Nobody was assaulted for holding a violin vigil. Nobody was run over by a police officer “just doing his job”. Over the summer, we were told that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Yesterday, terrorists were told “we love you; you’re very special”.
To insist comparison between these two moments in history demands contrast. Yesterday, terrorists walked free *after* 1) invading the Capitol, 2) growing violent with police, 3) bringing weapons that clearly implied intention to cause even more gruesome atrocities (all of which still somehow manage to understate the national security risk of the occasion). Some Black men don’t get that luxury for reaching into their glove box. As quickly as Americans tried to find something, anything wrong with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to justify their murder, they’ve tried to find something good about terrorist Ashli Babbitt to excoriate her’s.
The tragic fact is that after witnessing yesterday’s events live and in color on what has been the most consequential day in nearly two decades of American history, there are some who are still willing to not only overlook, but to defend this terrorism. To insist that they “condemn violence”, but only if we condemn ours. They can only be wrong in their terrorism and violence if we’re wrong in our justice and freedom. That’s the difference.
Is it all that shocking, though? Are any of us really surprised by these responses? These are, after all, the same people who defended Kyle Rittenhouse, murderer. Who enshrined the McCloskeys, inviting them not only to speak at their National Convention, but celebrating their willingness to threaten protestors. Who, years later, still defend the “very fine people” on both sides of a fight that involved actual Nazis that culminated in the murder of a young woman, Heather Heyer, relentlessly fighting to save democracy. Her last Facebook post: “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”.
Trump’s presidency has been, at least from my perspective, a long, uncomfortable look in the mirror, where we’ve all been forced to contend with just what it means to be American. The worst of our impulses, all fed purposefully by this despot to warp us into his image, are reflected by nearly every reckoning we’ve faced as a nation since Trump’s inauguration. Our society-wide silence at the abuse and assault of women was spit back to us by the #MeToo movement and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court. Our comfort with white supremacy and willingness to cozy up to it when it suits us is reflected by the marches for racial justice. Our fascination with money- with wealth- concluded with the passing of a tax bill that nearly no non-wealthy American benefitted from. Our fealty to the concept of American individualism, rather than the social good, has led a pandemic to rage on for nearly an entire calendar year, with 350,000 dead in its wake. And our worship of American exceptionalism has meant many have been willing to ignore all of it.
Everything about us that brought Trump to power, these very worst parts, have always been here. Trump has made the American people, or at least, those humble and willing enough to do so, contend with exactly who we are and what we want to be as a society.
This, perhaps, has been the one thing I haven’t always known about this Presidency; that it was, in many ways, the exact thing America, our nation, deserved.
The rest though? It’s what we knew all along.
Let’s be real. You did too.
Conor Mulvaney: Web developer turned social justice and reform advocate, Conor has spent the last five years searching for solace in writing and working to complete his Masters in Social Work, where he, thankfully, gets to do an awful lot of writing.