Dispatches from the present
What had changed noticeably when I got back to Washington, in late January, were the possibilities available to the imagination. At the beginning of the Trump years, friends from the former Yugoslavia warned me that the weakness of Americans would turn out to be their certainty in the continuity of their world, resting on the assumption, derived from a life of comfort, that what they couldn’t imagine couldn’t happen. “The mind could not accept the unimaginable,” one of them wrote of living in Sarajevo in the Nineties, because it “had no access to an alternative ontology.” Now the Capitol putschists had broken us through into a new ontology, a new dimension really. We could see exactly how the dissolution of America would play out, and that meant that it was possible.
Those who still couldn’t see it were helped along, in the days leading up to inauguration, by the armed soldiers forming a perimeter around downtown. Stationed at each intersection and alleyway running between the anonymous business suites and sandwich shops along L Street were a couplet of troops in sandy fatigues with assault rifles strapped to their chests. They were there to guarantee the peaceful transfer of power, by unpeaceful means if necessary. That you could walk up to the troops, chat with them, take pictures of them—unlike in numerous foreign countries where I’d nearly had my belongings confiscated for such things—was a small comfort. “Surreal” was the word on everyone’s lips, which it was in the sense that surrealism attempted to give expression to that which lives in the unconscious: “realer than the real” is what the word means. Here was the nightmarish vision that many of us had pushed from our minds four years ago, come to life at last. There was something deeply absurd, however, about the brute display of power by the state against its own citizens, as though they were not the source of its legitimacy, but rather foreign invaders. In a way, they were. I couldn’t get over the scenes of Trumpists in red caps roaming the streets and the hallways of Congress, proclaiming their ownership over Washington and everything in it, while simultaneously asking for directions.
The morning of the inauguration was the kind of Washington winter day I’d come to love after living in northern Europe, the air cold and sharp but the sky as bright as June. The televised version of the ceremony from the West Front of the Capitol appeared, refreshingly, normal, if sparsely attended because of the pandemic. What was not apparent on camera was that the grounds had been turned into a fortress, encircled three times over—a strip of industrial plastic barricading, fronted by a solid line of troops, who were in turn behind a seven-foot layer of fencing. From across the street, one could see and hear nothing.
In the evening I went down to Black Lives Matter Plaza, as the mayor had christened the two blocks of 16th Street leading to the White House, the nucleus of so much riotous energy over the last eight months: the protests for George Floyd, the spontaneous dancing in the streets after Biden’s victory, the first rumblings of the Stop the Steal movement in November. Now the plaza was quiet and comparatively empty. The streets were blocked off to cars, and it really did feel like a military encampment, everyone on foot, soldiers and journalists mingling, the latter practically lining up to interview the handful of civilians who were there, including the only MAGA protester I’d seen all day. The sun set over the White House, which looked peaceful, as though its rightful owners had returned after a long vacation, kicked out the kids who’d thrown a rager there in their absence, and settled in for a quiet night. On that evening’s inaugural “TV special,” the testimonies of American carnage had been replaced by a nation of talent, success and generosity.
Was it really that easy to change the narrative?
At a gathering that weekend among friends, we couldn’t decide whether Trump really had been the product of our moment—historic inequality, status anxiety and white resentment, lasting anger a decade on from the financial crisis, the logical dystopic end point of late-stage capitalist democracy—or whether America had always been primed for a demagogue and was just waiting for the right one to come along. One friend pointed out that the putschists were ultimately conservative; within their own web of lies and fantasies, at least, they weren’t revolutionaries seeking a system change, but protectors of our democracy. Trapped inside lies and fantasies as they were, they’d supposedly wanted to install their own version of democracy. But that conversation didn’t last long, and for the first time in five years, it turned to other topics.
The seduction of reverting to “normalcy” is undoubtedly dangerous. There is only one way I am able to make any sense of the fanatical devotion of the people who committed violence in the name of Donald Trump to the man of Donald Trump: he enabled those who felt powerless, rightly or wrongly, to feel powerful. In the end it wasn’t about him, it was about them. The humiliations of his life were the humiliations of their lives, humiliation being the emotion that bound them together and that was meant to be overcome. If Biden is smart he will come up with an alternative way for people to feel empowered, to redirect those feelings into some other purpose. (Not for those in militias, of course, but for the thousands of seemingly ordinary people who joined in.) One could think of staging citizens’ forums, as was done in France two years ago after the Yellow Vest protests, a series of localized public debates that could be announced to mark our reentry into civic life, once enough Americans are vaccinated. Save democracy, yes, but reinvent it along the way.