Historians will spend decades parsing the tragic from the ridiculous in the events of the first few weeks of 2021, and many books will be written about the Capitol insurrection alone—perhaps the world’s first cosplayed revolution.
Sometimes the tragic and the ridiculous are one and the same, as in the fact that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell have emerged as the conscience of the Republican Party, all basking in a chorus of polite golf claps for publicly denouncing the direction of the GOP in recent weeks. I suspect they are secretly glad to have seen this administration fail so spectacularly, so that people will forget the unfathomable cruelty of theirs—and their culpability for what we’re experiencing today.
These rats fleeing the sinking ship are the ones who chewed through the hull in the first place. In the wake of 9/11, the predatory Bush administration realized it could bottle up the directionless anger over the terrorist attacks and use it to sell nationalism as a smarmier brand of patriotism. Enabled by moderates who didn’t want to appear soft on revenge, enough of us bought the line that rallying around the president would show the world that we were an unbroken, united people.
But we were broken, and our unity was threadbare. The right-wing elements of our society—up to and including the president—used this to their advantage, invoking the specter of otherness as a constant threat to justify a carte blanche approach to the war on terror abroad and the restriction of civil liberties at home. You were “either with us or against us” in facing an “axis of evil,” a calculated stoking of partisan and racial division that has grown and mutated, culminating in last week’s violence.
Susan Sontag warned us this was coming. In her New Yorker essay just six days after the towers fell, by which time American flags billowed on every doorstep and the speeches of politicos dripped with bigoted undertones, she wrote, “The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public.… Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management.… The public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”
Sontag suggested that we brought the attacks upon ourselves through a belligerent foreign policy—a harsh sentiment to be expressing on September 17, 2001. But instead of reexamining our role as the world’s largest arms dealer, we marched into yet another war. And when our gaze turned inward, instead of an honest reckoning about how we could become better, we simply found more enemies at home.
The immediate scapegoats were the Muslims, of course. Sharia law was coming to get you. The apostles of Rush Limbaugh rode this narrative from fringe conspiracy theory to cult leadership, empowered by the explosion of social media that let them preach the dangers of immigration through unfiltered channels, without having to worry about inconvenient burdens like sources and evidence.
Black Americans fared little better in the Bush era. The NAACP called his Cabinet “the Taliban wing of American politics … whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.” It took the Hurricane Katrina fiasco to see this in broad daylight, when Kanye West informed America that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
The administration stoked our paranoia to sell not one but two forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—one based on fabricated intelligence, the other on foolhardy strategy. The wars killed nearly 200,000 civilians and earned billions for Cheney’s friends, and no one was ever held accountable.
The invasion of Iraq may well have been the moment when bald-faced lies became the favored tool of Republican governance. If you could get away with lying to go to war, you could get away with anything. It was late in Bush’s tenure that Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in the pilot episode of The Colbert Report, referring to things that are true if you just ignore the facts. The barb was aimed squarely at Fox News, which more than anyone fomented American xenophobia and gave the GOP a broad base it could consistently lie to without consequences.
The truthiness only accelerated with the election of Barack Obama, whose very presence in the Oval Office inspired that cosplay revolution dress rehearsal, the Tea Party. Ostensibly about fiscal responsibility, the Tea Party quickly proved itself really to be about deciding who was and was not American. The president was clearly not American in its eyes, giving rise to the birtherism conspiracy theory—that Obama was born in Kenya—upon which Donald Trump built his political empire.
But it wasn’t just people of color who were othered. The list of un-Americans grew to include journalists, health professionals, academics, Californians, socialists, all Democrats, RINOs, and even former Trump officials who were heroes at dawn and traitors at dusk. The day patriots-cum-terrorists marched on the Capitol building like a dystopian Woodstock, we saw the definition expand to their own leaders. Some of the rioters were reportedly looking for Mike Pence, with plans to hang him from a makeshift gallows at the foot of Capitol Hill.
It took 20 years for this withering cult of xenophobia and racism to conclude that most of America was not American, to get to the point where patriotism meant beating a police officer with an American flag. But we didn’t lose anything in the Capitol Hill riots that we hadn’t already lost the day we gave the Bush administration a pass on the Iraq War. We did not respond to 9/11 by building a better world: We responded by tearing ours down. We are reaping today what we sowed then.
We are—and have been for the past 20 years—a nation in pain. But we are also a nation tired of being in pain. So let this be our catharsis. Let’s admit what we got wrong—then and now—and hold those accountable who brought us to this moment. Let 2020 be the year we screamed, and 2021 the year we caught our breath and reexamined who we are—both as a nation and to each other.
“Our country is strong, we are told again and again,” wrote Sontag. “I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”