In truth, the signs of danger and harbingers of the assault on sanity, truth, democracy and the U.S. Constitution were glaringly present on Jan. 22, 2017 — two days after Donald J. Trump was officially sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Some may have forgotten what happened then: Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, declared during an interview with Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd that the folks in the White House were operating with “alternative facts.” At dispute was how many people actually attended Trump’s inauguration. Spokesperson Sean Spicer had been sent to the White House media briefing room a day earlier to assert that the crowd had been the largest ever in presidential history — never mind photographs to the contrary. Conway was on national television defending her colleague and what she, a woman of considerable intellect, knew was a lie.
The introduction of alternative facts or lies untethered from reality became the hallmark for everything — everything — undertaken by Trump and his minions. It was the foundation for his claims of voter fraud, even after he won in 2016. It was the impetus for his policy to ban residents of certain Muslim countries, his assault on the Affordable Care Act, the tax cut for the wealthy, and the vicious separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern border.
Republican congressional leaders and 40% of voters who self-identified as members of the Republican Party consistently stood by Trump, failing to disavow alternative facts, misrepresentations and outright lies. The slide down the rabbit hole was swift. There was no coming back.
A. Scott Bolden, former chair of the DC Democratic State Committee and currently managing partner of Reed Smith LLP’s Washington office, may have been one of the first persons I know who predicted pending doom — the kind we have seen since November and specifically on Jan. 6, when tens of thousands of Trump supporters, acting as a criminal gang of insurgents, laid siege to the Capitol while threatening physical harm to Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Back in November 2017, Bolden circulated an essay to various media organizations, including The Washington Post, sharing his concerns: “As the country moves deeper and more perilously into the tenure of President Donald J. Trump, I am suffering a recurring dream. Actually, it’s a nightmare,” Bolden wrote.
“It’s 2020, and unsurprisingly, [Trump] has decided to run for re-election, firing his bid and voter angst with the usual suspects: claims of voter fraud, attacks against the ‘fake’ media, and deploying as petard the specter of the return of Hillary Clinton — although she isn’t his opponent in the race,” continued Bolden. He foresaw that Democrats would choose a “moderate candidate for president, who raises money to match Trump’s coffers and runs a spirited campaign on the much lusted, simple message of uniting all Americans.”
Bolden predicted a Democratic victory, and that No. 45 would not “go into that dark night… Instead, Trump ingloriously whips his base into frenzy. He argues election results are false, brought to the American public by voter fraud and suppression [and by] fake news…
“That terrifying view of the future has me in a cold sweat,” Bolden wrote, noting that political operatives and his friends — I was among them — discounted his vision as “flawed and far-fetched.” In fact, the essay was never published for that very same reason. He recalls people telling him at the time, “The kinds of things I am worried about only happen in unstable, Third World countries — countries where the United States has stood against fascists or authoritarian political leaders, sending in military forces or observers to ensure fair and democratic political elections.”
I remembered Bolden’s clairvoyance as I was writing this column and reached out to him. “I am no visionary, as it was all in front of us,” he told me in an email. “For some reason, I always believed the impossible was possible with this president.”
Perhaps Bolden understood better than most a quote often used to describe the propaganda techniques of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
The alternative facts told by Trump and his administration were colossal — none bigger than that he had won the 2020 election by a landslide and Democrats were stealing his victory. When he lost in the courts and apparently could not otherwise misdirect the counting of electoral votes in Congress, he sent a mob to attack the Capitol and by extension the Constitution and the country’s democratic values.
No one should have been surprised, however. Hadn’t Trump used his supporters during his 2016 campaign to attack members of the press and innocent bystanders? Hadn’t he encouraged his armed allies at the Michigan State Capitol building to “Liberate Michigan”? That was the promise of things to come.
Trump-ites came to the nation’s capital last week intent on destruction. Some were wrapped in the American flag; at least one person wore fur and horns; others waved flags bearing Trump’s face as if he were the Fuhrer. Unfortunately, he used them as pawns in his inglorious attempt to retain his presidency; that kind of delusion happens when your close political friends are dictators and despots.
The devotion of his most ardent domestic supporters has been superseded only by the people of Jonestown, Guyana. In 1978, followers of cult leader Jim Jones killed U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and four other people traveling with him. Jones subsequently convinced his flock to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid. As many as 918 people died that day; 304 were children. A people’s history — the best and worst of it — can be found in its cultural and political institutions and symbols. The Capitol is a major, iconic image and receptacle of the Republic’s legacy in its attempts to stand as a democratic beacon for the world.
I confess, my appreciation of it has come late. When I was younger, as an acolyte of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, I embraced the idea of a revolution. Deployment of lies was not required for my generation to demand change. The abuse, discrimination and outright slaughter of Black people in America was fresh, especially in the Deep South of my birth.
Even now, I can recall the day when a raw egg hit my face; the yellow of the yolk dripped on my favorite white blouse. I was on the bus on my way home from my still-segregated public school in New Orleans. It took more than a decade after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education before the schools in New Orleans were fully desegregated — never mind the horror Ruby Bridges endured at William Frantz Elementary School in 1960. I also watched the hardship of racism my mother and grandparents experienced for years. They bore the pain without losing their dignity and with the hope for a better day.
Some of my peers back in the 1970s and 1980s were prepared to use any means necessary to achieve their goal of political, cultural and economic liberation. As a student of nonviolence, I was not, although my commitment to the cause was no less fervent or sincere.
I cannot situate the precise moment when I decided to truly embrace America as my country. It may have come sometime in that period when I worked as a community organizer traveling across the country, helping diverse communities understand the power of their voice and presence in creating the kind of government they deserved.
I know somewhere back then I gained a greater appreciation for the fact that too many of my people had fought and died for this country on behalf of democracy. Black people — enslaved Black people — helped to build the White House and the Capitol. It wasn’t until Feb. 12, 2012, that the latter was acknowledged with a commemorative marker in the visitor center.
There are some Americans — mostly white men as is obvious from the demographics of the insurgents — worried about the changing color and race of leadership. They fear their power and influence are being usurped by Black and brown people. There may be some truth that racial minorities are raising their voices and becoming more active in the public square. We have achieved success, for the most part, by effective and strategic use of the ballot — not by deployment of pipe bombs or assault-style rifles.
Still, the road to equality and equity is long. Nevertheless, I believe in democracy.
Like many, as I watched last week’s events at the Capitol, I became so enraged. I had to remind myself of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s admonishment that DC residents stay away from downtown. I asked myself whether she had intended for us to look on, as if paralyzed, while people from God-knows-where destroyed the things and places many of us love. The House, led by Pelosi, voted this week to impeach Trump for a second time. The total in favor of impeachment was 232, with 10 Republicans joining Democrats; 197 other Republicans stood by Trump. Consequences were required for the insurrection he incited, his failure to fulfill his oath to protect the country and the Constitution.
Will it be enough to end the war on America in which Trump’s supporters are engaged? And, if we, ordinary Americans who still believe in this country, are not permitted to fight against these forces, how do we save it?