We Have Met the Enemy, and the Enemy Is Us
- Peggy Whiteneck
These are the lessons I take from the last four years, 2016 to 2020, that culminated in an insurrectionist attempt to take over the Capitol of the United States in advance of Congressional certification of electoral college votes on January 6, 2021.
1. The biggest threat to the security of the United States is not international terrorists but right wing domestic terrorists. Generally speaking, the country has vastly underestimated this threat. Republican Congressmen who have supported Trump right up to the last days of his administration, pitting their own political future against the future of the country, need to know that they have played a despicable and dangerous game and that, when they play with fire, it isn't just they who get burned.
2. Among the darkest chapters of American history is the support too many Evangelicals have given to white nationalism, even going so far as to equate it with Christianity. Sleeping with the devil is not a strategy for achieving heaven. Neither is being anti-abortion the same thing as being pro-life.
3. The attempted coup of January 6, 2021, which resulted in the loss of lives, the destruction of national property, and inestimable international damage to the reputation of democracy itself, was the inevitable result of four years of dictatorial rule by a mad man and the 70 million voters who were willing to return him to office.
4. Until now, I had always believed that people will listen to reason. But around the core of Trump's most radical supporters is a wide concentric circle that is composed of American citizens who are not ready to take up arms against the government but who have subscribed totally to false flags, conspiracy theories, and misinformation promoted by unreliable sources. After repeated attempts to reason with these folks, I've finally, if reluctantly, had to accept that there is no educating invincible ignorance and no arguing with willful stupidity. The only thing we can do is resist further contagion.
5. It is not enough to do sensitivity and diversity training within the military and law enforcement. The smiling "selfies" and comradely hand shaking with insurrectionists by some police officers on January 6th and the subsequent discovery of a military service record among some insurrectionists are a stark and undeniable expression of the reality that extremist ideologies have infiltrated the ranks of soldiers and police officers whose duty is to serve and protect. At the very least, the country needs and deserves a more robust screening system to keep extremists out of positions where they feel entitled to draw a gun and use it on other people entirely at their own discretion.
6. Social media has clamped down on Trump and his enablers too little and too late. We all abhor suppression of the freedom of speech guaranteed to us by the Constitution. But advocating for the violent overthrow of the government is not a legitimate expression of speech that should be entitled to First Amendment protections. It has long been acknowledged that falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not protected by the First Amendment. Encouraging people to burn the country down shouldn't be entitled to it, either. And given the power of social media, its owners (from Google to Twitter to Facebook to Instagram and others) need to accept that they have a responsibility to help in the mammoth effort to vaccinate the public against misinformation.
7. The American education system has failed in its responsibility to educate the citizenry in basic civics. We should be sick by now of hearing rhetoric about "the Constitution" by those who have no idea what the document says, "my rights" by those who cannot distinguish liberty from license nor understand that the corollary of Constitutional liberty is care for the common good, and rote charges of "socialism" spattered around like so much spit spray from those who haven't any idea what the word means. Basic civics should be taught K-12, tailored to the ability of each grade to understand the concepts.
8. The popularity of FOX news, Facebook, Twitter, Parler, and other agitprop among Americans for whom these are their only sources of information underscores the inability of much of the populace to evaluate the legitimacy of information. The main value of education is not enabling people to get a better job; it is teaching people to recognize legitimate sources and to think critically about the information they are receiving. Having taught writing at a college level and received my share of unsubstantiated "my opinion" pieces written by students in response to a research paper assignment, I can attest that we are not doing enough to prepare our young people to question their own preconceived ideas, conditioned over a lifetime of being exposed to their elders' biases and mistaking them for valid information.
9. Trumpism did not begin with Trump. The extremism that has been allowed to hijack modern American conservatism goes back to the era of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich and, even beyond that, back to Barry Goldwater's failed candidacy for President. The anti-poor, anti-black, anti-indigenous, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and jingoistic intolerance and the incendiary rhetoric that accompanies it took contemporary root in receptive American soil at least as far back as then. Actually, before there was Trumpism, there was McCarthyism. And going back to the 1940s, there was Nazi cheerleader, Father Coughlin.
10. Progressives have been pushing back against the claim made in shocked response to the sedition of January 6th that "this is not who we are! We're better than this!" An ungilded understanding of American history would suggest that this is how we've always been. As citizens, we must accept responsibility for an unvarnished understanding of history and the manner in which, for better and worse (including its toxic white privilege), the American past is enshrined in our current social, political, legal, and economic systems. In acknowledging the persistence of these historical effects, our goal as a country should not be to encourage other countries to follow our example: It should be to become a better country.