Donald Trump chose to focus on the wrong fence this week. Instead of calling our attention to the barrier he has been struggling to build on our southern border, he should have been focusing on the fence now surrounding our nation’s Capitol in Washington, DC.
The new fence, 7-feet-tall and considered “non-scalable,” should eventually find a home in the Smithsonian. Pieces of it would be an appropriate remembrance of just how dangerous and frightening the Trump years have been.
Massive protests are nothing new in Washington, of course. In the 1970s, when I was working in the White House, protests against the Vietnam War reached a crescendo. I remember walking through a courtyard at the Old Executive Office Building and finding military tanks secretly stationed there, ready to move if trouble got out of hand.
But those protests were wholly legitimate — citizens rising up to demand changes in government policy. In this past week, by contrast, we were watching as the leader of the executive branch of government incited mob violence in an attempted takeover of the legislative branch. Through all of our history, although there have been attacks on our Capitol, we have never seen American citizens try to bring down our central government. Attempted overthrows by civilians have been rare as well among major Western democracies.
The closest parallel to the Trump years for many has been the Hitler years in Germany. But even there, mobs weren’t marching on the Reichstag. Instead the similarity to today is really more about clever deployment of disinformation by both men. As World War I ended, Hitler and his followers invented “The Big Lie”: Germany did not lose the war on the battlefields, they argued; rather, its democratically elected leaders undermined the war effort back home. They convinced the electorate that opponents of the war, especially Jews, had delivered a “stab in the back” to German soldiers. That was a huge lie, but its proponents rode it to power. Just as Trump has with his cynical narrative about Biden’s election victory.
Trump’s greatest strength is perhaps his ability to convince large swaths of people that what is true is false and what is false is true. He has become a master of “The Big Lie” — namely, that he won the election and Joe Biden lost. A majority of Americans don’t believe him, but opinion polls show that roughly a third are still on his side, even after the bloody assault on Congress. It will be extremely difficult for Biden to govern as long as large portions of our electorate believe his presidency is illegitimate.
It is disturbing but true that Trump has become even more threatening to our democracy in the past few weeks. With the FBI warning that insurrectionists may stage new marches across 50 state capitols and are personally targeting Biden, Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi, one would think that Trump would have the decency and good sense to tell his followers to back off, put down your guns, and stay home. How can he continue to be so blind to his own self-interest? Does he really want to leave office with more blood on his hands?
Actually, the biggest test at the moment is not about Trump. It is whether the Republican Party will assume serious responsibility for keeping the peace in coming days. That third of the electorate still in Trump’s corner won’t listen to Biden or any other Democrat, but they might listen if a big chorus of conservative Republicans as well as business leaders now stand up and speak up — just as Rep. Liz Cheney has done in the House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is signaling in the Senate.
As a people, we are staring into an abyss; things could well get worse before they get better. It is hugely important to the country now that we de-escalate and search for higher ground. If we can just get through the first hundred days of a Biden presidency with our democracy intact, perhaps we can all catch our breath, welcome in a little sunshine, and send pieces of that fence to the Smithsonian