Some thoughts from today about the US Capitol and accountability
My first job out of college was working as a Staff Assistant in the Washington DC office of Senator Russ Feingold. In addition to answering the phones and working the front desk, I was also the tour coordinator — meaning I scheduled all tour requests from constituents visiting DC — the White House, Treasury, Holocaust Museum, and of course, the US Capitol. I also trained interns to give Capitol tours, and on busy days, would lead tours myself. This was my favorite part of the job. The Capitol is as much a museum of art and architecture as it is the home of American democracy. The frescoes of Constantino Brumidi stretching across the ceilings of the Senate wing; the vaulted ceiling of the old Supreme Court chamber just off the rotunda, where the Dred Scott decision was authored; the bullet marks in the House corridor where a would-be assassin tried to shoot Andrew Jackson, but was instead pummeled to the ground by Jackson’s own hand; Statuary Hall, where John Quincy Adams famously served as a House representative after his presidential term. I could go on and on, and I did on my tours. I loved sharing the history and beauty of that place with visitors. It’s one of those places, like St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Cathederal of Cologne, that instills a sense of awe — perhaps nowhere moreso than the Rotunda, where, looking up, you can see — 18 stories above the floor — Brumidi’s amazing fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington, depicting Washington’s ascension into heaven and taking his place among the gods.
The images today — videos of people smashing Capitol windows, ransacking the Senate floor, looting the office of the Speaker of the House, and festooning statues with Confederate and Trump flags — makes me angry, and it makes me sad. When I hear the people talking on some of these videos, you hear them speaking with a tone of entitlement, and also deep grievance. They somehow believe that though that place is meant to be a sanctuary where their interests can be represented, heard, deliberated on, and addressed, they have somehow not had access to it. This is not an apologia for these people — they are deeply wrong. They are ignorant and uneducated about how our democracy actually works, and bellicose in their ignorance to a degree that must not be ignored. But the part of me that used to relish in giving tours — who had only months before learned of all the history and tradition and inspiration that is held in that space, and was able to share it first-time visitors to the Capitol, and see their awe and appreciation for two and a half centuries of debating, battling, wheeling and dealing, and compromising for the common good and a more perfect state of affairs — this part of me was profoundly sad that these people had never taken the time to cultivate that appreciation.
The educator and the citizen in me knows that in the long-run, it’s my duty to nurture these understandings — to share my knowledge of how our government works, to explain why things are the way they are, and to encourage people to use their agency as fellow citizens to be active in the process. The time for understanding will come, but it is not now. Now is the time for addressing an imminent threat, and for holding people accountable.
Here are some things I think can be done to address the immediate threat of insurrection posed by Trump and his followers:
(1) Contact Congressional representatives and let them know that Trump must be removed from power immediately through impeachment. This is especially important for Republicans like Mike Gallagher to hear from his constituents immediately.
(2) If people attempt to justify, minimize, or equivocate about the storming and looting of the Capitol, challenge them. If they attempt to equivocate the actions of the rioters today with rioters in protests last summer, it is probably best to ignore these attempts and explain to them that rioters where trying to disrupt a process that was certified by all 50 states as being free of fraud, and that there is no excuse for trying to overthrow our system of government through force or intimidation. (That’s called fascism.) Don’t be afraid to tell somebody they are wrong if they are spouting lies or misinformation.
As far as accountability, a few thoughts:
(1) Everyone who participated in this rioting and looting needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I imagine this will not be an easy process, from a political standpoint. Therefore, it’s important to let our political leaders — Congressfolks and Senators — know that we support this so they keep the pressure on. This might mean contacting our reps, it might mean going to rallies, or there might be other ways to do this as well. But it’s important this not be swept under the rug, or allowed to be muddled and both-sides-ed by Republicans who want to avoid alienating part of their base. This might also include considering sedition charges for people like Rudy Giuliani, who called for “trial by combat” at the Trump rally this morning, and members of the Trump family who did similarly. It’s important that this be understood not as a radical act, or an act of persecution, but a matter of justice and accountability.
(2) People like Ron Johnson, Tom Tiffany, and other Republicans who enabled this for years need to lose their jobs. This year, after many years of being close to but not part of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, I became a card-carrying, dues-paying member. I’d urge people to consider this — it is through the party that we will recruit strong candidates, run strong campaigns, and hold these people accountable for their complicity. It might mean more mundane things like putting up a yard sign, talking to neighbors, phone banking and door-knocking for elections, and giving money to the party every so often. This is the necessary work of winning elections.
These are just a few preliminary thoughts — would love to hear others’ thoughts and ideas as well. Many of us saw this ignominious day on the horizon for a long time. It’s important we not let our outrage at those who courted and enabled it stop at the keyboard or at our front door.