“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.”
It certainly looked that way on Jan. 6. A mob of domestic terrorists who saw themselves as patriots stormed the U.S. Capitol, starting a melee that led to the death of five people.
Commentators intoned gravely that “democracy is in danger” and the fate of the Republic was teetering. They can be forgiven because sober reflection is hard to achieve during an unlikely riot and some minds run to drama because that’s what gets attention.
But on reflection I believe thoughtful people – and, I hope, historians – will conclude that the real takeaway should be this: the center did hold, and what looked like anarchy was really just the collision of a tantrum and organizational failure.
The story, of course, starts further back than that bizarre event. There was a president who refused to admit he had lost an election by the slim margin of over 7 million votes. I don’t really fault him; that’s who he is. He claimed he had been cheated out of winning a Grammy. When he lost in one of the Republican primaries in 2016, he claimed the vote was rigged. When he won the presidency later that year, he claimed widespread fraud because he lost the popular vote.
However, the folks who are to blame are those who swallowed that tissue-thin premise. As has been repeated over and over, there is no evidence this is true. Sixty legal actions at court hearings – many presided over by Republican judges – were tossed out for lack of substance. Even the Attorney General, a loyal backer of the president, admitted there was no widespread fraud.
If public opinion polls are to be believed (well, maybe …) about 70 percent of the president’s party bought the lie, or said they did. How did this disconnect happen? I know there are some folks who believe the world is flat and that Elvis is still alive, but that sort of thinking can’t stack up into the millions.
The problem here is in regarding the events of the last few weeks in terms of politics. They’re not. The fulcrum of this spasm of amateurish insurrection is not ideological but cultural.
As I see it, the folks who revere the man from Mar-A-Lago aren’t devoted to his policies – although they may voice approval of some – so much as they are to his attitude, his tone and his corrosive charisma.
From the viewpoint of the people with the MAGA hats, their side, their team, their cause is getting sidelined, stepped on, shoved aside and spat upon. Their roster includes many (but not all) white evangelicals, blue color workers (especially those of a certain age), nativists who can’t bear to hear Spanish spoken in the El Pollo Loco and lot of folks who feel looked down upon.
This was a revolt against “elites” and the changes they support. The influx of people of different color or religion. The increasing acceptance of homosexuality. The rising power of women. The emergence of a multiracial America. The failure of their own conservative heroes to slow or stop any of this. The college degree that forms a divide between “just getting by” or prospering.
A significant chunk of these people went onto the farther shores of logic, embracing conspiracy theories that make Scientology seem as tame as Methodism. That’s a symptom of a sad need to feel like you know some inside truth, that you’re smarter than those arrogant “experts.” It’s the spirituality of the passed-over.
It all came to a flashpoint on Jan. 6. An ill-prepared Capitol Police force was overwhelmed by a sudden mass-think instinct and we all saw the same sort of madness that has gripped lynch mobs and English soccer hooligans.
As scary as it looked, it was just a spasm, like heartburn. The very reason those would-be seditionists were there was because The System did work. Judges and election officials and enough office-holders and other people of conscience stood by their moral and legal obligations. People who took seriously their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic held their ground.
And now, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are making arrests, serving search warrants and showing that a relative handful of the sad and maladjusted can’t successfully take on the might of the world’s greatest democracy. The center did hold. Anarchy had its 15 minutes and that was the high-water mark of that deranged footnote in history.
As upsetting and deluded as the folks who invaded and sacked the Capitol building are and were, it’s tough for me to hate the mass of them. They bought into a great evil out of shame and sadness. The world is passing them by, and they know it.
It brings to mind the remark by Admiral John Woodward Phillip during the Spanish American War. The Spanish fleet was being destroyed, ships sinking and in flames.
“Don’t cheer, boys,” he told his men. “The poor devils are dying.”
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted on alternate weeks, rotating with “Usually Reliable Sources.”