NEW YORK CITY, near America
On a recent evening news broadcast, television journalist Joy Reid opened her program with unsettling questions about contemporary life in these dis-United States of America—where gun massacres occur almost daily; where partisan debate has devolved to obstructive tribalism, with half the political duopoly shirking responsibility for governance; where lunatics and unembarrassed racists occupy high public office and prominent media platforms; where falsehoods are considered facts by millions, and bloody violence as patriotism.
Where the coda to Donald Trump’s unnerving Republican Party regime of scandal, ineptitude, authoritarian cruelty, and nonstop lies was the seditious insurrection of January 6, inspired by a dangerous Big Lie: Mr. Trump’s ongoing claim that he won reëlection last November over his Democratic Party opponent, Joe Biden.
“What is wrong with us?” Ms. Reid asked.
“Why is our country like this?”
On May 19, Mr. Trump’s Republican defenders in the U.S. Senate employed an arcane parliamentary maneuver that eliminated an objective means of answering Ms. Reid, and the rest of us wondering the same as she. As the New York Times reported:
“[It] was a stark display of loyalty to [Trump] and political self-interest by Republicans determined to shield themselves from an inquiry that could tarnish their party. They feared an investigation that would remind voters of the consequences of Mr. Trump’s election lies and how Republican lawmakers indulged them, spurring their supporters to violence.
“It all but guaranteed that there would be no comprehensive non-partisan inquiry into the attack’s root causes, the former president’s conduct as his supporters threatened lawmakers and the vice president, or any connections between his allies in Congress and the rioters.”
Donald Trump’s insurrection, carried out by an army of domestic terrorists at his command, was an American horror show aired live on national television for five hours on the Wednesday afternoon of January 6. The nation was transfixed: All-white brigades of cursing vandals and sociopaths marauded beneath a sea of Trump flags and Confederate banners of slavery and treason harking back to the Civil War era of the 1860s, American Nazis strutting their nasty stuff in T-shirts that read “Camp Auschwitz.”
The whole world was watching that day, including Jürgen Elsässer, a mouthpiece for Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) and the rabidly Islamophobic Pegida movement. Four months earlier, he took part in a march in Berlin in which a Trumpesque breakaway mob attempted to break into the German Parliament. The parallel was not lost on Herr Elsässer.
Stunned, he and his wide-eyed cohorts watched the televised insurrection in Washington.
“We were following it like a soccer match,” Herr Elsässer told reporters. The fact that Trump’s mob succeeded “raised hopes that there is a plan,” he said. “It was clear that this was something bigger.”
Decent Americans were shamed to the bone by what they saw on January 6. But not Andrew Clyde, a Republican congressman from the southern state of Georgia, who remarked of the horror show, “You would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
A week after the insurrection, Mr. Clyde’s colleagues in the House chamber of Congress impeached Donald Trump for the high crime of inciting armed rebellion against the U.S. government. To wit, Mr. Trump stood before cameras an hour prior to commencement of insurrection, urging his salivating mob to march on the Capitol, there to “fight like hell.”
—NOTE: Mr. Trump promised the mob that he, too, would march onward to hellish battle. The liar lied, returning to the White House to behold televised coverage of what he had set in motion.
It was the second Trump impeachment, the first occasion being December 18 of last year when the House charged him with abuse of power and the high crime of obstructing official inquiry into his likely collusion with Kremlin operatives to corrupt the presidential election of 2016. For the second time, Republicans in the Senate chamber quashed efforts to convict Donald Trump and remove him from office.
One hundred years ago, on August 24 of 1814, foreign military troops invaded Washington and managed to do what the Trump mob could only dream of doing: British soldiers in their distinctive red coat uniforms burned the Capitol to the ground.
This time, domestic terrorists were the invaders—uniformly clad in red hats bearing the slogan “Make America Great Again (MAGA).” The hats are anglicized echoes of the slogan adopted by Adolf Hitler’s nascent Nazi party: “Machen Sie Deutschland wieder grosßartig.”
The MAGA hat crowd came from cities and towns across America, some five thousand strong. They brought with them long knives and guns, pepper spray, pyrotechnic devices, smoke bombs, ball bats, ax handles, brass knuckles, metal pipes, and poles attached to American flags—one of them used to bash Officer Brian D. Sicknick of the Capitol Police Department as he lay helpless on a hallway floor, his beating captured on video.
Officer Sicknick had engaged the Trump mob in hand-to-hand combat in the course of protecting the men and women of Congress cowering wherever they could as Mr. Trump’s loyal barbarians urinated and defecated on marble floors, ransacked private offices, stole computers, taunted African American cops with shouts of “nigger nigger nigger!” and chanted “hang Mike Pence!” (The vice president was whisked to a locked room before he could be put to death on a functioning gallows erected just outside the Capitol building.)
Traumatized, Officer Sicknick died the following day from a stroke.
Four others died as well. First to go was U.S. Air Force veteran and ardent Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt of California, 35, shot by police as she stormed through glass shards of a Capitol building window hammered open by her comrades. Two other insurrectionists died of heart failure.
An estimated one hundred and forty Capitol Police officers were hospitalized for severe injuries: brain damage, stab wounds, smashed spinal discs, broken ribs. Another sixty-five officers from the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department were likewise injured, including Daniel Hodges.
From his hospital bed, Officer Hodges was interviewed by a local radio reporter. He said of the Trump hordes, “They were calling us traitors…There was chaos. Someone managed to get his thumb in my eye and started gouging.”
In the days following insurrection, two Capitol police officers committed suicide: Howard Liebengood, 51, and Jeff Smith, 35. Distraught from nightmare remembrances of life-threatening chaos, each man put a service revolver to his head and blew his brains out.
Never mind. Republicans remain publicly incurious about that which befell their guardians—for reasons they keep to themselves. When Officer Sicknick’s mother, Gladys, came calling at Republicans’ office doors in the Capitol, they were unmoved by her pleas that they support a formal investigation into the terrifying riot that took her son’s life—an investigation that could provide honest answers to fundamental questions:
Who were these American terrorists? Besides Donald Trump and leaders of fascist thug units—and Republicans in Congress—who provided motivation, and how? Who funded the insurrection? Besides monitoring his TV sets, what was the president doing during the five-hour siege?
Who stood—or now stands—to gain by insurrection?
Given that many of my friends and many in my own family have military or law enforcement backgrounds, there is also this painful question: Of insurrectionists arrested thus far by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, why are so many soldiers or cops, active duty or retired, in jail pending trial?
Consider Thomas Webster, the man whose action photograph appears above the headline to this essay.
A 52-year-old father of three, Mr. Webster is a former New York cop who served on special security details at City Hall and the mayor’s residence at Gracie Mansion. Prior to his N.Y.P.D. career, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps.
Currently, Mr. Webster is jailed in Virginia, awaiting trial for allegedly beating a Capitol police officer with an aluminum spear while allegedly calling his victim a “fucking piece of shit” and a “commie motherfucker.” He has asked for transfer to a jail where inmates are predominantly white, as opposed to the nonwhite surroundings of his cell in Virginia.
Mr. Webster had plenty of white cop/white soldier company on January 6. According to a National Public Radio investigative report, one in five of the post-insurrection detainees are military veterans—including an unholy number devoted to QAnon, the amorphous conspiracy cult that insists well-known Democrats and Hollywood stars are Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers and cannibals. A similar slice of those arrested are former policemen.
To date, at least one active-duty U.S. Marine Corps officer has been arrested—Major Christopher Warnagiris, accused of “assaulting, resisting or impeding certain [Capitol police] officers,” according to F.B.I. charging documents.
“It’s an incredibly disturbing trend,” said retired U.S. Army Colonel Jeffrey D. McCausland in an interview.
A former dean at the Army War College and now a professor of national security at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Col. McCausland added, “These are people who are supposed to uphold the Constitution and the law, yet they were doing the exact opposite.”
Keith Sykes, a retired Army staff sergeant, is unsurprised by what the colonel calls a trend. Today, Mr. Sykes is a photographer and magazine columnist based in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home city of Fort Bragg, his last base assignment.
As a black soldier, he was acutely aware of a white racist culture long embedded in military life. Two of his postings reflected just that: Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, and Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. Each base was named in the dubious honor of generals in the treasonous, slavery-defending army of the southern Confederacy during the American Civil War of the nineteenth century—John Bell Hood (1831-1879) and Braxton Bragg (1817-1876), respectively.
Forward from the Confederacy to last month: Army veteran Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. died in prison on May 4 at the age of 80, having been convicted of murdering three Jews in Kansas City. He left Fort Bragg in 1979 and founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan the following year. When sentenced to death by lethal injection in a Kansas courtroom, Mr. Miller raised his arm and gave the judge a Nazi salute, one of his frequent gestures.
“So a lot of this stuff is coming to the surface, stuff they’ve been aware of for years,” Mr. Sykes said of the military high command. “I met a lot of people throughout my Army career. When you engage in conversation a little deeper, you find [white soldiers] who have issues with people of other cultures and ethnicities. But they’re able to cover it up or disguise it. It’s not uncommon.”
Army recruits are required to undergo training sessions and personality evaluations. “So you watch a couple of hours of film, you sign a roster, and that’s just basically checking off boxes,” said Mr. Sykes. “Never a follow-up.”
In matters of racism and other unbecoming conduct—such as invading the Capitol—Mr. Sykes feels a need for “consequences, no matter your rank, period. People who are retired should suffer the consequence of losing their benefits. Without consequences, nothing will change. I want to know that those trying to take down my country will face enormous consequences.”
Meanwhile at the Pentagon, the top eight senior officials of all branches of the U.S. military—a body known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff—sent a letter to their 1.3 million active-duty service members. In it, soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen were informed that the January 6 insurrection was a “direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our constitutional process.”
Further, the Joint Chiefs reminded their subordinates, “Any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values and oath—it is against the law.”
Perhaps Douglas A. Macgregor didn’t get the memo, though the Pentagon surely knew his whereabouts. After all, Colonel Macgregor (U.S. Army, retired) was quite recently an appointee to the board of visitors at West Point, the prestigious military academy in upstate New York.
When he retired after three decades of Army service, Col. Macgregor, 68, became a senior official at the Pentagon, notably tasked with overseeing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. In the waning days of the Trump regime, he was the White House choice for ambassador to Germany. Until the nomination was quietly withdrawn, that is, upon discovery of the colonel’s views on brown and black people, women of any color, practically anyone from the Middle East or Asia, and immigrants he claims are mostly diseased.
Col. Macgregor pushed on after that rejection, resuming a schedule of friendly interviews on radio and TV political programs whose audiences are made up of “low information voters,” as they are known, charitably—disciples of QAnon, men who live alone in small rooms, and people who imagine that Donald J. Trump’s middle initial might well stand for Jesus.
In late April, Col. Macgregor took to the air on a New York City overnight radio talk show, opining on the latest fashion in American conspiracism—the “Great Replacement,” in which President Biden and others of the “liberal-socialist-communist” axis are feverishly forging demographic change.
According to the colonel, the Biden administration plans to “bring in as many people as they possibly can, as quickly as possible, from anywhere in the world, frankly—but preferably from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and some portions of Asia…The idea is that they have to bring in as many non-Europeans as possible in order to outnumber the numbers of Americans of European ancestry…It is a deliberate policy!”
Colonel Macgregor sputtered more charm.
“[Y]ou must have seen the thousands of pregnant women coming up from Latin America so they can have their children here,” he said. “And then the child immediately is declared an American citizen…Again, all of this is part of the grand plan. This is what Mr. Biden and his supporters want. They want another country. They don’t want the United States!”
In his May pronunciamento, the colonel blasted what he called “affirmative action programs for whatever conceivable category of humanity the left wants to come up with—gender neutral or homosexual or whatever.”
He went on, of course.
“Sure, let’s women into the combat forces. Let’s have women everywhere. Let’s do whatever we want to do!” Col. Macgregor declared. “We’re going to create this brave new world where everyone is the same. There are no differences, nothing matters.”
It is easy to laugh at Col. Douglas A. Macgregor. When not in his ribbon- and medal-bedecked uniform, he resembles many another angry old fellow on a park bench shouting at pigeons.
But there is nothing funny about the colonel. Not his anger, nor the personal disappointments he wears on his face, nor his fealty to retrograde notions. Writ large, Douglas Macgregor is what’s the matter with us, and why our country is like this:
- We are a nation chock full of people seeking community and certainty, for the low price of saying amen to the outlandish.
- The “militia movement” grows apace. Right-wing paramilitary oufits espousing white nationalist ideology and fascism have little difficulty recruiting the type of men—and women—who stormed the Capitol in January.
- We are a nation choking in inchoate fear, a country where violence feels inevitable. Background checks for gun sales now clock in at 1.2 million applications per week, according to research conducted by the University of California. What could possibly go wrong? Politicians owned by the armaments industry are happy to offer up thoughts and prayers and nonsense phrases such as “Enough is enough” on occasions of mass slaughter best suited for TV watching.
- Ever since the year 1619, when kidnapped Africans were first brought to the American continent and enslaved by European immigrants—as well, it is seldom noted, by indigenous tribes—we have largely ignored the sin of racism; most egregiously, white racism.
This very year marks one century past the Tulsa massacre of 1921, when white citizens of that Oklahoma city, aided by the U.S. military, destroyed every last trace of a prosperous African American neighborhood called Greenwood—known as “Black Wall Street.” The spark that set off the pogrom was as familiar, and as indeterminable, as racial sparks of our own time: two teenagers perceived to be in a fight, one white and the other black.
- The seat of our government, the nearly overrun Capitol in Washington, is a legislature of broadly liberal versus broadly conservative political philosophy—divided for practical purpose into the Democratic and Republican parties. Sensible partisans will differ, but eventually agree to compromise in the interest of managing the nation’s business. That has been the tradition, that has been the bulwark of American democracy now at risk because one party seems unable of late to distinguish between treason and tourism.
- As Joseph Goebbels taught, the Big Lie is tastier than truth—particularly unpleasant truth. It is the likely the one historical lesson that Donald Trump ever heard of. Intellectually dim though he is, he studied and mastered the lesson. And now today, the more preposterous the Trump lie the more worshipful his flock.
According to a weeks-old Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, Mr. Trump has convinced fifty-three percent of Republican voters—and an even larger quotient of Republican office holders—that he was cheated out of a second term as president, and that Joe Biden is the illegitimate beneficiary of fraud.
Forget about more than sixty courts having affirmed President Biden’s substantial victory. Forget Mr. Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security having issued a statement declaring last November’s presidential election “the most secure in American history.” Millions would sooner believe the Big Lie, with thousands travelling to Washington to “fight like hell” to sustain it.
Until and unless we Americans come to terms with big lies—race itself being the biggest lie of all—little to nothing will change. Two epigrams from Voltaire (1694-1778, né François-Marie Arouet) provide tough-love guidance for those who care:
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag email@example.com