Trumpeting their true colors

On Wednesday morning, still working from home most days because of COVID-19, I saw an email from the boss a few steps above me on the food chain warning us all of some new procedures to be followed if we had to physically go into the office.  I emailed my supervisor to ask if this new “help” from management was really something new for us and he said we’d talk about it in our regular meeting that afternoon; I replied “Meeting?  But I planned to watch Congress count the electoral votes this afternoon.”

I didn’t get to bed until 3:00 the next morning.

The election results have been clear: Joe Biden won, fair and square.  Recounts, and recounts of recounts, in many states, all showed that Biden won enough states to give him 306 electoral votes—the same amount Trump got in 2016, when he characterized it as landslide victory.  More than five dozen court cases challenging vote totals and voting laws in several states all sustained that result.  None of the accusations of fraud led to evidence of enough illegality that would change the result.  Many of the legal challenges were comically inept in their composition.  Republican governors and legislatures and secretaries of state did not bow to the siren song of a plea from the president to “find” the outcome he desired—they followed their laws and certified the legal winner.  The Electoral College certified those results.  Now it was up to Congress to add up the totals.  A formality.

There were stories online about a rally near the White House that morning where the president was reportedly repeating his regular grievances and his lies about the theft of his re-election, and I ignored that as just so much more of the same old same old, the blah blah blah that I and so many others have become so tired of, and so inured to, that I was so looking forward to, so very soon, not having to hear any more.  I was oblivious to the news that Trump supporters had a plan for the day:

The advance publicity for the “March for America” had been robust. Beyond the repeated promotions in tweets by the president and his allies, the upcoming event was cheered on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

But woven through many of the messages to stand up for Mr. Trump — and, if possible, block the congressional certification of the election he claimed he had won — was language that flirted with aggression, even violence.

For example, the term “Storm the Capitol” was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. Many of these mentions appeared in viral tweet threads that discussed the possible storming of the Capitol and included details on how to enter the building.

To followers of QAnon, the convoluted collection of conspiracy theories that falsely claims the country is dominated by deep-state bureaucrats and Democrats who worship Satan, the word “storm” had particular resonance. Adherents have often referred to a coming storm, after which Mr. Trump would preside over a new government order.

I’d seen the news that Vice President Pence had announced he would not/could not/had no authority to overrule the states and decide which electoral votes could be counted and which tossed aside.  After four years of his incredible obsequiousness to Trump I was surprised that he was acting like his own man but grateful to see it—I assumed now it would just be a matter of waiting through the speeches challenging the votes in a few states, and then the curtain would fall on the last scene of a dreadful play.

In blissful ignorance of what was to come, I tuned in for the start of the joint session of Congress but instead saw video of hundreds of people at the doors around the Capitol—no wait, it’s thousands, in fun colorful hats and shirts and carrying flags and such.  They looked to me like they were having more or less friendly exchanges with the police and security officers while they demonstrated their insistence that Trump had not lost the election.  Inside, Pence started the roll call of states to tabulate the electoral votes…and outside, the crowd was slowly moving up the steps of the Capitol.  And when some of them seemed to have made it inside, I assumed that police had let them in…there was no sign of any confrontation, and no reporting that there had been any.  But that changed.

A bloodied officer was crushed in a doorway screaming in Wednesday’s siege, which forced lawmakers to go into hiding for hours and halt their voting to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Another officer tumbled over a railing into the crowd below after being body-slammed from behind. Members of the media were cursed, shoved and punched.

A vast number of photos and videos captured the riot, which left five people dead. Many of the images were taken by the rioters themselves, few of whom wore masks that would have lowered not only their chances of contracting the coronavirus, but their chances of being identified. Some took pains to stand out.

My favorite amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other things, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  (Emphasis added.)  When those people forced their way into the building, a peaceful protest turned into a criminal act.  And what I remember thinking as I watched on Wednesday, and knowing as little as I did then about the details, was that the Capitol police—clearly outmanned, and maybe outgunned—were smart to be taking a patient approach.  Rather than open fire, causing more casualties and who knows what kind of potential escalation, they were letting the baby cry itself out.  They even escorted some of the protesters out of the building.  There were no reports of large numbers of people being arrested, or of being injured.  The vote counting concluded.

While the U.S. Capitol was under attack by thousands of people intending to subvert the outcome of our election, some of them meaning to capture and possibly execute representatives of our government, President Sentence Fragment watched from a catered party tent at the White House before moving inside and staying glued to the TV.  He didn’t call out the National Guard, or any law enforcement agencies to assist; until pressed by his advisers he didn’t make any effort to get the protesters to stop, and when he did he told them he loved them; he didn’t make a phone call to find out if his vice president was safe and unharmed; and while the invasion was still going on he continued calling members of Congress trying to convince them to change the outcome of the election.  He is still insisting the election was stolen from him, and said he will not be attending Biden’s inauguration.  Good.

Since the events of Wednesday there are Trump supporters who are calling for him to resign, or to be impeached (again), or for Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.  Inasmuch as he has proved, yet again, that he cannot be trusted to obey the law or even to control his own impulses, I’d support any effort within the law to remove him from office.  The voters have done what they can, and he will be gone soon.  Others argue that the nation needs to heal, and any effort to remove Trump now will damage that effort.  That’s bullshit.

If we do nothing, if we turn away from this shameful event—this terroristic attack on our nation’s capital, nothing less than that—we will be tacitly encouraging it to happen again.  If we do not hold lawbreakers accountable for their actions, they won’t have any reason not to do it again.  We punish our children so they learn to behave, the same reasoning applies to entitled adults.

I don’t want to leave without touching on another important aspect of what we saw Wednesday.  It is fair to ask why it appears that these protesters—these white protesters—were treated so gently by law enforcement.

Can you imagine a scenario where an African-American mob storms the Capitol and the lawn is not littered with bodies and blood? That happens to Black people when they ask for equal justice, much less if they tried to overthrow the government. Yet this mostly white mob had the run of the building. What a shameful and wretched spectacle. What an embarrassment.

It’s another important aspect of the things we learned last week, thanks to Donald Trump.

For four years, Trump has made war on the constitutional order, on the institutions of American democracy, and on anyone who stood in his way. Almost all of the Republicans on Capitol Hill let him do it. They aided and abetted him. They voted to acquit him of impeachment charges. They endorsed him for reëlection and even acceded to his request not to bother with a Republican Party platform. The Party’s ideology, henceforth, would be whatever Trump wanted it to be. When Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, bragged about Trump’s successful “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party, he was, in a toxically untruthful Administration, for once telling the truth.

The powers that be control the message—even more than you know

Here is another depressing argument that the reality you and I inhabit, and feel comfortable most days saying we have some control over, has been sanitized for our protection.

The New York Times reports that “quote approval” is a common practice with the Obama and Romney campaigns, but also among most of the government bureaucracy.  Campaign or government officials agree to an interview with the proviso that they get pre-publication approval as to “what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”

The chutzpah is galling, yes?  But here’s the worst part: the reporters agree to the condition!

It’s nothing new for politicians to go to extraordinary lengths to manage the impressions we get of them, and that’s not all bad: I’d rather have leaders who take time to consider what they’re doing and how their actions will be perceived than leaders who don’t take a moment to think about alternative courses of action and their potential outcomes.  And remember, there is no requirement anywhere that any politician or candidate for office need ever consent to be interviewed; that’s just the way, historically, that they have communicated with the people who put them in power.  They’re free to ask for any condition at all in return for an interview.

But, the role of the journalist in our system is to report—to dig, to uncover, to reason, to relate, to provide context—so the rest of us can hold leaders to account for the actions that they do take.  It’s not the job of the journalist to help the leaders fabricate a version of reality that puts them in a more positive light, and letting them clean up their quotes is doing just that.  (This system doesn’t work for an interview that is broadcast live on television or radio or the Web…yea, TV and radio.)

The politicians themselves betray a little self-consciousness on the issue—“The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. ‘We are not putting anyone on the record for this story,’ said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony.”—and the Times story says reporters “grudgingly agree” to this restriction.

I would argue that they should not agree at all.  Giving in to the bully is not the way to get him to stop stealing your lunch money.

Politicians should have the fortitude to stand by whatever they say when they agree to an on-the-record interview, whether it’s broadcast on television or reported in a printed publication, and I’m disappointed to learn about some of those who demand the final rewrite as if they were negotiating a movie deal.  But journalists mustuphold a higher standard, and that means no more cooperating with the cover-up.  Today’s story in the Times is a good start, because now the rest of us have a better idea of what’s going on.  Shining a light on this stupid practice is the first step toward bringing it to an end.

I’d love to see a story that informed me “candidate so-and-so would only agree to an interview if The Daily Disappointment gave him authority to decide which quotes would be included in the story.”  No news publication can cede the responsibility to write its own story as its writers and editors see fit; to give up that authority to the people who are the subjects of the story is to erase any reason for you or me to believe anything they print.

The author and critic Louis Kronenberger wrote that “The trouble with us in America isn’t that the poetry of life has been turned to prose, but that it has been turned to advertising copy.”  He wrote that in 1954…change is sure slow.

→UPDATE 7/17:  Turns out that not all the reporters give “quote approval”–congratulations, Associated Press!