The insurrection and the challenges ahead

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, cause it’s gonna put up a fight,” said fictional President Andrew Shepherd in the movie “The American President.” Last Wednesday, we vividly saw how tough that fight will be. 

Wednesday was scary. Thursday was scarier, and every day since, as we see and hear and learn more, things are more terrifying, because we all know Wednesday was not the end of it.

All of us have defense mechanisms we employ to deal with adversity. Throughout my life, I have usually been able to use my brain to put adversity in perspective, to contextualize, to focus on understanding the event rather than just letting emotion be my response. That strategy has served me well. It has saved more than one television screen, as well as my vocal cords. 

On Wednesday, sitting alone in my office, those defenses failed me. I could not put what I was experiencing in perspective. I could not contextualize what I was witnessing, because, indeed, there was no context. As I told many of the people who called and texted me with their concern, I could only say that I was desperately trying to process what was happening. I still haven’t been able to.

My emotions have taken over, and there have been many. Initially I was, and I remain, heartbroken. I have since been angry, vengeful, compassionate — for those who were threatened more directly than I was and for those killed and injured — fearful, resentful and depressed. I am learning that there are times when only emotional responses are possible.

As I learn more about the people who assaulted the Capitol and democracy on Wednesday, at the invitation and direction of President Trump, I have more and more questions about why so many of them embarked on such a dangerous and pointless crusade.

Why did a female real estate broker fly from Texas to Washington on her private plane to participate? What was her grievance? What about the Toyota salesman from Maryland, or that 35-year-old Air Force veteran from California who flew across the country and ended up shot dead through her neck? These were not militia types. They were seemingly normal people who were incited to criminal conduct.

Are these the Trump cultists we have been hypothetically discussing for four years? Probably so. 

I share my colleagues’ questions about why the Capitol defense system was so ill-prepared for Wednesday’s assault. Why was the response so different from the one for the peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer? 

Was there political bias in play when the Pentagon refused help to the Capitol Police Service, who had only 1,400 officers available to resist a relentless crowd of many thousands?

Did the insurrectionists have “inside help?”

Who planned, helped finance, and otherwise facilitated this coup attempt?

Who knew this was coming, and why didn’t alarms go off?

Those questions and more will eventually be answered, and acted upon. People will be held accountable, and changes to security will be made.

The most important question I have to answer immediately, however, is how I should interact with those colleagues who have stoked the fire we saw on Wednesday, and who violated their oath of office by voting to overturn the results of a democratic election.

Through 14 years of service in the Congress, I have always found it easy to be comfortable, even friendly, with those with whom I differed politically and philosophically. I have even shared and enjoyed some Kentucky bourbon with them. How can I now smile at them when I know they cynically and consciously perpetuated the President’s lies about election fraud, ultimately contributing to the passion and fury of the rioters, and thereby endangering our staffs, our colleagues, members of the media, and so many of the people who keep the Capitol functioning? I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure I should. 

I have constantly reassured anyone who asked that Congress is not a hostile work environment, that we all get along pretty well even though it doesn’t appear that way on television. I’m not sure that will be the case anymore. I think, as Ricky Jones forcefully wrote in The Courier Journal, apologies first must come from everyone who contributed to the firestorm that came roaring to the Capitol last Wednesday, if civility is to return to the halls that were so unpatriotically violated. 

Several years ago, at the beginning of the Trump administration, I was talking with David Obey, former Congressman from Wisconsin who served for 42 years, about the threat to our system that the new president posed. “You know, John, democracy doesn’t guarantee a happy ending,” he said. Last Wednesday we stared into the abyss of an unhappy ending, and no one should question the magnitude of the challenge now facing our fragile, 245-year experiment. The question will be how bad do we want America.