Column: The idea that American democracy is indestructible has come crashing down

Jake Angeli, in horns and fur, was arrested by the FBI for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
(Getty Images)

Cherished beliefs can desert us in an instant.

On Jan. 5, we lived in a country of strong if slightly fraying democratic institutions with a flawless history of peacefully transferring power from one president to the next.

One day later, it all came crashing down.

We were, suddenly, a nation not just capable of violent insurrection but in the middle of one. That is the country Joe Biden inherits on Wednesday.

“Today is 1776,” tweeted Lauren Boebert, the gun-toting freshman Republican representative from Colorado just before that blood-thirsty mob of Donald Trump supporters smashed glass and wood, killed a cop and broke our hearts.


To be American has always been to embrace a certain amount of make-believe. We want to believe that our country is inherently good, that we stand as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world, that the American Dream is here for the having if you can find your way to our shores.

The shock of Jan. 6 is in some ways similar to other shocks we have endured, other moments that have shattered our sense of safety and our belief in the order of things. Think of the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, or the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001. Both instantaneously undermined the nation’s psyche and our belief that big wide oceans keep us safe.

Those attacks, however, came from without, not from within. It was easy to rally Americans against the common enemy (and yes, civil rights were trampled in the process).

When the enemy is in the house, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to come together. There are no wagons to circle against the threat because the threat is us.

On Tuesday, the AP reported that 12 Army National Guard members were removed from inauguration duty because they were found to have ties to “fringe right group militias.” The militias were not identified.

The move to investigate National Guard troops who have been deployed to keep the inauguration of incoming President Joe Biden safe might once have seemed preposterous. But given the number of active police officers, military veterans and elected officials who desecrated the Capitol as they tried to prevent Congress from carrying out its duty to certify the results of the electoral college, the move was prudent.


Also on Tuesday, my shattered faith, and perhaps yours as well, was slightly restored when outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been described as “Trump’s enabler-in-chief,” took to the Senate floor to denounce Trump, who has been deservedly impeached by the House again, this time for “incitement of insurrection.”

“The last time the Senate convened, we had just reclaimed the Capitol from violent criminals who tried to stop Congress from doing our duty,” said McConnell. “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

I thought hell would freeze over before McConnell would make such a simple, truthful statement about our vile outgoing president. But if McConnell can summon the courage to do it, so should every other Republican elected official and leader. Those who don’t — or won’t — are responsible for the delusions and paranoia that continue to animate the far right. They should be made to pay the political and moral price.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth,” said Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney when the Senate reconvened after the rioters had been cleared from the premises. “That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership. The truth is … President Trump lost.”

Why is that simple truth so hard for so many Republicans?

And will they understand that with President Biden’s inauguration, they have a professional and ethical obligation to stop with the “election was stolen” bilge?


I will tell you what else changed in an instant Jan. 6 — something inside of me, and perhaps inside of you. I don’t like name calling, and I’ve always tried to resist the idea that people are bad. Some people do bad things, yes, but that doesn’t make them evil. But after watching the attack on American democracy, and the torrent of lies that led up to it, I am done with giving the benefit of the doubt to anyone who played a role, directly or otherwise.

If, for example, you believe the presidential election was stolen from Trump, that voting machines were tampered with, or that ballots were secretly changed to favor Biden, you are either a willfully ignorant person, or a very bad one.


If you believe it’s OK for a United States senator from Missouri (Josh Hawley) to say many Pennsylvania mail ballots shouldn’t be counted, you are un-American.

If you believe the QAnon drivel that Trump was sent to save the world from a pedophile ring run by Democrats, you are not just a bad person, you are dangerous and foolish.

If you are a lawmaker who voted against certifying the results of what experts called the safest and most secure election in American history, you are not just a bad person, but a wicked one. You provided emotional support and inspiration to the murderous mob of insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, and you are even, possibly, beyond salvation.

That goes double for ringleaders Ted Cruz of Texas and Hawley, whose shameful flogging of election conspiracy theories would, if the world were a saner place, be answered with eternal banishment from public office.

“I think Cruz would want us to do this,” said one of the rioters rifling through papers on a lawmaker’s desk in the Senate, “so I think we’re good.”

While Senate desks were being plundered, Jake Angeli, the QAnon “shaman” who wore buffalo horns, bear furs and a painted face, was on the balcony above, howling nonsense and rhythmically pounding a six-foot spear into the floor. (He was arrested by the FBI in Phoenix the weekend after the insurrection.)


I urge you to watch that video, taken by New Yorker war correspondent Luke Mogelson, and come away with any sympathy for the creeps who tried to destroy our democracy two weeks ago.

On Sunday, a CNN news alert popped up on my cellphone: “Around the world, the U.S. has long been a guiding light of freedom. Now, it’s a case study in how democracy can die.”

Normally, I would have scoffed at that and moved on. Not this time. It struck like a slap in the face, the way the truth so often does.