These Old Evils Require Old Remedies

A collage of historical politicians and scenes from the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Jon Cherry / Getty / The Atlantic

Of all the painful and grotesque images from January 6, the most important was the sight of a bearded man in jeans proudly carrying the flag of treason through the Capitol. It taught us that the evils of that day—which will live in infamy no less than December 7—were old evils. The Confederate battle flag was the symbol of secession, of treason, of chattel slavery, and, in the years after the Civil War, of lies, and grievance, and hate. It is nothing new.

We should not be surprised that of the eight senators who, even after the mob assault on the Capitol, voted to overturn a fair election, five hail from the states of the Confederacy and one, the ringleader, from a border state that had to be pinned to the Union with bayonets. It is no surprise that Confederate insignia were in evidence outside the Capitol as well. For that matter, it should be no surprise that a rioter wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase Camp Auschwitz joined the fray. There was a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February 1939, for which 20,000 people showed up.

There is nothing new about violence in the Capitol. On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a stick, beating him mercilessly while Sumner was pinned to his desk. There is nothing new about the kind of man who would do that, because Brooks, who received accolades throughout the South and a veritable forest of canes sent as gifts, backed out of a duel with Representative Anson Burlingame of Massachusetts when he learned that the latter was a good shot. Like the bully boys now trembling at the thought of an FBI knock at the door, he was, at his core, a coward.

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There was nothing new about self-identified devout Christians and even a few Orthodox Jews showing up for this riot, which included, let us not forget, murder. Ask historians of the Mormon massacres or the bereaved family of Yitzhak Rabin for confirmation. Lord knows, there was absolutely nothing new about the racist invective hurled at Black police officers doing their best to control an angry white mob.

There was nothing new, of course, about Donald Trump’s behavior: Anyone with eyes could see where his presidency would lead. Many of us said as much. Anyone who paid the slightest attention to his words and behavior has no excuse for being surprised that he would incite a riot and then retreat to watch it from a barricaded White House. Is he a uniquely incendiary demagogue, though? The United States has had them throughout history: Look up Huey Long and George Wallace if you have doubts.

Nor, finally, is there anything surprising about the behavior of the clever, amply credentialed men who enabled this, who plotted to subvert a fair election, who encouraged the mob right up to the moment that it burst into their chamber and who excused it afterward. Aaron Burr, killer and conspirator, vice president and very nearly president, was no less a very clever man. Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz—products of Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard—connived at sedition, despite their academic pedigrees. Scruple-trampling ambition will lead people to do that, and always has. After all, Burr was a Princeton graduate too.

If, then, the evils are old, so are the remedies. Begin with the simplest of them all: character, which is, as the proverb has it, destiny. In the sorry tale of the election of 2020 and its aftermath there will be no shortage of heroes, from the police officer who lured the mob away from the Senate chamber to the Trump-appointed judges who scornfully dismissed the groundless lawsuits filed by the modern equivalents of Roy Cohn. Casting should already be under way for the role of Brad Raffensperger, the icy Georgia secretary of state, a committed and (in public at least) humorless Republican, who stared down a deranged president and his henchmen and -women. Jimmy Stewart would have been the right actor, but Tom Hanks will do just fine.

It is the character displayed by Mitt Romney, who voted to convict a criminal president, alone among his Republican colleagues. It is even the flicker of righteousness (no more) shown by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a speech that aspired to eloquence in denouncing attempts to overthrow a fair election.

Character comes, no doubt, from one’s upbringing and family, but also from some mysterious wellspring of the human spirit, which is why, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the son of a Wehrmacht soldier, has been forthright in denouncing Trump from the early days of his presidency. It can derive as well from institutions committed to cultivating not just their graduates’ intellect but their moral persona—the steely qualities that carry individuals through real crises of the spirit, rather than microaggressions.

If the old qualities of granitelike rectitude and fidelity to law and the Constitution are one path back to decency, justice is another. There are times to temper justice with mercy: This, however, is not one of them.

Justice, then. Let the rioters and looters be tracked down, one by one, prosecuted, and, if convicted, incarcerated for the maximum periods allowed by the law. Let the political cowards and opportunists in the Senate and the House be driven from office in the next election, while in the meanwhile their funding from individuals and corporations is cut off (as it is beginning to be). Let the rest of us throw their dereliction of duty in their face, no matter the subject to which they attempt to divert our attention. Let the small but not unimportant collection of intellectuals who set us on this path with talk of a “Flight 93 election” or who excused or dismissed attacks on Trump also receive no let up from such reminders. Let them, and the political appointees who facilitated or sought to explain away this administration’s abuses of office, become unemployable in their chosen fields.

The understandable urge for the Biden administration will be to bring the country together, a noble and desirable aim. But that should not in any way hold back the machinery of justice, whose operation should be as relentless and as thorough as only a mobilized federal government can be. And with persistent rebuking, shunning, and shaming, the rest of us have a role to play as well. The penalties for this assault—not only on the Capitol building or even on the bodies of American legislators, but on the principles of free government—need to be as severe as the restraints of law allow. As for forgiveness, that can wait until years—many years—from now.

And there is, finally, the oldest remedy of them all: truth, the truth that makes us free. The truth about the Confederacy, so long concealed in the rubbish of the Lost Cause and its celebration of Christian gentleman warriors. The truth about bigotry and conspiracy-mongering. The truth less about Trump than about those who deprecated or merely willfully looked away from the dangers he posed. The truth, above all, that evil is always with us, that it may hibernate but it never dies, and that if we are not alert to detect and to fight it, it can triumph anywhere—even in the United States.