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The Capitol Riot Was Prologue
Donald Trump’s battle cry of insurrection—“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”—didn’t strike me at first as a four-horsemen moment for American democracy. This was a failure of imagination on my part. To be fair, I was busy trying not to catch the coronavirus. For most of Trump’s January 6 speech I was 100 yards or so from the stage, and my best guess is that only 5 percent of his supporters were masked. In my eagerness to be near the action, I had worked myself into the densest part of the crowd, a cul-de-sac of berserk anti-maskers. They were angry at Joe Biden, exceedingly angry at Mike Pence, and also a bit peeved at me.
“You don’t have to wear it,” one man said, pointing to my mask. “It’s not a mandate.”
“No, I do.”
“There’s a pandemic.”
“Yeah, right,” he said.
Trump’s speech, which was interminable (the truest thing he said was “I could just go on forever”), was also hard to fathom, pre-riot. Even after four years of his mad-king hijinks, it still didn’t seem likely that Trump would go so far as to threaten his own vice president. But this is what he said: “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you. I will tell you right now. I’m not hearing good stories.”
It was finally time, per Trump’s instructions, to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. The rest you know all about, despite efforts by most Republicans in Congress to hide the truth of January 6.
At least from where I sit, the most important and most relevant truth of the riot is that it was not the culmination of the insurrection, but its prologue. If the Republican Party, as currently constituted, takes back the House and Senate next year (an outcome that is not only plausible but, history tells us, likely), and if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2024, it doesn’t seem likely that Congress will certify the victory. And then the four horsemen will most certainly ride.
Our magazine is governed by contradictory impulses: Our founding manifesto promises that we will be “of no party or clique,” and we do our best to remain independent and unentangled. The Atlantic is also committed to American ideals, specifically to the notion that this country is forever capable of refining democracy and becoming the more perfect union envisioned by its founders. It is not easy to balance these impulses when one of the country’s two major parties appears committed to the cause of voter suppression, to the dismantling of American institutions, and to undermining the faith that citizens have in our system of free and fair elections. America needs many things right now, including an actual conservative party, one committed to the rule of law and not to the autocratic inclinations of its defeated leader.
I’m starting this newsletter in part to keep our readers current with our most relevant and interesting work, and to bring you inside The Atlantic (to the extent you actually want to see the sausage being made, of course). But mainly I’m writing this newsletter because I’m very worried about the state of the American experiment. The Atlantic, for 164 years now, has made this experiment its chief concern, and we will be relentless in uncovering and examining threats to the American idea.
A Q&A With George Packer
In each installment of this newsletter, I hope to feature a short conversation with one of our journalists, often someone covering, up close, the continuing crisis. I’m starting today with George Packer, a winner of the National Book Award for The Unwinding, and one of America’s most important chroniclers of democratic decomposition. A couple of weeks ago we published on our website his article on the promise and pitfalls of civics education, and you can read his essay “The Four Americas” from our upcoming print issue, online now. His new book, from which this piece is adapted, is Last Best Hope: An Essay on the Revival of America. It is out this week, and highly recommended by yours truly.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jeff: You’ve written entire books on this general subject, but try to answer this question in a couple of lines: What causes you to worry the most about America’s future as a unified, coherent country?
George: We Americans don’t just disagree with one another. We don’t just have different values, narratives, and perceptions of truth. We actually see one another as moral threats, incompatible with all that we consider good, and we fantasize about a country in which the threats are no longer around. Not to be melodramatic, but you can recognize this kind of thinking in countries that fall into civil war.
Jeff: You think we’re actually heading to civil war?
George: Not likely, not with violence on a large scale. More like a cold civil war that continues to erode democracy, make every election seem existential, and prevent us from solving our major problems, with long-term decline.
Jeff: Are there, in your mind, credible, discernible off-ramps?
George: I see three ways this could change. One is separation (not actual secession, but red and blue areas having more and more political autonomy). Another is conquest (one side wins a decisive majority). Neither of these seems very tenable. The third off-ramp is more complex but more feasible: government-led improvements in people’s lives, a reversal of the inequality that’s at the root of much of our disunion, along with socially binding ideas like universal national service and better K–12 education (civics!).
Jeff: Reversing “the inequality that’s at the root of our disunion” seems like a pretty big damn thing. But put that aside: How do you convince people that (a) selfless national service and (b) a universal civics agenda could, or should, be done?
George: Becoming more equal as Americans is a huge thing. What matters is that we start moving in the right direction—and I think in recent months we’ve begun. As for national service and universal civics (though not a national curriculum, which would probably self-destruct), they would take some explaining, some persuading. But I don’t think they’re impossible. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans rate civic education as the single best way to strengthen American identity, and there’s a bipartisan bill in Congress to spend $1 billion on U.S. history and civics. Maybe Americans are beginning to grasp that a Thirty Years’ War between the red and the blue is not the best way to remain a strong democracy. Maybe there’s an untapped, even unconscious desire, especially among younger people, to be asked to do something larger than themselves. We’ll never know until we try.
Stories I Hope You’ll Read
Each month, I’m also going to recommend to you a small number of Atlantic articles that I loved. First, there’s our new cover story, posted last week, by Tom McTague:
Tom spent months following Boris Johnson across England—and he practically camped out at 10 Downing Street—in order to unravel some core mysteries about this popular, populist prime minister. If you want to know whether Johnson is Britain’s Trump, read this piece.
Our Emma Green is the best religion reporter in America (this is not just my biased view) and she goes deep with one of the most influential figures in evangelical Christianity.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Our editors and writers do the hard work of reading the whole world so you don’t have to. This is a great list.
Shirley Li, an ace Hollywood reporter, talks to Jon M. Chu, the director of In the Heights and Wicked, about the magic of movement and the limitations of words. (And let me also suggest, while we’re on this subject, an Atlantic essay by Lin-Manuel Miranda from 2019 on the role of art in times of political crisis.)
And one more thing (this is known as burying the lede): Our pandemic reporter Ed Yong just won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. We’re all tremendously proud of Ed, his editors, and the work they did together, for our readers. You can find a selection of his stories right here.