We began Donald Trump’s presidency debating whether it was fair to call lies lies, even though we knew he was the most prolific political liar of modern times.
We end it saying forthrightly that the President of the United States incited an insurrection just two weeks before he was scheduled to leave office.
Still, we are struggling with whether to call it a coup, insurrection, or domestic terror, or if we should label those who committed the acts protesters, rioters, or pro-Trump extremists. Despite all we know about America’s racial history – or should have known – we have trouble knowing what to say about white people who behave this way.
For make no mistake, there would have been no such struggle had a group of Black people – whether Black Lives Matter or fringe groups such as the Black Hebrew Israelites or the New Black Panther Party – stormed the Capitol to interrupt this nation’s traditional peaceful transfer of power.
There would have been no struggle had it been a group of olive-skinned men attacking police officers and rushing into the country’s seat of power and acting as though they owned the place, leaving in their wake at least four dead.
It’s been evident in our coverage of violence for decades, if not forever.
We must ask why Capitol police and other law enforcement agencies took such a kid-glove approach to those striking at the heart of our democracy, knowing what such agencies throughout the country did in the wake of the George Floyd murder, including in Washington, D.C.
But they aren’t the only ones who should be doing a bit of soul-searching, for we’ve spent much of the past five years doing something similar.
A significant portion of one of our two major political parties began embracing Trump because he spent five years spreading the bigoted conspiracy of a lie about the nation’s first Black president. His numbers in Republican primary polls shot up after he came down his golden escalator and began calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. His support grew as he openly called for a Muslim ban, alluded to massacring Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, and said a federal judge wasn’t qualified to preside over a case because of that judge’s ethnicity. The Access Hollywood tape, the “shithole” comments, the retweeting of white supremacists and video of a white supporter yelling “white power,” the suggestion of ingesting disinfectant to fight Covid…
The list of his deranged and racist acts and words before and during his presidency is endless.
Yet his supporters clung to him every step of the way, even after he retained a White House official in charge of shaping immigration policy despite that official’s white supremacy leanings being revealed, even after he effectively made kidnapping brown kids official U.S. policy to discourage asylum-seekers from looking for refuge here.
In addition to struggling to call lies lies, we began the Trump era struggling with what to do with Trump’s racism. We used absurd, nonsensical terms such as “racially tinged.” We gravitated towards “economic angst” to explain away an ugly fact, that in a diversifying, 21st century America nearly 6 in 10 white voters wanted a man like Trump to lead what is supposed to be a model for all other democracies on the planet.
I want to believe that had Trump supporters spent the past four years chanting “Death to America!” the way Iranians sometimes do it would have been easier for more of us to come to grips with reality. But I don’t. Because they effectively were. That’s what “Stop the Steal” was all about, a death wish for American democracy. It is a conspiracy theory designed to prevent the presidency of a man elected by maybe the most racially and ideologically diverse coalition of voters in this nation’s history.
Trump bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support. It was maybe the most offensive thing a political candidate had ever said about his supporters – that is, if it wasn’t true. But it was also a clear warning from a man who was openly attacking the media to ensure that his supporters would believe only him, not us.
And it worked.
He did so while cowing into silence those in his orbit who knew how reckless and unstable he was.
That’s overwhelming evidence of an unhealthy democracy. A heavily armed group of white people forced the Michigan legislature to go into recess and others were thwarted in their plot to kidnap the governor. Those events generated national headlines for a few days then faded into the background. That would not have happened had Al Qaeda or ISIS been responsible for those things.
Even after we witnessed the horror of what happened on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, six Republican senators and more than 120 GOP House members voted against certifying Electoral College votes from Arizona, based on little more than conspiracy theories, while early polling suggested that maybe 45 percent of Republican voters approved of the storming of the Capitol Building.
Trump would not have been chosen to lead a healthy democracy. The vast majority of one of the two major parties would not have supported him through thick and thin – and tried to give him a second term – in a healthy democracy.
As journalists, we are supposed to be guardians of the democracy. We are named in the First Amendment for a reason. No matter. We struggled to make plain to our audiences what our country was facing. Because we were afraid of being called liberally biased. Because we were too beholden to tradition. Because as an industry we are still too white, which made it more difficult for us to come to grips with what was staring us in the damn face the past four years. Because too many of us were in a state of denial.
If the Confederate flag being marched through the Capitol Building doesn’t drive the point home, nothing will.
There was nothing surprising about the events that unfolded on Wednesday afternoon, not to those who have been paying attention and were willing to speak honestly about the emerging threat this entire time. And yet we saw journalists express shock that things had come to this.
If you are shocked by what happened, ask yourself why. There should have been no surprise. This is where white supremacy always leads, an attack on democracy. This is why Reconstruction gave way to Redemption, why a democratically elected government in Wilmington, N.C. was violently overthrown in 1898, why Black Wall Street was burned to the ground, why Black men and women were hung from trees and in the public square for the sin of exercising their right to vote.
What happened in D.C. on Wednesday was America because that history is America, too. In this country, on this soil, just to hold onto power, Americans have done to other Americans things that would seem extreme to even ISIS. We must never forget that. Divorcing ourselves from that truth makes it harder to prevent that history from repeating itself.
This isn’t over. It wasn’t when Capitol police secured the Capitol Building Wednesday evening. This won’t end when Trump leaves office on January 20 or before if he’s forced out sooner. The country is going through an unprecedented demographic shift that’s been decades in the making and will be unfolding over the next few decades.
Let’s be frank. Most white people aren’t used to living in a true democracy, one in which their preferences, their values and standards aren’t considered right or best by default, one in which they have to wonder if they will even be seen or heard. In a country in which that wasn’t true, traitors and slaveholders and lynchers wouldn’t have monuments and memorials built in their honor and placed in public spaces and cause upset when talk about removing them arises.
It will take a while for many white people to get used to what Black people and brown people have long experienced here. A fear of cultural displacement was one of the top reasons white-working class voters chose Trump.
The ongoing racial and ethnic demographic shift has led to a lot of deep-seated, race-inspired fear that will manifest itself in ways that are foreseeable but unpredictable. That fear will likely be seized upon by others to gain and hold onto the power they’ve long craved and could turn into something even uglier if we aren’t careful.
Our job is to do a better job conveying that truth to our audiences. But we won’t be able to until we accept that truth ourselves.
Issac Bailey, a 2014 Nieman Fellow, is a journalist, race relations seminar creator and facilitator, and the author of “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.”