Sometimes we read history; sometimes it reads us. The historian Barbara Tuchman writes, “when the gap between the ideal and the real becomes too wide, the system breaks down.” For those of us who insist on the liturgical work of telling stories of pain and possibility, systems breaking down can be moments of great hope and imagination: finally we can see the world for what it is, so that we can make it into what it could be.
Donald Trump Is Out. Are We Ready to Talk About How He Got In?
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
The chasm between professed ideal and actual practice is not surprising. No one wants to believe themselves to be the villain of history, and when you have enough power, you can hold reality at bay. Raw power transfigured an age of serfdom and warmongering into one of piety and courtly love.
This is not merely a problem of history. Twice now, Rudy Giuliani has incited a mob of authoritarians. In the interim, “America’s Mayor” was lauded locally for crime drops that manifested nationally. No matter. The image of Giuliani as a pioneering crime fighter gave cover to his more lamentable habits—arresting whistleblowers, defaming dead altar boys, and raiding homeless shelters in the dead of night. Giuliani was, by Jimmy Breslin’s lights, “blind, mean, and duplicitous,” a man prone to displays “of great nervousness if more than one black at a time entered City Hall.” And yet much chin-stroking has been dedicated to understanding how Giuliani, once the standard-bearer for moderate Republicanism, a man who was literally knighted, was reduced to inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol. The answer is that Giuliani wasn’t reduced at all. The inability to see what was right before us—that Giuliani was always, in Breslin’s words, “a small man in search of a balcony”—is less about Giuliani and more about what people would rather not see.
And what is true of Giuliani is particularly true of his master. It was popular, at the time of Donald Trump’s ascension, to stand on the thinnest of reeds in order to avoid stating the obvious. It was said that the Trump presidency was the fruit of “economic anxiety,” of trigger warnings and the push for trans rights. We were told that it was wrong to call Trump a white supremacist, because he had merely “drawn upon their themes.”
One hopes that after four years of brown children in cages; of attempts to invalidate the will of Black voters in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit; of hearing Trump tell congresswomen of color to go back where they came from; of claims that Joe Biden would turn Minnesota into “a refugee camp”; of his constant invocations of “the Chinese virus,” we can now safely conclude that Trump believes in a world where white people are—or should be—on top. It is still deeply challenging for so many people to accept the reality of what has happened—that a country has been captured by the worst of its history, while millions of Americans cheered this on.HOw
The temptation to look away is strong. This summer I watched as whole barrels of ink were emptied to champion free speech and denounce “cancel culture.” Meanwhile, from the most powerful office in the world, Trump issued executive orders targeting a journalistic institution and promoted “patriotic education.” The indifference to his incredible acts was telling. So much for chivalry.
The mix of blindness and pedantry did not plague merely writers, but also policy makers and executives. “The FBI does not talk in terms of terrorism committed by white people,” the journalist Spencer Ackerman wrote in the days after the January 6 riot at the Capitol. “Attempting to appear politically ecumenical, a recent bureaucratic overhaul during an accelerated period of domestic terrorism created the category of ‘racially motivated violent extremism.’” But only so ecumenical. “For all its hesitation over white terror,” Ackerman continued, “the FBI until at least 2018 maintained an investigative category about a nebulous and exponentially less deadly thing it called ‘Black Identity Extremism.’”
“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide,” Tuchman writes, “the system breaks down.” One hopes that this moment for America has arrived, that it can at last see that the sight of cops and a Confederate flag among the mob on January 6, the mockery of George Floyd and the politesse on display among some of the Capitol Police, are not a matter of chance.
More, that Trumpism did not begin with Trump; that the same Republican Party some now recall in wistful and nostalgic tones planted seeds of insurrection with specious claims of voter fraud; that the decision to storm the Capitol follows directly, and logically, from respectable Republicans who claim that Democrats steal elections and defraud this country’s citizens out of their right to self-government.
This, of course, is not my first time contemplating the import of such things. “The First White President” was the culmination of the years I’d spent watching the pieces fall into place. Pieces that, once assembled, finally gave us Trump. I’m sorry to report that I think the article holds up well. This would be a much better world if it didn’t. But in this world, an army has been marshaled and barbed wire installed, and the FBI is on guard against an inside job. Whatever this is—whatever we decide to call this—it is not peaceful, and it is not, in many ways, a transition. It is something darker. Are we now, at last, prepared to ask why?
This essay was originally published in The Atlantic. In the original printing, an excerpt from Coates’s 2017 essay, The First White President, follows this piece. But we would like ask you, how did we get here?