The Turning of the Tide

How we reckon with the events of January 6 will decree where we go as a country -- or where we don't.

The Turning of the Tide

The vacation house we’re staying at for most of June overlooks a vast tidal inlet off Cape Cod Bay. Every day, twice a day, this natural bathtub fills up and empties out with seawater, up to the very brim of the estuary and then down to the mud and shells. It’s like the ocean itself is breathing, as if the Earth had lungs. It fills up. It empties out. It fills up again.

Last night my wife and I watched the presentation of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, and we allowed ourselves to feel something like hope. The previously unseen video footage was so damning in its violence, so incontrovertible in its forethought. This was a coup d’etat foiled only by chance and the efforts of a handful of public servants stretched thin and denied backup by design.

As political theater, the two-hour televised presentation was mesmerizing, and it was staged with a canny moral authority I no longer thought our elected representatives had in them. The handoff between Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson and Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney was a pas de deux of folksy outrage and measured fury in the face of a plot against the peaceful transfer of power, a plan led by a tinpot autocrat, our own Dorito Mussolini, incapable of facing the idea of loss. We’ve made it nearly 250 years as a country – shouldn’t we be past this? Or is it simply and finally over, the run we had as a democracy in shining ideal and battered practice? In any event, we’ll know after the midterms whether this country will continue to function as its inventors imagined or a brutalist parody of one. Depending on what day you ask me, I don’t feel the chances are all that good.

Yet last night’s theater was an inhalation of hope nonetheless. The laying of responsibility, ultimate and specific, at the gnarled feet of Donald Trump felt like a cleansing blast of truth-telling, with the parade of shamefaced truth-tellers – Bill Barr, Ivanka – destroying any claim The Former Guy had on a mandate even within his cossetting inner circle. The decision to release backroom video of witness testimonies was a brilliant stroke precisely because they weren’t public appearances but subpoenaed depositions delivered in private, and in that privacy you saw the shabby person, not the mediated persona: Barr in his gregarious hypocrisy, Jared Kushner a concentrated essence of self-serving smarm.

The newly-seen footage of the attack on the Capitol – not a spontaneous riot and certainly not a tourist excursion – was a stinging slap to the sensibilities of any American still laboring under the delusion that there’s a “both sides” to the matter. (This extends to the nation’s papers of record, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and their regional and televised brethren.) If the visuals didn’t horrify you, here was Officer Caroline Edwards of the Capitol Police – and, pardon my cynicism, but props for the casting – who movingly and credibly recounted being assaulted by the Proud Boys, getting knocked unconscious, and upon awakening, wading back into a fray she described as “a war scene.” The evening’s other witness, British documentarian Nick Quested – whose comment that he was appearing under subpoena seemed aimed at retaining his journalistic credibility – testified to being with the Proud Boys as they staked out the Capitol security at 10:30 in the morning, hours before President Trump sent the mob to back them up. In Quested’s testimony we had a glimpse of the charges of conspiracy and sedition that may yet spiral upward to snare certain Republican elected representatives and, almost certainly, Trump himself. History will call them traitors, but you’re welcome to start now.

Is it too much to hope? At this point in time, with a packed Supreme Court poised to unravel the net of the Great Society, with a benign, well-meaning President who seems stuck in a collegial 1992, and with midterm elections that may very well spell the end of the American experiment – well, yes, it may be too much to hope. It’s June already; the midterms are five months away. Where have you gone, Merrick Garland? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Why does no one in charge or in the media seem to understand the peril of the moment the way so many ordinary people do? (Or at least those people not glued to Fox News, the only channel that chose not to air the Committee’s findings and that ran “Tucker Carlson Tonight” without commercial interruptions, terrified that loyal viewers might switch channels and be exposed to the unholy truth.)

The show of Thursday night – if it was more than a show – at least served notice that anger and righteous purpose still exist among some of our public servants. My children will say I’m being naïve, and while I mourn the cynicism, or realism, we’ve bequeathed them, it’s hard not to agree. But I’ve also lived long enough to understand how the weight of public opinion can be shifted by public theater and occasionally by shame. I was fifteen when the Watergate hearings dominated the television schedule and electrified the country, pre-empting and rendering irrelevant the daytime soaps with civil drama, and I would love to believe the hearings of the days ahead could become that kind of must-see TV, even in an era of social media and Fox counter-brainwash. Could Bennie Thompson be our Sam Ervin? Who will be our John Dean? The situation is far more fraught than it was in 1973: One of our political parties now openly embraces fascism and the citizenry seem too busy staring at their phones to care. Will the public hearings mark the turning of the tide? Or are we looking at a far longer span of time for the ebb to return to flood? Belief in our country – in its meaning, its possibilities, and in every one of its people and not just those at the top – seems to run in cycles, periods buoyed by hope followed by phases of the darkest disenchantment.

It fills up. It empties out.

It fills up again.

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