An essay I wrote a year ago, right after the January 6 riots. I found that I didn’t have to update much; I just had to change “is” to “was.”
There was a short spell toward the end of 2020 where I kept thinking how wonderful it was that, despite the president’s years of open incitement, there was no violence during the election.
Trump’s true believers were still with us, but there hadn’t been election day riots, and it did seem like there would be a peaceful transfer of power. We’d just have to deal with a lot of crazy and dishonest people on a societal level; but at least the political system was intact. It felt like the country had passed an important test. The constitution had held.
Then came Wednesday. It felt something like the early hours of 9/11, when I stood in the kitchen prepping dinner, slowly realizing that what I was hearing on the radio was not normal political chatter, and that the news was not normal news, but that something new and dreadful was in progress. A violent mob was swarming the capitol building. Shots were fired. Congress cowered in fear.
The president’s fans tore down the American flag and hoisted a Trump flag in its place. There was blood on the floor of the senate. And when his arm was twisted to try to bring peace, the president recorded a message telling the men and women waving a flag of sedition, “You are very special. We love you.”
Four people are dead.
The president was still in office.
Can you understand the horror, the dread, the boundless disgust of this day? I don’t know if citizens of other countries feel about their governmental system the way many Americans feel about theirs.
But when I slowly realized that a MAGA mob was in the capitol building, smashing windows, scaling walls, clowning, capering, screaming, peeing on the carpets, rifling through private papers, and secreting pipe bombs while our representatives scurried into lockdown, it was — well, it was like going to bed feeling grateful that your beloved mother was doing so well staying sober, and then waking up to find that she discovered cocaine and is currently standing in your children’s bedroom with a pistol and a flamethrower, screaming that no one loves the family as much as she does.
And I thought, That’s it. It’s over. The foundation did not hold. They broke the constitution.
My heart is broken. I thought I had settled into a tolerable kind of rational cynicism about what our country is capable of, but it turns out some small part of me still believed in the fairytale of America. I used to fall asleep on summer nights listening to the local fife and drum corps practicing colonial marching tunes in the Woolworth parking lot. It’s very hard to shake that music once it’s in your head.
I know the story of our founding is mingled with myth. I don’t believe that the founding fathers were all righteous civic saints who unerringly chose the good. They were men, like all men full of a mix of good and bad intentions, and their actions showed it. We’re a work in progress and always have been.
But until that Wednesday, I believed that, despite the way we tend to go astray from time to time, we are still basically good, basically sensible, basically idealistic, basically faithful to the pursuit of the good. Basically willing to do better.
I believed that we are still essentially the same people as the people who founded this country, when hardworking farmers and blacksmiths washed the day’s work off their hands and immediately took up a quill pen for inking eloquent and persuasive arguments for a new kind of democracy patterned on ancient Athens. I knew this was part romantic myth, but I did believe we are always refining ourselves, always looking to rededicate ourselves to liberty and justice. That was the fairy tale I believed in.
The problem is that so many rabid Trump supporters also believe in a fairy tale. But it’s a different kind of fairy tale that captures their imaginations. It’s the kind where, if you have a wish and believe in your heart that it’s true, it must be true (and that’s how they know, despite a complete lack of evidence, that there was massive fraud and Trump really won the election). They believe in a fairytale where you can win a revolution by swarming in on a magical, star-spangled carpet of sheer patriotism (and are then shocked to discover the police carry mace) .
That when you’re feeling aggrieved and downtrodden, a magical prince will ride up on his steed and singlehandedly whisk you away to a land of wealth and happiness, safe forever from all your enemies (and don’t ask me how Trump managed to disguise himself as a prince, but apparently that’s what people see).
You might not think “fairytale” when you see an armed mob tricked out in riot gear and fatigues, but that’s essentially what it was: A dream, an unreal fantasy divorced from fact and rife with a horrible combination of wishful thinking, desperation, and narcissism, and powered by the nonsensical belief in some patriotic happily ever after.
The reality we live in right now is that vast swaths of the population believe in ludicrous, self-contradictory things that can’t possibly be true. They think it’s acceptable to lie and cheat and smash and hurt to achieve their happy ending. They have an unshakeable belief that they are in every way and always the good guys, and that everyone who even questions them is an irredeemable villain.
They believe, in short, in the wrong kind of fairytale, the pointless, fabulistic kind where things don’t have to make sense as long as they make an entertaining story, and as long as you show up wearing a costume, you’ll probably win in the end. Americans now are in love with the kind of fairy tale where we emotionally swan away from reality and have a baseless belief in some future “happily ever after,” where you say magic spells to chase away monsters and you blow the magic horn and wait for the miracle to come.
The reality is that four people are dead, and the president was still in office.
Listen to this, now: The oldest fairytales weren’t about magic and costumes and dreams come true. The truest versions of these stories are about fear and evil, about deprivation and depravity, about hunger and betrayal, and they are about strength, fortitude, virtue, and courage that doesn’t get rewarded without a terrible, long struggle.
People told each other these strange, dark stories as a way of dealing with the archetypal monsters haunting our collective psyches, but nobody thought they were real. They were a way of giving us strength so we could do what needed to be done in our actual lives. There are no righteous mobs in fairytales. The heroes often suffer terribly, and are misunderstood, wrongly accused, abandoned, and isolated before they triumph. There is a happy ending, but not before the hero pays a terrible price.
And that is the kind of American fairytale I still believe in.
Not the kind where we get caught up in the magic of the moment, but the kind where we grimly face the things that lurk in the woods; where we conquer evil or flee from it, but we do not make friends with it; where we endure injustices endlessly rather than abandoning our ideals; where people may betray us, but they cannot disguise who they really are. Where goodness is required, whether it’s immediately rewarded or not.
There’s not going to be some permanent happily ever after for America. All great civilizations fall, some sooner than others. I don’t know how far away the end of my country’s story is. But I’ll be damned if I let a delusional mob make me believe that all is already lost. It is not lost. It’s still a good country and I remember why it was founded, even if nobody else does.
This essay was originally published on January 8, 2021 at The Catholic Weekly.
Image: Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons