It seems like only yesterday that we were all making jokes about 2020 being the worst and reassuring ourselves that 2021 was bound to be better. Looking forward to the departure of the most divisive president in U.S. history we slid into the new year relieved and a little bit complacent, secure in the knowledge that the country was soon to be rid of him. Instead, this has been the most tumultuous January in modern memory.
Each week of the new year has been momentous. Specifically, every Wednesday of the new year has been historic.
We started with the January 6th insurrection, of course, in which then-President Donald Trump incited an angry mob of thousands to storm the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress to stop the constitutionally-mandated counting of the Electoral College votes for the next president, Joe Biden. That had never happened before, obviously. Until then, we never had a president so radical and so psychologically unbalanced that he would try to stop the peaceful transfer of power. But, of course, Trump was unlike any other and he persuaded tens of millions of people that they could believe him or they could believe their lying eyes and convinced them that the election had been stolen from them despite all evidence to the contrary.
That Wednesday is going to be one of those days that will be remembered like December 7th and 9/11. It will be commonly referred to as the January 6th insurrection or, more likely, just January 6th.
The nation was left reeling and in shock by what they saw unfold on their TVs, including the speech by a president who egged the mob on and then stood by and did nothing for hours, reportedly delighted by the mob violence. Members of Congress had been targeted by the murderous rioters and were left traumatized by the experience. It was so outrageous that on the very next Wednesday, the House of Representatives took the bold and unprecedented step of impeaching President Trump for a second time.
They had no choice. Five people died on January 6th and dozens were injured. The horrific pictures were beamed around the world leaving our allies shaken and our adversaries rubbing their hands together with glee. Despite the fact that Trump would be out of office in just one week, Congress had to take a stand and they did. Even ten Republicans voted to impeach, which is saying something considering their normally supine attitude when it comes to Trump.
So on the first Wednesday of January, the United States suffered a violent insurrection and on the second Wednesday, the House of Representatives impeached the President of the United States for his role in it. Then one week later, on the third Wednesday of the month, a new president was sworn in.
Suddenly this week, after what the nation went through the first few weeks of the new year, the government went back to normal, observing its usual quadrennial rituals, necessarily altered due to the raging pandemic, but nonetheless offered up to the public as a cheerful, optimistic event as if nothing had happened.
Ask yourself what you would think if you watched these events take place in another country. Would you call that a stable democracy?
These three major events happening in rapid succession was more surreal than anything that happened during Trump's four years. And perhaps the weirdest part is the fact that the day after the Inauguration, he had vaporized. After dominating our political culture for almost five years, we are quite suddenly in a world in which he simply doesn't exist. Sure, there are remnants of his reign to be dispensed with and his former collaborators are still throwing a few punches from the sidelines. But with Trump banned from social media and no longer commanding the attention of the press, we are watching the last four years already wash down the memory hole in record time.
Americans don't have a great capacity for introspection and there is a great propensity for amnesia when it comes to our unpleasant past and inability to live up to our ideals. Leaders tend to prefer to sweep things under the rug with the excuse that we are a forward-looking culture that doesn't wallow in nostalgia as some others do. (That's bunk, of course – we valorize the founding as if the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are holy writs.) It's a habit that has led to an America in the 21st century still having failed to deal adequately with the original sin of slavery and the racism that festers and creates much of the division that the right has been exploiting for decades and which finally exploded into the violence of January 6th.
Let's face facts: Donald Trump ran two presidential campaigns on blatantly racist culture war themes and when he lost this time he told his supporters that Black voters in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Detroit stole the election from him. And yet, just two days after the new president is sworn in it feels as if that clear realization is already slipping away.
The right is naturally doing what it always does. Its top voices are already energetically clutching their pearls at the mere mention of white supremacy and racism and fatuously insisting that Joe Biden is dividing the nation by even suggesting it might be a problem. As The Atlantic's McKay Coppins put it, they plan to pretend it never happened:
People who spent years coddling the president will recast themselves as voices of conscience, or whitewash their relationship with Trump altogether. Policy makers who abandoned their dedication to "fiscal responsibility" and "limited government" will rediscover a passion for these timeless conservative principles. Some may dress up their revisionism in the rhetoric of "healing" and "moving forward," but the strategy will be clear—to escape accountability by taking advantage of America's notoriously short political memory.
And, as usual, a Democratic administration has been elected in the wake of catastrophe and they will have their hands full dealing with the urgent emergencies of the pandemic and consequent economic fallout as well existential long term problems that can no longer be put off. The temptation is going to be great to just pretend we are back to "normal" and write off this strange episode as an anomaly. But sweeping the radicalization of the faction of Americans that is organized around racism and resentment under the rug is what led us to January 6th and it won't be the last time if we don't face up to these problems.
We have one more Wednesday left in January. It should be the first day of Donald Trump's second impeachment trial. It would be a good day to take the first step in a long, overdue process of accountability, restitution and reconciliation. There can be no healing or unity without it.