COMMENTARY

I was there for the day that poisoned America — and I think we can still recover

At first I thought they were like a bunch of rowdy NFL fans. I was mistaken. But there's a path back to reality

By Brian Karem

Published January 6, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

Trump supporters near the US Capitol following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Trump supporters near the US Capitol following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

At first I thought I was dealing with a group of men and women — but mostly men — like the ones who show up half-naked at weekend NFL home games during December. 

You know them. You've seen them. Maybe you're one of them. In a joyous fit of inappropriate loyalty for whatever corporate entity owns your favorite team, you show up without a shirt, freezing to death but adorned with face and chest paint in your local team's colors. Maybe you're wearing a team jersey with a team-sponsored necklace, a gaudy hat or some other headdress to drive the point home.

That was exactly what the insurrectionists reminded me of when I saw them for the first time on Jan. 6, 2021, trying to scale a wall outside the Capitol. I had already seen a few with headgear, mostly hats and one dressed like a Wookkie who made pretty much the same grunts, cheers and shouts as your diehard NFL fan cheering on his losing team. So when I got to this group of wall-crawlers I thought I knew who I was dealing with. 

But I was mistaken. As I watched that group trying to climb a wall near the Capitol I shouted, "Hey, you know there's steps on either side! You don't have to pretend to be Spider-Man. Someone's going to break their neck." That prompted about a half a dozen of them to approach me with menacing sneers, larceny in their hearts and smelling distinctly of body odor. One had what appeared to be a car antenna firmly gripped in his hand. I didn't ask. I didn't want to know.

They threatened to pound me into little patties of reporter's meat until they noticed I was carrying a press pass from Playboy, and then they became exactly like the guys you see at NFL games. One even asked me if I could get him into a Playboy party. Another wanted to know if I could get him into the mansion.

But despite the headgear, the outrageous costumes and the cosplaying, these folks were far more dangerous than your weekend NFL warrior-fan. But it took the guy with the broken antenna in his hand to make that clear to me. I should've known better. Even after the large gentleman carrying an oversized Confederate battle flag on 17th Street, a block from the White House, threatened me as I approached work that morning, part of me simply thought it was all theater. 

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I still believe that for many of them, at least in the beginning, that's precisely what it was: theater of the absurd. I'd heard the many complaints, the disjointed logic, the denial of facts and science many times before. During the Obama years it became a mantra among the bigots and the illiterate. They argued the presidency had been stolen. They sneered at the rule of law. "They took our jobs," became a comic cry and then an ongoing "South Park" joke. But the crazies who'd languished in irrelevancy and on the sidelines emerged center stage by 2021 — driven out of the shadows by manipulative politicians, entertainers, reporters and anyone else who could make a buck off of their ignorance, gullibility and willingness to spend their hard-earned cash on a chance to be seen and heard in a viral moment on social media.

The whole group screamed, "Pay attention to me!" It didn't matter if their argument made any sense — which it didn't. Sentiments being what they were and the politicians being who they were, by the time the group reached the Capitol they had been whipped into a rancid frenzy.

More intent on making social network moments than contemplating what their actions truly meant, most of the insurrectionists I saw were adrenaline-fueled fans who thought they were cosplaying and then got caught up in the moment the hard cases had come to make.

Inflamed by their fetid stench of self-righteous, self-serving, self-inflicted pain, the insurrection burst like an infected national boil. I've covered riots. I've covered wars. I was in Kuwait City while the fires raged and the violence stank. Never had I seen Americans in such large numbers trying to kill and attack other Americans — and worse yet, at the literal center of our democracy.

Make no mistake, in the end it doesn't matter why they say they came to D.C. that day. You want to say you were a tourist? Those motives are matters for the nation's criminal courts. The actions were indictable. No tourist beats innocent people, squats in government offices, destroys public property and kills police officers. Talk about your "Ugly American." It is on those actions we must concentrate our efforts, as we try to understand what happened, prosecute those who did it and ultimately prevent any repeat performance. 


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Since that dark day of demonic flatulence, the flames of anger have been fanned by minor imps and hell-driven icons with names like Boebert, Greene, Jordan and Hannity, along with other fanged and clawed creatures who would be more at home in a carnival sideshow working the back roads across the South  and Midwest, along with huckster bible salesmen and their con-artist kin. 

It doesn't matter if these politicians believe what they're selling. It only matters if you do — and enough people do that many political observers now question the continued survival of American constitutional government, based on the wild behavior of its politicians and their misguided fans.

Some, like Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell, have pushed hard for accountability — even possible expulsion — of his political colleagues. Attorney General Merrick Garland says justice will be served, but the Republican Party is not interested in prosecuting their own and it appears the Democrats don't have a large enough majority to get things done — no matter what Garland says. Worse, there is a fear that House Democrats (22 of whom won't run for re-election this fall) will lose their majority in the midterm elections, ending any chance of bringing the leaders of the Jan. 6 insurrection to justice. 

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As time passes, the number of those who seem willing to nod their heads and ignore what happened grows. "It's in the past, let's move forward," is something I hear almost daily — even from some Democrats, and from far too many ignorant and self-important reporters.

I have a problem with this. I was there. I witnessed beatings. I saw them erect a scaffold and a hangman's noose — they were serious about dragging Vice President Mike Pence out there and stringing him up. It sent a chill up my spine. I saw the vicious, uncontrolled and illogical anger vent itself on innocent victims. There can be no moving on without accountability. You don't dismiss a serial killer by saying, "Let's move on," without the perpetrator of the crime being dragged before a court and held accountable for his or her actions.

But you can't get Congress to agree to that. The problem is that, proportionally speaking, there are as many nuts in Congress as in society at large. These squeaking, flying, festering cockroaches draw others of their kind to them, and they're eager to avoid the exterminator. They don't want to be held accountable. They know they're in the minority — but they don't just want to survive, they want to rule.

So what do we do? Let them rule in hell. Make them accountable here and now and punish them for their actions in the real world. From top to bottom. Everyone involved in the most un-American activity I've witnessed in the United States during my lifetime must be held accountable for their treasonous actions. Expel every member of Congress who embraced the Big Lie.

The lessons of last January cannot be learned until then.

The motives behind the actions are issues for the courts. The actions themselves cannot be disputed: The death and beating of innocent people. The capture of government offices. The destruction of public property. The disregard for the Constitution, the rule of law and common human decency. Although a year later many people have been prosecuted, charged, tried, found guilty and sentenced for their actions that day, the country knows that those in Congress and elsewhere who manipulated people into traitorous actions for the sake of their own power have yet to be brought to justice.

 

There is a national cry for it. There must be a sustained will to get it done. That never bodes well for the criminal. As a correspondent for "America's Most Wanted," I often saw concerned communities help bring criminals to justice. Perhaps we need to reboot the show for elected officials who've done us wrong. It would be a huge hit on Fox News and/or on CNN — with the right hosts, of course.

There are many who believe that the reaction to the insurrection shows the depth of political division in this country and that we are headed for another civil war. The media is awash with such speculation. Newspaper and magazine articles have even been written speculating on whether or not the U.S. military is ready for such a war. 

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Outside the world of pundits, political scientists, politicians and reporters, I see little stomach for civil war, but there is sustained anger that can lead to continued outpourings of violence. And we must address that.

Politicians who have whipped angry people into misguided action are part of the problem. But the anger itself must be addressed. The distance between the poor and the rich grows daily. A lack of education, infrastructure, family leave and basic health care are huge problems — which some politicians will tell you deserve no consideration because solving them will require "socialist" policies. Those same politicians instead eagerly give their energy to legislation that benefits themselves and their corporate donors. They screw us, and then turn us against our own self-interest so they can keep on doing so.

Imagine being told, and believing, that we don't need parental leave because "we didn't need it when I was a kid," without acknowledging that we've become a society that demands two wage-earners in a family, instead of one, in order to make ends meet. 

We are a nation consumed by our own fictions, and all too easily manipulated by those who know the difference between appearance and reality.

The insurrection showed us both.

The appearance is that we are deeply divided. I believe the reality is that we've been made to think we are by politicians who stand to gain from convincing us that our neighbors are being treated better than we are, and getting advantages they don't deserve.

Those politicians failed to do what they wanted last year: overthrow the government and the rule of law for their own authoritarian goals. But they won't quit until they succeed, or until they are held accountable for their behavior.

Hold their feet to the fire. Prosecute them. Make them accountable. Then go and embrace your neighbor, who's not so different from yourself — even if they're wearing a different color shirt and cheering for a different team.

Read more from Brian Karem on the troubles and travails of the Biden administration:


Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East, and is the author of seven books, including "Free the Press," due out this fall.

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