A close friend told me recently that she’d had a conversation with a Trump-supporting relative who asked her if she thought now, with four years behind us, that she had overreacted a bit in 2016; if she agreed now that things hadn’t been basically fine. She was, of course, horrified; she said “It’s been so much worse than even I imagined.” It made me think of my own response four years ago; like my friend, I also don’t think I really feel much differently about any of it now, but I also don’t feel the need to revisit it. I think if I had gone back in time and told that person that in four years and change she’d be conferring with her coworkers about how best to cover the neo-Nazi occupation of the nation’s capitol while also getting her work done for the day, it would have leveled her; let alone the fact that it would be happening in the midst of an ongoing national disaster with no point of comparison that had meant the majority of that team had lost a family member, day job, or their health. Now, though, in the present, we did, in fact, finish our work for the day; we checked in on whether everyone felt okay to have our scheduled meetings as normal, and we did, because this actually is pretty normal.
The other reason I don’t feel interested in revisiting my (and others’) election musings is that with the benefit of hindsight and the work of many activists & organizers of color to bring left-leaning white people like me somewhat up to speed, the election and Trump himself kind of fades into the broader background music of our shared life. As many people have correctly pointed out, the armed insurrection by a bunch of maskless white people in costume is a very logical progression of our entire national character. I’m thinking of the Bundy occupation of Malheur; the pre-Trump years of Tea Partiers camped out on the White House grounds with AR-15s; Charlottesville; farther back than that, the domestic terrorism of sundown towns and the Tulsa massacre. In contrast, of course: the brutal assaults of water protectors at Standing Rock; the police harassment and FBI visits organizers reported for advancing causes as basic as Black lives mattering; the unspeakable cruelty of imprisoning migrant people in conditions we wouldn’t keep animals in after tearing them apart from their families during a deadly pandemic that spreads in close quarters. All of these things have been allowed to continue, entirely unchecked. Everyone has called their representatives; everyone has used ResistBot and donated to ActBlue; everyone has voted, even when it meant waiting for eight hours in line and risking COVID exposure. Still, there’s no real end in sight.
It’s now 24 hours since the live broadcast broad daylight assault on the capitol began; virtually none of the people who perpetrated it have been arrested, including people who posted photo and video evidence of themselves unmasked. Twitter and Facebook have gravely announced that they will… limit the President’s social media. Several Democrats have written strongly worded memos expressing outrage at Trump, and called on Pence to deal with him, something Pence has never historically demonstrated an interest in or capability for. A few Republicans have demonstrated statements of disapproval, and taken the step of admitting that Biden won the election. The oil company Chevron has tweeted its stance. The reality is that this is largely going to be the extent of the consequences for this event, much like it was every time before this, and before that and before Trump was ever in office. It’s entirely possible something like this, or several things like it, will happen again in the future; like so much else, it has been allowed, and will likely continue.
I think a lot about the urgency around empathy and building bridges in 2016; the discussions about how white people could reach out to Trump supporters in our family or social groups, and use our relationships to help them understand the harm of that decision. I think there’s merit and worth in talking about that interpersonal layer of things; I have to admit it also felt very distant and silly this summer when the National Guard was shooting at people on the porches of their own homes in broad daylight in my city. I am feeling the same way today watching well-intentioned white folks discuss how the lack of police brutality at the capitol yesterday is an illustration of white privilege. It’s not that that’s incorrect, exactly, but it’s that it’s not the conversation we need to have in this moment; the conversation we are all a part of, whether we wish to be or not, is one about power. The assault on the capitol is an action of white power, not white privilege. The people who enacted and enabled it do have the privilege of experiencing the world differently on an internal level as well as preferable treatment in the outside world; beyond that, however, they have the power to harm and to do so without consequences, and will continue to use it.
I think again about my friend and her Trump-supporting relative; they had both seen the same administration and the same fallout; it wasn’t a matter of information or education. I think also about Philando Castile, who was killed despite his license to carry, and Dylann Roof, who was taken in safely after murdering nine people. I think, as many of us did yesterday in our own ways, about how Minneapolis police had militarized cops up on the roof of the Holiday gas station an hour after they killed Dolal Idd outside it and had raided his family’s home before they even learned of their relative’s death while I watched unmasked white insurrectionists peacefully leave the Capitol to head home to their families. All of these things are quite simply part of the story about power in the US; who has it, who is denied it, and what people will do to keep power in their own hands.
The reality is that if information, context, statements, or even seeing the consequence of one’s own actions and harm done to others was something that would change attitudes and actions, it would have happened by now. We all watched the ruling party let hundreds of thousands of Americans die from COVID because it was better for a bottom line, and then we watched those same people still win virtually every single vote they received four years ago, including from people whose families they had killed and laid off. Unfortunately even the enactment of new legislation and policy has its limits; we’ve had dozens of high-profile examples, from Trump to the insurrectionists, that demonstrate how even strong laws are only enforced in an inverse relationship to the power of the person breaking them. It’s not that questions of political education, legislation, outreach, empathy, analysis or policy (especially, increasingly, around conspiracy theory agitation) are irrelevant or dumb; it’s that those ideas are only useful when we apply them in a context of shifting power, rather than shifting understanding or beliefs and hoping power follows suit. Critically, this is a form of power that isn’t granted by institutions or law, and can’t be revoked by them; this is why we see so many unscathed by the supposedly vicious MeToo movement; why police clearly breaking the law to murder civilians invariably go unpunished; why so much of the modern fascist movement has gotten so far despite public denouncement. It’s granted by the cultural divine right of white supremacy and its attendant ideologies like racialized capitalism, and the functionally meaningful extra-legal power structures it’s embedded in our communities can’t be meaningfully addressed by any individuals or their policies until that’s dismantled.
Acknowledging that power is the defining framework of our moment is scary, because many of the deeply held values and practices of (white) American culture revolve around refusing to name or describe infrastructures of power. It’s also the only way forward, because a willingness to recognize and name where power is consolidated is the only way we can begin to redistribute it more appropriately. My most meaningful political education was this summer, when Minneapolis city government told us they couldn’t charge the four cops who participated in killing George Floyd even if they wanted to; three days later after the occupation of the police precinct, they suddenly could, because the people of the city had recognized and acted on the power of their collective direct action. The Republicans who actively killed their constituents through police brutality and intentionally bungled pandemic response didn’t lose any of their supporters, but many of them did lose their elections, if by a hair; organizers fought tooth and nail to connect disenfranchised people to resources, infrastructure, information and agency so they could at access the limited power of the ballot box.
So many of us feel that so much is being laid bare right now, in ways that can feel overwhelming; the quiet parts being spoken louder and louder every day. If we pay attention, there is also so much about our own capability being revealed each day, and the power of our communities; the structures we were taught we could look to for stability are not as strong as they’re supposed to be, but we are also not as helpless as we were told, either. Every day is prompting us to ask what fresh hell is possible, but in the space after that question, there are other, quieter ones: what are we capable of? What do we now know we can do, despite our fears and exhaustion? What have we learned about ourselves and our communities that changes what we believe is possible? I have been so surprised by and grateful for the answers to those questions this past year; I suspect there is even more space for those possibilities in this one.