Late Wednesday afternoon, after a horde of Trump-supporting, terroristic rioters had been allowed to breach the nation’s Capitol to loot and ransack it as terrified Congresspeople and building staffers huddled inside, President-Elect Biden addressed the nation. Seething with the quiet disappointment of a paternal figure, he spoke through bleary eyes about what he called an “assault on the citadel of liberty.” Biden rebuked the mob as perpetrating “insurrection” that “borders on sedition.” He beseeched Trump to “demand an end to this siege,” though he did not rebuke him directly for his role in inciting it, and emphasized American values in the tone of good-natured work-togetherness that helped get Biden elected.
It did not feel like enough. Perhaps Biden had caught onto the sense that anything stronger might stoke further violence, but he was clearly angrier than he initially let on, barking that “enough is enough is enough” to a reporter as he left the stage. The speech was a particularly Bidenesque act of public statesmanship, one that was punctuated with what would become a familiar refrain of the day: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America; do not represent who we are.” And: “America is about honor. Decency, respect, tolerance—that’s who we are, that’s who we’ve always been.”
Biden’s words evoked a notion repeated by politicians and across the media on Wednesday: “this is not who we are,” an idea more aspirational than rooted in any sort of reality or history. The mob of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who erected a noose outside the Capitol are exactly who “we” are, insofar that America has for all its history wrestled with who it considers the rightful citizens of this land—and emboldened those armed whites who deem themselves entitled to it fight against progress with violence.
To view Wednesday’s insurrection as an aberration is to ignore the past six years of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, in which he maliciously targeted immigrants, Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, women, disabled people, and countless other marginalized groups, and in doing so provided a mirror to the aggrieved whites who, like Trump, were angry at the seeming increase of American power redistributed out of their perceived ownership. It’s to ignore the four years before that, when Trump, alongside the Tea Party, built a recognizable brand out of questioning Obama’s origin of birth, a dog whistle that implied his race made his presidency illegitimate. It’s to avoid 50 years before that, when Black Americans wishing to exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote were brutally assaulted by police forces acting upon the will of the state.
America was built on the powerful assuming a God-given entitlement to the lands and the government, and to use physical and cultural violence to exert their preordained dominion. There was a whole war about it! And just as the Capitol Building was built by enslaved people for the pleasure of the white men who enslaved them, of course some 221 years later, their ancestors felt entitled to take the space for themselves. (Some of Wednesday’s most striking and disgraceful images on a day of them were those of Black building workers having to clean up the damage the rioters had wrought.) To ignore the true origins of these Trump enabled militias is not only ahistoric, it is a grave mistake.
But America was built on its own mythologies, and mythologies can only function on the premise of erasure. To rewrite what nearly half of America is in this moment, is to erase the warnings about Trump that have been coming from marginalized people for years; to inject fantasy is to be unprepared for the worst that is likely to come.
But when Biden spoke on Wednesday about “who we are,” it betrayed what idealists like him seem to believe: that we don’t love America for what it is, we love it for what it tries to be. He is correct in the notion that this utopian future is entirely based upon what we make it. But let’s not lie to ourselves about what this country has been.