Less than two months ago, protests in Guatemala led to the country’s Congress being set on fire. Images may have made it on some Americans’ social media feeds, and the New York Times reported it, but in the United States, it went largely unnoticed. It’s the type of event that happens somewhere else, not here.
Those images hit close to home for me because much of my extended family lives in Guatemala. I thought of them, imagining how unsettling it must be to see such a scene take place in a building that houses your national democracy.
Today, similar images hit even closer to home, about a dozen or so miles away from where I live and in a building in which I used to work. What took place today at the U.S. Capitol was disgusting and disheartening on so many levels. From the legislators’ plans to subvert the election and will of the voters, to the president’s reckless incitement at a rally based in delusion, to the despicable band of reprobates who stormed the halls of Congress and made a mockery of our system, institutions, and history, it was a sad and embarrassing day for anyone who respects and has stood for the ideals of a free and civil society.
As a broader culture, we can sometimes get so focused on how to label certain events or people that we ultimately lose sight of the issue itself. While this tendency can serve a purpose, it can also distract from the primary point of how we should collectively feel about a matter as we parse and police whether language is too soft or harsh. For today, call what transpired whatever you believe is fitting, as long as it’s a clear and unequivocal repudiation. The rejection needs to be universal without getting bogged down in how to do so.
Yet, one semantic did stand out to me. As the afternoon unfolded, “coup” was repeatedly used in tweets, articles, and chyrons. While today’s scene was undoubtedly alarming, something about the word seemed not quite right. I looked up its definition:
“A sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government”
“Sudden, violent, and illegal” are all applicable to today, but the “seizure” part was unfulfilled. “Seizure” implies success in the effort, and what we saw today thankfully fell well short of that. These pathetic lunatics didn’t have a realistic shot, let alone a plan, for actually overthrowing the government, replacing it with their own, and maintaining power. In the case of the stormers, they weren’t going to suddenly become senators no matter whose chairs they sat in or desks they put their feet on. These were a bunch of detached crackpots and cynics who got to live out their Parler fan fiction.
This distinction is more than just a technicality; it’s an important one to make because we must acknowledge that, like the man they follow, these paranoid schizoids along with the lawmakers that support the attempt to reverse the election are failures. Full stop. They believe themselves to be something they’re not — patriots, warriors, statesmen, brave, courageous, intelligent, honorable — when, in reality, they’re masking their own insecurities and trying to fill the emptiness of their souls. These aren’t heroes of any revolution or defenders of our Constitution and national ideals; they’re desperate individuals in search of some form of glory and attention, even if it’s negative, to thrive off of. That’s why I refused to use images of them at the top of this post. They construct narratives of grandeur in hopes of amounting to something — anything — that might give them meaning. As we saw with their leader, even the highest office in the land didn’t humble that desperate craving for self-worth.
In the end, they rarely succeed, whether it’s trying to overturn election results or “taking over the government,” and are revealed for the false prophets that they are. Today was simply the culmination of this sad, four-year trend of the reality of their rhetoric and delusions falling short. Per Kevin Williamson on Tuesday:
The Trump administration is a thoroughgoing failure on the president’s own terms: The administration has managed to reorder worldwide trade relations — by witlessly facilitating the creation of a new trade pact between China and the European Union, an alliance of the world’s second- and third-largest economies at the expense of the one that remains, for now, the largest. China is in a stronger geopolitical position today than it was in 2016, and the United States is diminished. Trump focused on the trade deficit, which is the wrong policy, but he can’t even get that right: Our trade deficits are larger than ever. On immigration, there is no big, beautiful wall paid for by Mexico, nor has there been any broad reform of U.S. immigration law. The president spent the critical early days of the coronavirus epidemic trying to tweet the virus into submission because he feared a declining stock market would hurt his reelection chances. He has uttered more lies himself than can be counted, and he sent his minions out to tell countless more. He has dishonored, disfigured, and debased everything he has touched. It has been a shameful spectacle.
In other words, we never got a chance to be tired of the winning that was promised. Instead, we get a reverse Midas, and don’t let the obscene amount of gold that he surrounds himself with fool you.
None of this is to diminish what took place today. The images are unsettling and deeply troubling. Yet, these actors don’t deserve to be accused of “staging a coup,” fighting for democratic integrity, or anything of that nature because they’re not serious or capable enough people to do anything of that magnitude, no matter what they tell you. Our elected officials who stoked these flames for gain don’t get a pass on the grounds of speaking for “the people” when it leads to this. It gives them and their intentions far too much credit and plays into their hand of self-importance. Whatever it is they were trying to do to our country, our institutions, and our spirits for their own egos, let’s make sure to remember them for what they are: Failures.