OP-ED: America hit rock bottom on Jan. 6, 2021. Will there be an epiphany?

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
An American flag flies at half-staff in remembrance of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick above the Capitol Building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Sicknick died from injuries sustained as President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

On the bloody morning after, America woke up (apologies to the '90s alt-rock band Lit) with the wrecked car still parked in the front yard of the U.S. Capitol, as a nation that finally fell asleep with its clothes on around 3:45 a.m. is now — head throbbing — promising the world that the unfortunate events of Jan. 6, 2021, were the absolute rock bottom.

In the wake of a full-blown insurrection that halted U.S. governance for more than six hours Wednesday, the national mood was one of nauseated, hungover contrition. Even on Fox News, megaphone for right-wing conspiracy craziness these last four-plus years, morning host Brian Kilmeade conceded Thursday morning that "the president's behavior has been terrible" since he was defeated by Joe Biden in the November election and that Twitter was justified in suspending Donald Trump's incendiary account (even as Trump retains access to the nuclear codes).

As for the coup leader and 45th president of the United States, the muted commander in chief — in what felt like an effort to stop his Cabinet from invoking the 25th Amendment and removing him 13 days before the end of his term — promised for the first time, through an aide's Twitter account, there will be an "orderly transition" on Jan. 20.

That was also perhaps an acknowledgement of his sinking support in Congress — being on the receiving end of a violent mob can do that — among those who'd earlier backed his insane challenges to Biden's victory. Soon-to-be-ex-Georgia-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, for example — stating that "the violence, the lawlessness and siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent" — flipped sides and rejected the pro-Trump challenge, thus revealing it had all along been a cynical ploy for votes.

Come to Jesus: Is it too naive to ask, on the 2,021st anniversary of the Biblical moment when three previously in-the-dark wise men had their come-to-Jesus moment, whether America had some kind of at least small epiphany this Jan. 6? Will witnessing up close the chaos that modern Republicans have unleashed upon the U.S. body politic force at least some of the GOP to pull back from the brink, and find ways to cooperate with the incoming Biden administration on the things that really matter, like getting coronavirus vaccines to every American and finally helping the millions facing eviction and hunger?

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I know the cynical answer to those questions is "no," that the nation has been in a long downward spiral toward civil war that maybe started with the tea party backlash to a Black U.S. president, or the lies that gave us the Iraq War, or the massive inequalities launched under St. Ronald Reagan, or waving the bloody shirt of the "culture wars" that began in the 1960s. Certainly, one can find a kind of a tragic symmetry in the youthful optimism that was crushed when four protesters died at Kent State on May 4, 1970, and the reactionary nihilism that caused four deaths at the U.S. Capitol this week.

Still, America does have a 244-year-long knack for stepping away from the abyss, and even in the present crisis there have been opportunities to pull back from madness and division that were squandered, because of too many media outlets and ambitious politicians who profit too much from chaos.

One such lost opportunity, amid a senseless tragedy, came in early 2011 when a lone nut wounded Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in an assassination attempt and killed six others. Probably not coincidentally, Fox News stopped promoting the tea party — it vanished almost instantly — and pulled the plug on its craziest host, Glenn Beck. But the moment faded when a new demagoguery emerged in the short-fingered birtherism and xenophobia of fake billionaire Trump.

This time, there needs to be a more sincere commitment from the saner heads on Fox and the right-wing media, the Republicans in Congress who in the end needed the deaths of fiver people to back away from Trump, and others on what little is left of the center-right to find common ground not on the complicated issues — heck, argue the Pentagon budget or tax rates until the cows come home — but on actual facts like who won an election.

How to move forward: Millions of people — in a nation where historian Richard Hofstadter was writing about "the paranoid style" way back in 1964 — will never get on this train. But if America can back away from the 50-50 path to Civil War II and rediscover a 70-30 consensus that stuff like science, a free press and fair elections matters, we can start moving forward, however sporadically and despite the occasional spasms of violence that seem to be as American as cherry pie.

Where to begin?

  • President Trump, any aides who materially supported the insurrection and its leaders on the ground must be investigated and prosecuted, so we can get back to some kind of baseline here of what's a crime (hint: this surely was) and who is above the law, which should be no one. Indeed, one argument for Vice President Mike Pence — said to be finally fed up after four years of lackeydom — and the Cabinet to rapidly remove Trump via the 25th Amendment would be to prevent him from pardoning his co-conspirators or himself. I also think that regardless of what federal and state prosecutors can do, the House — whenever it finds its way clear to get back to work — needs to impeach Trump again and urge his GOP critics in the Senate to convict, with the purpose of banning him from seeking the presidency in 2024.

I make these recommendations with some trepidation, because the long history of the U.S. Justice Department has been to go too far to criminalize dissent (just watch the Netflix movie "The Trial of the Chicago 7″ if you don't know what I mean). But those who took a righteous stand against, say, the Vietnam War never tried to breach the Capitol, despite sometimes massive numbers, and yet were often subjected to mass arrest. An insurrection with the clear intent of stopping a vital democratic function — the transfer of presidential power — demands real consequences.

  • Congress and possibly the Biden administration must launch a major, public investigation of the law enforcement failures that allowed Wednesday's breach to occur — for two reasons. Most fundamentally, the failure to adequately deploy or equip personnel to keep the insurrectionists away from the Capitol — despite weeks of warning about the scale and intentions of the pro-Trump rally — is unconscionable. But the moment also speaks to a much greater loss of confidence in policing in America, which led to last spring's George Floyd protests. Every theory about systemic racism within American law enforcement was confirmed by Wednesday's kid-glove treatment of white rioters. These events must be a spark for sweeping reforms.
  • America starts the new year with common enemies — the pandemic currently killing more citizens than died on 9/11 every single day, and the economic misery that has resulted — that don't need to be viewed through some kind of crazy red-state-blue-state, pre-Civil War II prism. With widespread agreement on speeding vaccine distribution and getting help to small-business owners, essential workers and those locked out, like restaurant servers, doing something about those things in early 2021 might actually curb some of the public anger and mistrust.

Again, I know the default position is cynicism, to argue that in today's world the tribalism of rural folks resenting know-it-all cosmopolitan elites and city slickers furious with "the deplorables" will trump (pun intended) any good idea — even ones with widespread public support like raising the minimum wage to $15 or making college affordable. My response would be, let's at least try it and see what happens!

Almost all of us have seen this pattern among our own family members and friends. Someone goes on a bender — OK, maybe not one that trashes the U.S. Capitol — and then assures the world that they've finally reached rock bottom, only to hit a new low a few days or weeks later. On Wednesday, America totaled the Ford 150 but thankfully we've walked away from the wreckage, limping but still alive. Let's pray that the real road to America's recovery started with an Epiphany — Jan. 6, 2021.

— Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.