I don’t know what the lasting images are going to be from Wednesday’s breach of the U.S. Capitol, but the one currently seared in my mind is the man casually lounging behind a desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office.
“I wrote her a nasty note, put my feet up on her desk and scratched my balls,” the man, 60-year-old Richard “Bigo” Barnett, later boasted to Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times. The note, he recalled: “Nancy, Bigo was here you bitch.”
As his fellow insurrectionists roamed the complex breaking windows, scaling balconies and attempting to replace American flags with Trump flags, Barnett somehow meandered through the maze of corridors into the House speaker’s personal office. Once there, he settled into the position in which he was photographed: His booted foot was propped atop the desk – which wasn’t actually Pelosi’s. He leaned back in the chair. With one finger he proudly gestured to himself, as a fisherman might while posing with the big catch. In his other hand, his cellphone. At that moment an Agence France-Presse photographer snapped the picture.
The photo was arresting for a few reasons, but primarily this: Violence is easy enough to picture in a coup. The heaving bodies, the smashed glass, the chants, the rants – all of those are the easily identifiable markers of civil unrest that we see when CNN covers Belarus, or apparently, Washington.
What you never picture is the smugness. The gleeful entitlement on individual faces.
The Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol believed were owed this opportunity to terrorize their elected representatives. They were allowed. They were the true guardians of democracy, not the officials whom voters had chosen for the job. After a summer of hearing their leader harangue Black Lives Matter protesters for “lawlessness,” the rioters broke a dozen laws without batting an eye and claimed that it was their right and duty.
And then? They were praised for it. “We love you,” President Donald Trump told his supporters by video, in an anemic feint at quelling the violence after a woman, who died later, had been shot in the Capitol. “You’re very special.”
In six words, the president managed to both encapsulate and exacerbate the problem. The men and women who had come to storm the Capitol had spent five years being told by their leader that they were very special – that their distrust and anger were very special. They were more special than the immigrants Trump said would take their jobs, more special than the “low-income people” he said would ruin their suburbs, more special than the pollworkers he said would steal their elections and, above all else, more special the liberals he said would destroy their country.
He took their grief, their grievances and their woundedness and he sold them a fantasy in which all of it was those evil people’s fault. He deemed them special snowflakes, every one.
Indoctrination like that doesn’t go away with an election, no matter how sincere President-elect Joe Biden sounded when he went on television and insisted that the scenes from the Capitol “do not represent who we are.” With apologies to the president-elect, they apparently do represent some of us, and we are well beyond the point of healing platitudes. We are well beyond the point of moving on, of simply hoping that once Trump leaves the White House, his most fervent supporters will quietly shake their heads, as if awakening from a dream, and then accept that they are not uniquely deserving of America.
We are in for a reckoning that is going to last for years, or until we can drum in the lesson that should have been taught in preschool: Nobody is more special than anyone else.
I’m not sure we can do it.
I don’t hold this pessimistic view because people were angry at the Capitol. I don’t even believe it because they stormed the Capitol.
I believe it because of what happened when they got inside.
Did they release a detailed manifesto to the news media? Did they set up an immediate shadow government, with a mock vote?
No. They did none of this. They instead aimlessly wandered the halls, taking selfies with law enforcement officers, poking around, grabbing stuff. Some of them were shirtless or in loungewear, like night owls who had wandered into their own kitchen for a snack rather than members of a mob that had stormed the U.S. Capitol.
And Richard Barnett found a desk that he believed belonged the most powerful woman in the country and smugly kicked up his boots between her coffee mug and her bowl of paper clips. Bigo was here you bitch.
Lawmakers have rushed to explain that these people don’t represent America. Frankly, I don’t think these people want to represent America – a country full of immigrants and liberals and low-income people, a majority of whom voted to boot Trump out of Washington. They couldn’t represent America if they tried. I think they just want to act like they own the place.