What should we think of America now?

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  • On Wednesday, armed insurrectionists – goaded on by the president – rushed the US Capitol in an effort to slow the democratic process.
  • For some of those trying to make sense of it, this is an America they don’t recognise.
  • That’s part of the problem.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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On Wednesday, America embarrassed itself. For months, the Republican Party has been lying about the outcome of the presidential election to soothe President Donald Trump’s unhealthy narcissism and curry favour with his base. As a direct result of these lies, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol.

There is a myth about America that tells us that type of political violence isn’t possible in this country. It tells us that our democracy is exceptional, that we are exceptional.

There was, however, nothing exceptional about the mob of terrorists dressed like idiots relaxing in congressional offices and chambers, or the National Guard assembling around the Capitol. The unexceptional shamefulness of the day was not lost on our enemies abroad who mocked us, our allies who worried for us, or anchors at major news networks who wondered aghast where was our “shining city on a hill.”

So it’s time to dispense with our myths and face the truth about what American exceptionalism really means. It is not all of us; it is only a part of us. What makes this country great is the act of living up to our ideals and making our democracy better for everyone — and, sadly, we don’t do that all the time. To think that America can be great “again” is a misunderstanding. Our greatness is in work, in pushing forward, in examining our democracy, recognising where it is wanting, and striving to make it better.

America contains the seeds of extreme greatness when we try — and extreme cruelty when we pretend we’ve got it figured out. To understand ourselves fully, we need to be honest with ourselves about that, and we have never been. Therein lies the problem.

Our history of falling short

This striving to fulfil our promises is only part of America’s nature. We have a long history of organised domestic terrorism, some of it perpetrated by people serving in the highest offices in our government.

We have had a presidential candidate refuse to concede, prompting President Ulysses S. Grant to consider sending in armed forces. Instead, to make peace with the insurrectionists, our government sold out Black Americans for 100 years.

We have had a president face impeachment for subverting the will of the people.

We have had past senators who were just as craven as Sens. Josh Hawley — who sent a fundraising email during Wednesday’s madness — and Ted Cruz. Sen. Joe McCarthy used the specter of communism to terrorize left-leaning Americans. A few years later his defender Sen. Barry Goldwater used racism to stoke rage and violence in the South.

This country has only been a full democracy for shy of 60 years, after Black Americans were finally granted the same rights as others. At our worst we are a bunch of crony capitalists prone to violence and imperialism. But we are not only that.

At our best we make jazz music and beat Nazis and give ourselves the opportunity to be better than we were before. We take in immigrants and give them the chance to become wealthy entrepreneurs. We recognise our mistakes, and we give more people the rights they deserve.

But because we have never acknowledged the depths of our cruelty, it can shock us when it’s awakened for all to see. For many (but not enough) Americans it’s been obvious for a long time that Trump is the perfect tinder to ignite our specific kind of American ugliness, calling in our demons with racism and egotism. This is how you turn Americans into flaming monsters. Trump knows that. On Wednesday — after Republicans helped him stoke his fire — that blaze burned the US Capitol.

The United States of Duality

The reason we do not acknowledge the depth of our cruelty — aside from arrogance and extreme discomfort — is because much of this cruelty has been heaped on people of colour, especially Black Americans.

We don’t like to talk about how racist this country is. After 400 years of slavery and 100 years of legal, violently enforced apartheid, many have the audacity to think something as comparatively small and simple as — say — affirmative action at universities is doing too much for people who have been through generations of deprivation.

Some people still have the nerve to pretend they do not understand why Black Lives Matter protesters are met with violence and Wednesday’s terrorists were allowed to waltz into the Capitol waving Confederate imagery.

Capitol coup confederate flag
Supporters of US President Donald Trump breached the US Capitol on Wednesday. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

We have never been honest with ourselves about how difficult our struggle for equality has been. At its birth, America was burdened with a stark contradiction — slavery living in freedom, autocracy living in democracy. We are at our most exceptional when we are doing the work of ending that duality within us. Our exceptionalism is not in our system of government but in the fact our country is designed to compel us to improve it.

Acknowledging the depth of our imperfection will make us stronger. If we are aware of the nature of our cruelty, we can guard against men like Trump who seek to use it to control us. Acknowledgement of our imperfection is a guard against the delusion that a charlatan like Trump is not dangerous.

This is hard. It’s a lot nicer to tell good stories about who we are, so we make myths about our greatness. But indulging in these cruelty-free stories is a privilege generally reserved for white Americans, and it is too dangerous a privilege to keep. It is a privilege that leads to naivety, and that naivety is what gets enterprising liars like Hawley and Cruz elected to the US Senate.

What makes us exceptional

What makes this country exceptional is not what it is at all times but what it is when it is trying to be its best for every American. We are exceptional when we are embracing a pluralistic, egalitarian society; when we are upholding the rule of law; when we care about human rights; when we are forming coalitions on the world stage; when our entertainment is soft power; when a bunch of us decide to help the less fortunate and really make a change. That’s when we’re good — but we are in no way good all the time. And we are at our best when we are actively moving forward, not obsessed with going back.

Or, as Thomas Jefferson himself put it:

“….laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truth discovered and manners and opinions change. With a change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

The men who wrote the Constitution knew what they left us with wasn’t perfect. They knew that with a basic love of reason, the rule of law, a healthy scepticism of power, and egalitarian principles, we might just figure it out one day. To say the absolute least, Wednesday, January 6 was not that day.