In August 2016, speaking in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Donald Trump unveiled the philosophy that would, five years later, lead thousands of his supporters to storm the United States Capitol to try to overturn the election of Joe Biden.
Trump, assessing his chances in the state where Hillary Clinton then led in polls by nine points, claimed, "The only way we can lose, in my opinion — and I really mean this, Pennsylvania — is if cheating goes on. I really believe it."
Trump’s litmus test, we were first told that day, is not the procedures and security under which voting and counting are conducted, but simply the result. A Trump win certifies election validity, a Trump loss proves fraud.
During the 2016 race, Trump also said he might not accept the results if he lost, but many took it as bluster, and his victory rendered the issue momentarily moot.
The great misunderstanding about Donald Trump is always that he will be constrained by any political or societal norm. The great misunderstanding about his most fervent supporters is always that breaking any such norm will cost him their support.
But it was not until ballots were cast and counted in 2020 that the nation learned of Trump’s inability to accept the possibility, much less the reality, that he could lose a fair election. And as many as 40% of Americans believe Trump won in 2020 absent any evidence and despite overwhelming proof it is a lie.
Last week, the nation looked back on the first anniversary of Jan. 6, the day the Capitol was attacked in an attempt to keep Trump in power. This horrific event would end lives, and alter lives, and reshape the way we perceive both our nation and each other.
THE TRUTH IS UGLY
What we already know is that Trump supporters came to Washington, at his urging. They marched to the Capitol, at his urging. He told them to "fight like hell," and they did. Four protesters were killed and 140 police officers were injured in the violence, in the three hours before Trump finally asked them to go home. If you are not horrified by what happened, watch some of the videos. Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Wednesday that the Justice Department has 20,000 hours of such recordings. There can be no denying the ugliness of what happened.
Five officers who were at the Capitol have since died, four by suicide and one from multiple strokes after being savaged by rioters in fighting that has best been described as "medieval." Professed patriots attacked cops sworn to protect them, beating and bludgeoning, stabbing and bashing. More than 725 people have been arrested, at least 50 from New York, for their participation in the attack. Of that group, 275 are charged with trying to obstruct the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
The historical record is far from complete. Key are ongoing congressional and federal investigations to hold accountable those who participated in the assault on the Capitol, while determining who else has criminal and moral culpability for what unfolded. The Supreme Court will soon rule on the release of White House records of the calls and communications surrounding the attack. This information is needed to construct a specific timeline of how events unfolded that day. Sadly, the salient question is again what did the president know and when did he know it.
LIES SHAPE PERCEPTION
Beyond determining who is responsible for what happened, this question remains: How can 40% of Americans believe, against every shred of evidence, that Trump won a second term?
Simply stated, they’ve been duped by dishonest media outlets and Republican politicians feeding them lies. Misinformation on social media amplified the alternate reality. Our political system is not designed to debunk falsehoods. It’s designed to let voters pick plans of governance, offered by mostly honest brokers presenting differing visions. Our media ecosystem is also in severe disrepair.
As increasingly harsh confrontations over COVID-19 vaccines and precautions, school curricula and decriminalized vices, taxes and government safety nets, and gun rights and a dozen other issues bubble, we lack the tools to disagree wisely and well.
How can this change?
We must have a populace schooled enough in civics to understand why dedication to the integrity of the system and its checks and balances must dwarf our loyalty to a candidate or party. We must have news media that will, regardless of political bent, amplify truth, expose falsehoods, and present opinion responsibly. We must have political leaders who choose losing over lying.
The assaults on our system that blossomed into violence a year ago are not over.
The democratic experiment is increasingly under attack in its birthplace and greatest laboratory. The world is watching, with its future inextricably tied to a strong, just, free, and fair United States.
The answer is not to despair, but repair, and rebuild. The need is urgent. The challenges we face, difficult even for a unified and prepared nation to confront, will prove insurmountable for a furiously divided and misinformed one.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.