On Wednesday afternoon, as a mob of neo-Confederates, freelance vigilantes, and live-streaming insurrectionists forcibly occupied the Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden spoke from a dais in Wilmington, Delaware, in front of four motionless American flags. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” he said. It was a short speech, but he returned to this theme several times. “America is so much better than what we’ve seen today,” he said, his voice plaintive and exhausted, as if willing it to be true.
This is such a standard trope, such a staple of the American-exceptionalist mythos promulgated by both parties, that it’s easy enough to tune it out. And yet it is also a form of denialism—not as imminently dangerous as the COVID denialism and climate denialism and seditious incitement of Donald Trump, but a form of denialism nonetheless. If Wednesday’s events do not reflect a true America, what could they possibly reflect? Did they happen in another country, or nowhere? Was it all a dream? “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin wrote in the Times, in 1962. In the same essay, Baldwin warned against “that American complacency which so inadequately masks the American panic.” In his speech, Biden insisted that “the words of a President matter,” but he also implied that they don’t matter enough, in the long run, to alter the destiny of the American people, because that destiny is all but preordained. In the short term, Biden called on President Trump to “go on national television . . . and demand an end to this siege,” as if Trump could, in one heroic moment, become someone he has never been. But Biden’s larger goal, it seemed, was to start writing Trump out of the American story—to present him as an aberration, or even a kind of nightmarish apparition. “As I said, America’s about honor, decency, respect, tolerance,” Biden repeated. “That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.”
Anyone who knows the first thing about American history knows that this is, at best, a naïve distortion. But the point here is not that America has always been essentially and entirely brutal; the point is that the question of “who we are” is a distraction, a trap, because it suggests a kind of narrative determinism in which speech acts matter, but only when they mean what we want them to mean. When we amass on the National Mall to demand civil rights, this is Who We Are, even if, at the time, the civil-rights movement was deeply unpopular. When we break into the Capitol, planting bombs and wreaking havoc, this is not Who We Are, even if millions of Americans implicitly or explicitly support it. Biden is hardly the first politician to succumb to this form of soft denialism, the lull of the Whiggish fantasy that history can move in only one direction. The plain truth—that “who we are” is a product of the many contingent forces, structural and interpersonal and psychological, that make up our lives—is apparently too terrifying to contemplate.
For more than five years now, a complacent chorus of politicians and talking heads has advised us to ignore Trump’s tweets. They were just words, after all. Twitter is not real life. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but Trump’s lies and insults and white-supremacist propaganda and snarling provocations would never hurt us. It was unthinkable that he could bluff and cajole his way into the Presidency. Once he did that, it was impossible to imagine that he would be able to maintain a loyal following, to implement any significant part of his sadistic agenda, to reshape the Republican Party in his image. Once he did that, it was inconceivable that he would win more votes in a second election, after consigning hundreds of thousands of Americans to preventable deaths, than he won the first time. (In the end, he did win more votes—about ten million more.) In the run-up to the 2020 election, as Trump repeatedly announced his intention to thwart the peaceful transfer of power, I had many conversations with friends who encouraged me to ignore Trump’s bluster. When it came time to leave, he would leave. What else could he do? Tweet about it? Whine on Fox News? Hold another rally? Issue outlandish orders to his generals, on the off chance that they would comply? Yes, I argued, he could do all of those things. The words of a President matter. Trump’s tweets have always been consequential, just as all of our online excrescences are consequential—not because they are always noble or wise or true but for the opposite reason. What we say, online and offline, affects what we believe and what we do—in other words, who we are. Like all autocrats and propagandists, Trump knows that rhetoric is a precursor of action: that only by repeatedly saying the unsayable can he create the conditions in which his loyalists can imagine doing the unimaginable. The myth of narrative determinism is closely related to another myth—that the only adequate response to bad speech is better speech, that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that there is a clear barrier between word and deed. In fact, the barriers between word and deed have never been any more impermeable than the doors separating the lawn of the Capitol from the interior of the Senate chamber.
“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted in December. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Twitter’s administrators appended a note (“This claim about election fraud is disputed”), but they allowed the tweet to stay up—it’s still there, even now—because it was not an overt enough form of incitement to violate Twitter’s rules. Still, as always, Trump’s core fans got the message. Explicitly revolutionary groups formed on Facebook, some of which, such as Red-State Secession, quickly gained thousands of followers on Facebook. On its own site, Red-State Secession posted an image of heavily armed paramilitaries (“Patriots are not afraid to die”) and solicited the home addresses of “our enemies,” including “Congressmen” and “federal judges,” suggesting that some of them might need to be “eliminated.” Facebook later banned Red-State Secession, a step that was both appropriate and inadequate—the equivalent of belatedly sanitizing one room of a hospital while, outside the room, a global pandemic continues to spread.
For decades, Trump has used the media—conservative media, mainstream media, celebrity tabloids, and whoever else would give him a microphone—to burnish his brand, to hawk his wares, and to make the unimaginable, such as a Trump Presidency, start to seem imaginable. For years, he and other autocrats have used Facebook and Twitter to promote their agendas and solidify their power, breaking the platforms’ rules with impunity. “The idea that fake news on Facebook . . . influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea,” Mark Zuckerberg said in November, 2016, two days after Trump was elected. Zuckerberg later rescinded the comment, but it wasn’t a fluke. He and other tech tycoons have long profited from a version of narrative determinism: the fallacious notion that the ever-increasing dominance of social networks could somehow change nearly everything about how we talk, how we shop, how we feel, what we pay attention to, and how we understand the world, all without changing Who We Are.
Facebook may ban more pages now, as it does after every high-profile tragedy. But, like the other major social platforms, Facebook will continue to profit from algorithmic distortion, promoting content that provokes base emotional reactions rather than content that is useful or good or true. A few years ago, the most egregious expressions of online rage could be found anywhere, including Facebook and Twitter and Reddit; now they are more likely to be found on Gab, or on Parler, or on TV. But the basic mechanics of social media remain largely unchanged and fundamentally broken. On Thursday morning, Zuckerberg announced that Trump’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram would be suspended “for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete,” reasoning that “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.” Again, this was the right step taken far too late. If Trump’s disinformation and incitement pose a risk to democracy now, why did they not pose the same risk yesterday, or last year? Both Twitter and Facebook have long suggested that they had no choice but to give President Trump a platform, essentially no matter what he did. It was a matter of newsworthiness, they claimed: the public needed to know what the President was thinking. Wednesday night, Trump’s Twitter account was locked, and the world didn’t seem the worse for it. In the near future, it will seem unfathomably bizarre that one of the world’s most dangerous propagandists was allowed nearly unfettered access to the most powerful communication tools in human history, all out of some misbegotten allegiance to a warped notion of free speech, and that the only thing that could break the spell, in the end, was an attempted coup.
Wednesday night, after the insurrectionists were expelled from the Capitol, Congress resumed its business. “What happened today isn’t what America is,” Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, said. “Violence never wins,” Vice-President Mike Pence said, as if history were not replete with examples of violence and cruelty winning, a great number of which occurred under his watch, with his active complicity. It might be tempting to conclude that our institutions have saved us once again—that the courts protected the will of the electorate, that a few Republican senators returned to their senses, that the center held. This would be like celebrating the survival of a few patients while the pandemic continues to rage around us. We can take stock of our small victories, but we can’t slip into complacency. Unless we fix the structural conditions that brought us to this moment, we won’t fully eradicate the current plague, and we won’t be ready for the next one, which may well be worse.