The latest presentation by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol reminded me of that sequence. We thought we were braced for the reality of a rampaging mob baying for blood as the president urged them on. After all, we knew in real time that Donald Trump spun up the angry crowd with his unfounded claims of a stolen election, then went silent for hours apart from a tweet inciting hatred of his vice president, Mike Pence.
Frantic Secret Service radio traffic show how close Pence was to danger
But I, for one, wasn’t prepared to learn that Secret Service officers assigned to protect Pence were urgently contacting loved ones to say goodbye forever as the rioters closed in. I’ve seen a lot of Secret Service agents, and they don’t seem like the panicky type. These communications were monitored and noted by White House staff. Informed that an armed mob was chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” the president did not express concern.
We say: Give it to me straight, doc, but then a flagstaff comes crashing down between our eyes. Only then, only in retrospect, do we see how habitually optimistic Americans are.
We think “straight” news will most likely have a silver lining. Yes, it’s cancer — but there’s a promising treatment. It’s multiple sclerosis — but researchers are making strides. The Jan. 6 committee told us straight that the president sat mesmerized in front of his television set as the Capitol was being defaced, the Secret Service terrorized, the vice president menaced, the Capitol police battered — and all because Trump’s insatiable narcissism would not allow him to spit out the words “the election is over.”
At the lowest moment in the history of the presidency, there was no silver lining.
There was, however, a clue to the pathology of this disease. A witness at the Thursday hearing, Sarah Matthews, described the hours in which she realized that her decency and self-respect would no longer permit her to work in Trump’s press office. She had the foresight to see that someone would be called to account for the president’s outrageous conduct — and it wouldn’t be him, because it never is. She would not defend the indefensible.
Before she reached that pass, Matthews joined the small army of West Wingers trying to coax the president into calling off the mob. And a press office colleague (whom she was too kind to name) said no — that having incited the riot, Trump could not end it without giving “a win to the media.”
Such thinking is plainly deranged. A leader doesn’t lose by doing the right thing, or win by doubling down on a wrong decision. But the thought pattern did not come from nowhere. Every president I’ve covered has felt wronged by the media, sometimes with good reason. In the Trump era, this sometimes adversarial relationship hardened into something like a win-lose competition.
Excesses and recklessness on the part of many media outlets — I am thinking foremost of the credulous and prurient coverage of unsubstantiated rumors in the Steele dossier — would have been more widely condemned had they not targeted the egregious Trump. And Trump’s convenient recourse to his “fake news” fortress would have rung more hollow had the news been more scrupulous.
President vs. press became a sick symbiosis, providing both sides with a business model and a plot line. Power and purpose. Millions of Americans were drawn into the melodrama, feeling compelled to choose sides. Many media outlets reached unprecedented audiences, while Trump achieved a degree of devotion rarely seen (thank god) in U.S. politics.
Frequently lost in the smoke of battle was a humane understanding that neither a failed president nor a discredited press is in the best interests of the nation.
That unnamed press aide accurately diagnosed America’s cancer. We can’t be rid of Trump no matter how bluntly and overwhelmingly the corruption of Jan. 6 is revealed. Too many of his followers will never give the other side that “win.” I recently noticed a new sticker on a pickup truck: “Trump 2024 / [F—] Your Feelings.” There’s the battle boiled down to its nihilistic essence, nothing positive, only contempt for The Other.
Yet an end of Trumpism must surely come, because what happened Jan. 6 was desperately sick. The nation must then choose whether we end in the death of goodwill, or in healing.