By Charles P. Pierce:
WASHINGTON—The optics were very, very bad. Once again, an unruly gang of humans was milling around in the Rotunda of the Capitol, shooting selfies of themselves in front of the statue and trying to get the mural on the top of the dome into focus on their telephones. These were well-dressed humans, not a buffalo-head among them, no facepaint, no improvised javelins, but no less ridiculous in their purpose.
Earlier this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gotten serious about the country’s relapse into the pandemic. She sent out a message saying that members of the House would have to be masked on pain of a $500 fine. She also said that the Capitol Police would arrest any unmasked visitors. A spectacular outbreak of performative horror broke out. And a group of Republicans gathered and “marched” on the Senate, pausing briefly to gather themselves in the Rotunda before moving on down the hallway to where some like-minded senators were overcooking some rhetoric to serve up to them.
It was a strange place to be, much stranger than it was before January 6. The damage was repaired, but the wildness of the fringe politics unleashed still clings to everything and everyone. There’s still a dark vibration in the air. I don’t find the place familiar at all.
TO-NIGHT I have been wandering awhile in the capitol, which is all lit up. The illuminated rotunda looks fine. I like to stand aside and look a long, long while, up at the dome; it comforts me somehow. The House and Senate were both in session till very late. I look’d in upon them, but only a few moments; they were hard at work on tax and appropriation bills. I wander’d through the long and rich corridors and apartments under the Senate; an old habit of mine, former winters, and now more satisfaction than ever. Not many persons down there, occasionally a fitting figure in the distance.
I hadn’t been back in the Capitol since the first impeachment trial of the former president*. There were the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primaries, and Super Tuesday, and then 18 months of quarantine, where I watched the passing parade in a rocking chair in my living room. I saw Joe Biden get elected. And then I watched in horror on January 6, when a mob incited by the defeated president* and full to its gills on the foul bile of four decades of conservative Republican politics broke down doors with which I was familiar, and shattered windows out of which I have watched thunderstorms roll in from a distance, and stormed through corridors in which I know every bust, statue, and mural. I knew that there were friends of mine barricaded in their offices.
It feels now like a wounded place, less solid and yes, Walt, less comforting than it used to be. The wildness that drove the mob is still a living presence in the place. It is carried like a virus by Republican members of Congress who don’t seem to understand that the job deserves any gravitas at all. And why should they? All of them are the products of a conservative intellectual terrarium in which the fundamental building block of political life is a disrespect for government and a contempt for public service.
The House Republican mask protest was not a high point for this famous old building.
So we get scenes like we had last Thursday, when one clutch of nuisances tried to “inspect” a facility where January 6 detainees are being held, another one gathered on the steps of the Capitol to demand that Nancy Pelosi be removed as Speaker of the House, and then the Bad Optics gathering in the Rotunda in which a large group of Republican congresscritters milled around as though looking for their own personal buffalo-head guy. And then some of them “marched” into the Senate, where they were fluffed and entertained by some of the most gruesomely fulsome rhetoric in the history of political speech. With Rep. Paul (Snakes On Everything) Gosar staring blankly behind him, Senator Mike Lee kicked things off with great billows of perfumed nonsense.
“Mr. President, the word ‘republic’ means ‘public thing’ in Latin.”
Beware of oratory that begins this way, the same hoary device you’ll find in thousands of graduation speeches that begin, “We call it commencement because it is a beginning.” Beware it as much as you might beware any text that begins with the phrase, “According to the Oxford English Dictionary…” As night follows day, fatuous gobbledegook is bound to ensue. Lee continued:
You see, the only way a republic can possibly function now or 250 years ago or 250 years from now is that it always has to follow a somewhat similar formula. The only way it can function is when citizens and leaders are gracious to those with whom they disagree and grant the freedom necessary to allow others to make choices, even if those choices might be things that they disagree with. We have witnessed the degradation of American political discourse for some time now. It has been a sad, tragic reality unfolding, but it is not an inexorable conclusion. It is not one from which we cannot depart. But we must make a choice to do better and to choose a better path.
Lee was followed by Senator Martha Blackburn of Tennessee, who also invoked the spirit of the Founders, who must’ve gathered in the Beyond to wonder what this person was talking about.
So let’s call it what it is. This is left-wing hysteria. This is hysteria. Frighten people. Make them think a lockdown is coming. Make them think things are worse than what they are. No. This is the United States of America. We do not lock up people we disagree with. We don’t push forward with this type of activity. We don’t silence our opponents. We believe in free speech. We believe in individuals being able to make their choices.
And where would such an event be without the stylings of Tailgunner Ted Cruz?
And you simply couldn’t have this kind of party without Senator Ted Cruz, who began his hour upon the stage by quoting Lord Acton. This is another dead giveaway that a large front of hot air is about to roll in.
But you know what? She is not done with that. She is not done with disrespecting our Constitution, disrespecting our democratic system that elects leaders. She goes further, to the good men and women who work here in the U.S. Capitol. We are surrounded by men and women who have chosen to come and work for the public good, and here is what Speaker Pelosi has decreed: If you dare walk in the hallway without a mask, I, Speaker Pelosi, will arrest you. I will put you in jail. I will fine you. That is an absolute and complete abuse of power. She has no authority to disrespect the men and women who work here, to threaten you with physical harm, to threaten you with imprisonment.
Wait, you thought. This is about masks? This is what the weird gathering in the rotunda was about? This is the object of all these highfalutin’ citations from various dead white people? This prompted all the fustian and bunkum in the Senate about freedom and civility and what Lord Acton would have said about all of it? This was about masks? Given the imbalance of rhetoric to issue, this was like hiring an 18-wheeler to move your toaster.
There’s only a difference in volume between senators who think a face mask is a threat to First Amendment guarantees—that was a point Senator Blackburn made, and none of the rest of them batted an eye—and a guy with bear spray who thinks he’s Thomas Paine. It’s the same weird variety of mental Founders cosplay wherein people pretend you can have a republic without a functioning republican government. What Nancy Pelosi did was well within her powers as Speaker of the House because that’s how representative government works in this republic. People get elected and then the people who are elected select their leaders. And those leaders can make the rules for the institution they lead. None of this is remarkable, except in the context of what is still lingering there in the halls of the Capitol, like the smell of wet, burned wood after a bad fire. Suddenly, the wildness has made the Capitol a different place, more fragile and less sure of itself, less of a comfort than a place needing comforting.