Washington: A Love Story
How Republican lies are killing the city I once loved.
1. The Capitol
I’d like to tell you a story.
I took my first grown-up, unsupervised trip to Washington in the spring of 1996. I was a college senior in Baltimore and during the pause before finals, a group of friends and I decided to drive down to D.C. for the night.
It was my birthday. We went someplace for dinner that seemed quite fancy, but was probably Hamburger Hamlet. Then we bought cigars and went over to the Capitol. We parked right by the building and walked up the steps on the West side and just hung out, smoking cigars, looking at the city, and imagining what it would be like to stake a claim in this place as real adults.
In January of 1997, I moved here. I drank in everything the city had to offer. A couple nights a week I’d take a book and spend two or three hours reading on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or one of the benches inside the Jefferson Memorial. From my apartment it was maybe a five-minute drive. Parking was easy, even during tourist season.
About one Saturday a month I’d go to the main reading room at the Library of Congress, which, if you’ve never been there, is one of Washington’s hidden jewels.
I was making $18,000 a year answering phones and sorting mail at a tiny political magazine no one back home in New Jersey had ever heard of. I lived in a shoebox apartment and ate PB&J and frozen pizzas and felt like the richest man in the world because Washington was my sitting room.
My favorite of these rituals, though, were nighttime trips to the Capitol.
Some nights I’d go with friends. Some nights I’d go by myself. I almost always brought a cigar.
I’d visit with the Ulysses Grant Memorial, which might be the best piece of sculpture in the city. I’d walk around the Capitol Reflecting Pool (a lot of people don’t know there are two large reflecting pools on the Mall). In the end, I always wound up on the steps. Usually on the House side.
I’d sit in the quiet—or chatting with a friend—puffing on a Macanudo Churchill and looking out over the city. Straight ahead would be Jefferson and Madison Drives. Off to the right, like a river, was Pennsylvania Avenue.
Just about every night I’d wind up talking with someone from the Capitol Police. They were always present, making the rounds. They would chat in that friendly but professional way designed to figure out if I was a drunk or a punk, and once they realized I was just some random romantic, they’d leave me alone. Except on the occasions when they’d stay and talk for a bit. Because a lot of guys on the Capitol Police force were romantics about Washington, too. They understood that they weren’t manning a speed trap or guarding a Walmart. Being part of the Capitol Police was a sacred duty. In the realist sense of the term.
I always brought a couple extra cigars, just in case. And more than once, on a slow night, one of the officers would take me up on it and smoke a stogie with me and drink in this magnificent idea that we were both so privileged to be part of.
So this story, yesterday, was a dagger.
2. You Cannot Harden a Free Society
I understand the impulse to harden the Capitol. There is a faction in law enforcement that has slowly been trying to harden Washington against attack for decades. Before Trump. Before 9/11.
Over time, the people who subscribe to this school of thought have slowly turned the ratchet. They shut down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. You can no longer park at the Jefferson Memorial. Drive around Washington and you’ll see a proliferation of gigantic concrete flower pots spaced in odd ways. That’s all part of the modern D.C. security regime. Just about every agency in town is desperate to move out of the city so that it can have its own “campus.” In the name of security.
As I said, I understand that impulse.
But on the other hand, you cannot harden a free society. If you put fences around the Capitol, then people who want to attack our democracy will hit the National Archives or the Supreme Court. Or the Library of Congress. Or their state capitol buildings. Or their local courthouse. Or the Mall of America. Or a Little League game.
It’s not that the idea of security is hopeless. But you have to be able to strike a balance. You have to be able to find a way to say, “Okay, this place isn’t Fort Knox, but it’s secure enough.” Because if you don’t approach security that way, then eventually you’re on the path to turning everything into Fort Knox and it’s just a matter of prioritization.
The lockdown of the Capitol makes me sad.
I’ve been drifting away from my love affair with Washington for a long time. I got married. I had kids. I moved to the suburbs and no longer had time to spend my nights reading books on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, even if I had still lived five minutes away.
Washington changed. Cities are always changing, but the pace of Washington’s transformation in the early ’00s was fast and the direction was not great. The city simultaneously became both more glamorous and less interesting. The intellectual energy began to dissipate, replaced by the same sort of naked rapaciousness for status and money that you see in Manhattan.
So over the last decade or so, Washington was like a lover I’d lost touch with, a romance from a different part of my life. And when you see something you once loved have something terrible happen to it, it makes you sad. Even if that thing is no longer the thing you once loved.
But it also makes me angry. And I want to explain why:
Our government has two ways to make the Capitol more secure.
The first is to explain to Americans that Joe Biden is the fairly elected president of the United States. That his victory was quite large. That the former president and many of his enablers lied about the outcome of the election.
In so doing, this would leach the poison out of our political life and remove the impetus for mobs to attack the Capitol.
The second option is to put fences and razor wire around the Capitol to discourage people whose minds have been poisoned from attacking it again.
Faced with these alternatives, our government chose the latter.
The Republican party did this.
And they would rather perpetuate this lie than try to explain to their voters what the truth is. Because the lie brings them nearer to power and the truth would repel the people they most need to vote for them.
Even if the price is insurrection. Even if the lie costs people their lives. Even if it means turning our Capitol into Fort Knox.
Because Republicans would rather lose freedom than tell the truth.
I’ve never seen anything like this in American politics.
And in addition to the sadness and the anger, there’s worry. Because a politics based on a lie cannot produce anything good. It’s simply not possible. It’s the fruit of the poison tree.
While this poison belongs to Republicans, it affects us all. It trickles into our polity, warping minds and blackening hearts. It changes the world—even the physical world—around us.
The fences and razor wire at the Capitol are the physical manifestation of the Republican lie. Every time you see them, remember Kevin McCarthy and Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Andy Biggs and the hundreds of elected Republicans across the country who created this lie.
Remember their cowardice. Do not let anyone forget their dishonor. And fight to fix what they have broken.
That’s what we’re doing here at The Bulwark. We’re fighting to fix what these cowards and fools and evildoers have broken. Come with us.
3. Proud Boys
A deep dive from the Guardian on how Trump and the Proud Boys found each other.
In March 2018, on a cold, grey Monday afternoon in East Lansing, Michigan, about 500 militant antifascists gathered in a car park with the intention of stopping Richard Spencer, the high-profile white nationalist, from speaking at Michigan State University (MSU). Spencer had not been asked to come by any student group on campus, but had instead invited himself. After the university denied his initial request to speak a few months earlier, Spencer sued. As part of the settlement agreement, Spencer agreed to speak in the middle of spring break at the MSU Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, a venue more than a mile away from the main campus.
There in the parking lot, the antifascists kept one another warm, dancing to hardcore and hip-hop played over a wheeled-in guitar amplifier, sharing cigarettes and news from elsewhere. Some people talked about the leaked chat logs of the fascist gang Patriot Front, members of which were on their way to campus that very moment. Others discussed the arraignment of one of Spencer’s followers the night before on weapons charges after he pulled a gun on protesters. About 40 police officers in riot gear huddled at the far end of the car park. Bike cops on patrol swirled by. . . .
The day wore on and the light grew harsher. Rumours surged that police planned to deploy a water cannon in the freezing weather. Armoured trucks idled nearby. A caravan of cars and trucks crawled up the road, stopping at a police barricade before inching back. Minutes later, a band of about 50 fascists came marching in a tight column led by Traditionalist Worker party (TWP) chair Matthew Heimbach – his tall, heavyset figure recognisable from a distance – and Spencer’s right-hand man, Gregory Conte. They were here. There was a brief pause as the column came up against the amassed antifascists, who swarmed past the barricades to meet it.
Scuffles broke out, and then a brawl. Spencer was nowhere to be seen. Police intervened sporadically, mostly at the periphery, pulling combatants off those who fell. . . .
The sense of absurdity receded as soon as I looked into the fascists’ eyes, dull with hatred and fear, or listened to their racial slurs and sieg heils, or when I saw, amid it all, Heimbach’s delighted smile. You could read in it all the smug arrogance of a man who believes himself untouchable, his victory inevitable, and history his judge – only faltering once, at the sight of some brass knuckles heading his way.
We didn’t know it then, but looking back to that day, it seems clear that Heimbach and Spencer had already reached the height of their influence. Owing to a combination of relentless antifascist organising and their own hubris, both would soon withdraw to the margins of the movement they had, for a time, led. In time, new leaders would step into their place, experimenting with new tactics.