Remembering a modern day of infamy

January 5th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of one of the most horrific days in American history — the storming of the U.S. Capitol during an insurrection instigated by Donald Trump in a treasonous attempt to remain in power despite losing the 2020 presidential election by about seven million votes.

Like the September 11th attack in 2001, most of us were glued to our television screens as a riotous mob desecrated the building whose design President George Washington had commended for its “grandeur, simplicity and convenience,” on April 5, 1793. Five months later, Washington laid the cornerstone, with Masonic ceremonies. Since then, the  building has been built, burnt, rebuilt, extended and restored.

The Capitol’s construction was laborious and time-consuming: the sandstone used for it had to be ferried on boats from quarries in Virginia; funding for its construction was inadequate; and workers had to be persuaded to leave their homes to come to the relative wilderness of Capitol Hill with its mosquito-infested, malaria-producing, summertime tropical heat.

Over the next seven years, the entire work effort was concentrated on the building’s north wing, so at least it could be ready for government occupancy as scheduled in 1800. At the end of that year, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the courts of the District of Columbia took up residence in the brand new U.S. Capitol. The circle was closed in November of that year when John and Abigail Adams began living in the not-yet-completed White House.

In 1851, Congress, realizing it was outgrowing the Capitol, decided to enlarge it. Under the direction of Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, workers began a 14-year project to renovate the existing building and begin construction of the northeast corner of the House wing. The original sandstone had weathered badly, so Walter replaced it with marble, quarried from Lee, Massachusetts, 12 miles west of where I sit writing this panegyric to the center of our government.

Momentous events have happened beneath the Capitol’s dome, good laws, bad laws, triumphs, and  tragedies. Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in the center of the Capitol’s Rotunda after his assassination in April, 1865. He was the first to be so honored. Since then, 12 Commanders in Chief have done the same.

And three years ago, a rabid mob of insurrectionists broke its way into this hallowed symbol of America to defile and ravage it. They went looking for Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. If they had found either, God knows what would have happened. Republican Senators and Representatives, many of whom seem to have forgotten the profanity of the event, ran for their lives, hid under chairs, and blockaded doors.

Nine people eventually died because of what happened that day. Since then, the federal justice system has completed more than 725 prosecutions and in excess of 450 people have gone to prison for what they did, nearly 200 of them saying they did it because Donald Trump told them to.

And yet, although all of us watched the horror unfold while the mob violently assaulted heroic Capitol Police and built an actual gallows just outside the building, Donald Trump has continued spewing the lies that led to the terror in the first place. And the vulnerable among us have listened and believed.

A new  Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, released this week, should concern all of us. In the poll, twenty-five percent of Americans say it is “probably” or “definitely” true that the FBI instigated the January 6th attack on the Capitol. This, of course, is false. It is a lie promoted by Trump, his sycophants, and fawning right-wing media. The Department of Justice, law enforcement around the nation, and Trump’s own advisors, like former Attorney General William Barr, have repeatedly debunked and proven the claim wrong.

And yet, they believe.

It should be obvious to everyone that Donald Trump’s MAGA supporters will never change their minds about any of this. Any facts, any empirical evidence will be taken as false. Facts are only facts if they are the “facts” that conform to their ideology. This is terrifying.

Perhaps it is fitting to end this Letter from the Berkshires with the words John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in 1800 at the end of his first day residing in the yet-to-be-completed new White House. Franklin Roosevelt had the words engraved onto the mantel of the White House State Dining Room in 1945. Adams wrote, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” 

Adams would have wept at the thought of a Donald Trump ever ruling “under this roof.”