This is Exactly Who We’ve Always Been

Photo: NBC Washington 4

This week’s been bursting with politicians’ tired takes claiming “this isn’t who we are.” Oh, that cliched phrase of American exceptionalism. It seems to surface monthly at this point, so I wonder: if it must be said so frequently, doesn’t it make the opposite true? This is exactly who we are and who a country founded on imperialism has always been.

As white nationalists stormed the hallowed halls of democracy on Wednesday, an act incited by the president who then hid behind his keyboard, the public worried if we should be working during the coup. And noting the fact that Congress looked eerily similar to school shooting drills, one high schooler wrote me: “Do you think we’ll at least get gun regulation now?” That’s America. In this country, 100 citizens die by guns every single day, our “leaders” stoke angry, racist mobs in exchange for power, and police kill innocent people while letting Neo-Nazis run free. All the while, we watch disingenuous, wealth-hoarding politicians on television tearfully say: “This isn’t us though.” To which I say: you haven’t been paying attention.

As any historian or tech reporter or disinformation analyst knew, America’s always been wrought with groups like that seen in Washington. Like EJ Dickson wrote for Rolling Stone: “This is The United States of QAnon.” The wannabe actor/self-proclaimed “QAnon shaman,” donning fur headdress, war paint, and a smug little smile seems like the apt symbol of white guy entitlement — he knows he can laugh and get away with it. As his cronies waved confederate flags, the portraits in the background were those of men that looked just like them, give or take a swastika tattoo and camo cutoff.

Photo: NBC Washington 4

Still though, people are choosing to compare January 6, 2020 to Haiti’s coup d’etat, or Venezuela’s situation, because it’s not who WE are. Not a democratic breach in the land of the free! Surely it must be a fluke, because that only happens in the third world. We’re not like other girls, we’re different: the classic American ideology.

But comparison only serves to distance us from reality, underplaying extremism and the many forces that led us here. It perpetuates the national fervor of the Mcgraw-Hill textbooks we grew up with, where Columbus was mythologized as a hero and massacres were merely a footnote, if shown at all. America is obsessed with America, and it will do anything to preserve its flag-waving, bootstraps-pulling, better-than-you identity.

So this omnipotent ignorance goes on and on until Congress is finally invaded and proves far right ideology isn’t limited to the confines of the internet. And then America will claim it didn’t know any better. As Dickson wrote, “the real blame lies with not an individual group or person, but with an idea; specifically, the notion that dismissing erroneous beliefs as toothless murmurings in shadowy internet echo chambers does not make them so.”

The “What Radicalized You?” sentiment took social media by storm this year, showing just how whitewashed history has always been; murders and a pandemic seemed to finally put a microscope over systemic racism, broken politics, and inequitable healthcare. Yet this attention was fleeting. Perhaps we need to keep rethinking what inculcated us and challenge America’s myth-making. Our president is not the “leader of the free world,” and even more than that, Donald Trump isn’t truly the cause of this dysfunction; rather he’s a symptom of underlying issues, ones that have been ignored for the sake of the American ego.

Still, what would my American self be if not aspirational? Camus wrote, “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.” Violence, disparity, and corruption — this is our country. But I have to believe it’s not all that we are.

Meghan Gunn is a writer. tweeting @95gunn

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