Watching the events unfold in the Capitol Building in the USA several weeks ago was a troubling and depressing experience, not only because of the lives lost but also because the riot seemed so pointless and destructive. It appears that many of the rioters did not fully calculate what their harmful behavior was going to achieve and what their actions were going to do to their victims, to American society, or even to themselves and their families. So why did they do it? What were they hoping to gain?
While there appear to be many reasons why some people illegally entered the Capitol Building (such as being caught up in the moment or looking for attention), many believed they were stopping the certification of an illegal election. According to interviews conducted with some of the insurgents who entered the Capitol Building, they were expressing their rage over a perceived injustice that they believe was foisted upon them. One of the rioters stated in an interview about why he stormed the Capitol Building, “I am here to protest this corruption. We want to stop the steal. We want a free election. We want Donald Trump in office. ….We want to be heard. That’s all we want to do is be heard. Nobody wants to listen.”[i] Similarly, another rioter declared, “What are we supposed to do, OK? Supreme Court is not helping us! No one is helping us! Only us can help us! Only we can do it!”[ii]
However, while they believed they were addressing an injustice, the rioters expressed their grievances unlawfully by rampaging violently instead of protesting peacefully. How did they arrive at a place mentally where they could ever justify injurious and unlawful actions such as striking and killing police, breaking windows, chanting a desire to hang the Vice-President, defacing the offices of the Congress, and intimidating the Congress of the USA? Why were they vulnerable to the direction of those among them who used bullhorns to guide them to attack a federal building?
A straightforward and justifiable answer is that Trump and his supporters lied to the rioters about the election being stolen and then encouraged them to take back the election by a show of force. As many of the insurgents later said in interviews, they believed they were simply obeying their leader in attempting to start a revolution. Given the overwhelming evidence of an attempted coup, Trump and his cronies undoubtedly need to be held accountable for their role in instigating the riot. Yet, stopping at that point will not solve the massive political, economic, and social divisions that exist in the current American cultural landscape. As many political commentators have noted, Trumpism is not the disease but rather a symptom of a malady that has taken root in the American soul. [iii]
Instead of trusting their leaders and key institutions, many Americans have developed a profound distrust of authorities. There is a deep sense of a betrayal that permeates the society in the USA, causing conspiracy theories to proliferate as people look everywhere for something to believe in and someone they can trust. Psychologists teach us that humans need to be able to trust, and so people who have been betrayed are vulnerable to unhealthy avenues of trust when normal avenues fail them.[iv] In such a context, a rogue leader, mouthing words of love to his followers and demanding blind trust in return, fills a political void that is created when established leadership fails.
Some Americans are vulnerable to a demagogue like Trump because the context for radicalization is now in place in the USA. How did American society get this way? An examination of historical evidence over the last forty years reveals that established political authorities in both parties gradually lost the trust of the American people due to a series of detrimental decisions, which the leaders have neither fully admitted nor even partially rectified. For example, it was the Republican Party under Reagan in the 80s that promoted trickle-down economics that has devastated the lower and middle classes, shifting money away from social services, health care, and infrastructure, thereby causing wealth inequality. Moreover, it was the Republican Party under Bush in the 2000s that started an unjust war with Iraq, causing the unnecessary deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, ultimately leading to the destabilization of the Middle East and the implementation of a draconian security system in America. Clearly, the American people have been misled by key leaders in the Republican Party.
What about the Democratic Party? Is it trustworthy? Isn’t this the party of the average worker? It used to be, but as Thomas Frank has amply demonstrated in his writings,[v] the Democratic Party began to shift away from the working class in the 70s, and ultimately made a clean break under Clinton’s presidency in the 90s when he signed NAFTA, a trade alliance which led to the enormous loss of good paying jobs. Moreover, it was the Democratic Party during the Obama administration that refused to hold the financial institutions accountable for the financial collapse in 2008 which happened toward the end of the Bush administration. While major financial institutions that caused the crisis were bailed out, millions of Americans lost their homes. Moreover, the bankers who stole millions of dollars were not arrested, but rather they were allowed to award themselves outrageous bonuses from the taxpayer bailout. Clearly, the American people have been let down by key leaders in the Democratic Party.
If leaders of any nation refuse to tell the truth and acknowledge past mistakes that have caused suffering for the people they are supposed to serve, then they should not be surprised when the people of their nation are vulnerable to rogues who come from outside the established political system. The issue of a lack of trust between leaders and the people is not just an American issue. It is one that troubles many nations including Israel. The important question is: what can be done about this dilemma? How can a relationship of trust be developed between the leaders of a nation and its people after it has been broken?
If leaders really want to bring healing to the nation and create a relationship of trust, they can begin by asking themselves two key questions. First, what is the standard that they are holding themselves to? And second, are they meeting their own standard? Given that American politicians like to conclude their speeches with “G-d bless America”, it appears as though they are appealing to a Divine standard. Yet, many of their actual policy choices indicate they are basing their decisions not on Scripture or an established religious tradition that would lead to the benefit of others. Rather, it appears their decisions reflect the need to satisfy their political donors who want to pay little in taxes, thereby decreasing funds that could have been used to feed the hungry, to create housing for the homeless, and to provide medical supplies for nurses and doctors fighting the Coronavirus.
If the American leaders genuinely believe in a Creator who made all of humanity, then they need to repent from the illicit actions they have undertaken, supported, and/or ignored which have harmed humanity. They need to repent from sending soldiers to die in unjust wars, repent from torturing prisoners of war, repent from bombing poor countries whose government they want to control, repent from protecting bankers from jail sentences when they steal millions of dollars, repent from promoting policies that cause wealth to accumulate in the hands of a few while other people are living on the street, repent from violating the rights of minorities, and repent from defending companies that are damaging the environment. The list goes on and on.
By encouraging repentance, I am not calling for a soft statement of “being sorry” if someone is offended by an action or weak contrition with no real change. Rather, true repentance involves three interrelated steps, including: 1) admitting that a harmful action was done; 2) committing to never doing that action again; and 3) doing whatever is possible to undo the harm, including resigning from positions of power and allowing new leadership to take over. Repentance is an intentional act, which many religions of the world necessitate. For example, when I do my daily morning devotion, I recite the following prayer from the Jewish Prayer book called The Siddur: “Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service, and influence us to return in perfect repentance before You. Blessed are You, HASHEM, Who desires repentance.”[vi] Notice that there is an appeal to G-d to aid in this process of turning away from the wrong path and returning to the standard for right behavior (the Torah) and to the right path (service to G-d).
If a leader honestly believes in G-d, then he or she should seek the common good of all not just the twisted benefit of a wealthy few. If they ever want to be trusted again, American leaders need to stop paying lip service to the Divine order while worshipping at the altar of greed. Instead of constantly declaring “G-d bless America” in an authoritative voice at the end of their speeches (as though they can condescendingly command G-d’s presence), they need to humble themselves, and with a whispered voice, ask reverently if perhaps G-d might be willing to bless the nation. It would be better not to evoke G-d at all than arrogantly pronounce a heavenly blessing for unholy purposes.
When I watched the inauguration events last week and I heard President Biden’s comments about the need for honesty, decency, and humility, I was impressed by his sincerity. He indicated that he knew he would make mistakes and that he would be accountable for any errors he and his administration might make. Based on everything I have heard and read about him, he seems to be a good man who wants to do the right thing. Yet, as I am sure he knows, it will not be enough for him to be accountable only for what happens on his watch. If America is going to avoid a repeat of what occurred over the last four years, he will need to acknowledge the egregious injustices of the past, thereby creating a new context for trust between the government and the people. There must be a time of repentance in which past governmental sins are addressed. If that does not occur, then the context for radicalization in America will remain, and as many political commentators are warning, a new rogue leader will arise in the next four years, one who will be much smarter and more calculating than Trump. I hope and pray that cruel day never comes.
[iii] E.g., Jeff Schweitzer. 2017. “Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease.” HuffPost. Com (Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease | HuffPost), and Chris Hedges. 2017. “Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease.” TruthDig.com [Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease (truthdig.com)].
[v] Frank has written extensively on this issue for many years, including his book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People (2016. Metropolitan Books).
[vi] Rabbi Nosson Scherman. 1990. The Complete ArtsScroll Siddur. Mesorah Publications. Pg. 103.