When people are given a cancer diagnosis, they naturally take an inventory of their past behaviors, looking for the roots of the illness.
Was it all those cigarettes I smoked in high school? The diet soda I love? High tension wires? Bad genes?
Even if a cause is found, it doesn’t change the outcome, of course.
But what about the cancer eating at the marrow of our country right now? Some of us are sitting in shock and asking, “How could this ever have happened?” Others, including senators, members of congress and the cabinet, are waking from a deep sleep and trying, too late, to distance themselves. But many others saw this coming.
We certainly saw it writ large from the moment Donald Trump was elected. Everything he did, from the get-go, led inevitably to moral, political and social cancer. From mocking a disabled reporter to telling his acolytes at a rally to “knock the hell out of him, will ya?” we saw those signs early, and as clearly as a shadow on an x-ray. And yet, we chose to ignore them.
But it’s too simplistic to lay this all at Trump’s feet -– feet which are now trying to dodge impeachment, or, what he truly deserves, which is to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment.
If we were paying attention, the symptoms of the disease were right before our eyes, including here in Connecticut.
Last Wednesday, my colleagues and I were sworn in by the Secretary of the State. Because of COVID restrictions, the ceremony was held outside, on the north portico of the State Capitol. Beginning an hour before the swearing-in, a crowd swelled behind a make-shift barrier erected by the Capitol police. Although this crowd did not breach the cordon or storm the Capitol, it was something other than “peaceful,” as it has been described in the press. A mix of anti-vaxxers, COVID-deniers and Trump supporters, with flags held high, they swore at us, jeered and used loud vuvuzela horns to drown out the speakers on the dais. In other words, to disrupt the peaceful business of government.
Several of my colleagues in the House, from the Republican side of the aisle, encouraged the Trump crowd, “high-fived” them, and seemed to take delight in chants of “Creatures of government, go home!” Several did so without masks.
State Houses in Oregon and Georgia have been breached by similar Trump-inspired mobs. What happened there, and in Washington, could easily have happened in Hartford. We simply lucked out.
But just as the roots of insurrection didn’t start “over there,” they also didn’t start last Wednesday. The myth of shared blame needs to be debunked once and for all. There aren’t always “good people on both sides.” There is nothing good or excusable about white supremacy, racism, misogyny, homophobia or hatred of immigrants. From our cities, with the disparate treatment of Black and brown citizens at the hands of the police –- which far too many whites still deny exists -– to our small towns, where citizens rage against one another over racist sports mascots, the cancerous cells begin their deadly division.
We should all be looking back on what we saw coming. We should all be asking what we did to stop it.
When my friend Melissa Schlag, the former Haddam selectwoman who died recently of breast cancer, took a knee in 2018 to protest Trump’s treasonous behavior in Helsinki, her fellow Republican town officials decried her as the traitor. The news was picked up as far away as Russia. Melissa, a civil servant and dedicated environmentalist, faced numerous death threats for her crime of defending the U.S. Constitution. She was a long-suffering canary in the coalmine.
Is it finally time to revisit those early warning signs we chose to ignore? Are we ready to diagnose ourselves for the societal ills that culminated in the insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, which took lives, endangered our Congressional delegation, and threatened to replace our fragile democracy with a coup led by Trump’s minions pumped up on the steroid of his populist, ill-informed demagoguery?
What did those who flew both Trump flags and “Back the Blue” flags think and feel when they saw those same flags used as weapons against the Capitol police? (Not to mention the American flag dragged disrespectfully along the Capitol corridor floors.)
How do those who are tired of hearing about “white male privilege” explain videos showing the entirely white, largely male, rioters lounging in D.C. hotel lobbies after the riot instead of lying in the street gasping for air with a police officer’s boot on their necks?
And do those Republicans who did not support Trump but remained silent regret their complicity? We can still count on one hand the Connecticut Republicans who had the mettle to forswear his vitriol. Think of how powerful their early, unified denouncement would have been and what a difference it might have made.
And are my fellow Democrats ready to be bolder? To take action to break up systemic inequities that allow demagogues like Trump to have such widespread appeal?
Yes, it’s embarrassing to acknowledge when we are gullible, and it’s hard to un-paint the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. But if ever there were a time to come clean, this is it. While cancer of the body can’t be undone by a promise to reform bad habits, cancer of the body politic can. But it takes the courage, and the humility, to look hard at those sinister shadows on our individual souls and collective psyche.
Christine Palm is State Representative for the 36th General Assembly District covering Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam.