Are you watching this?” I was crossing the road, five minutes late to pick up the kids, and after reading the text, paused to scroll. Whoa. Instantly, I texted someone else. “Is your TV on?” “No.” “Turn it on.” After pick-up, we ran to a doctor’s appointment, where the receptionist had the TV on behind the desk. “This is insane,” he murmured, as someone in the waiting room read a news report aloud to his teenage daughter. When we got home, a few neighbours had come out of their apartments to mill, masked, in the hallway. “The numbers of people who support this look low, but it doesn’t have to be a majority,” said one, darkly.
The absorption into daily life of disastrous events is one the world has grown used to over the last 12 months, which isn’t to say each new disaster isn’t shocking. This is particularly true in America, where no matter how many times one is reminded that millions of Americans hold opinions that seem, to millions of others, actively insane, their public expression never gets less astounding. When the Trump-supporting mob stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, the most flabbergasting thing was less that it was happening, than that after four years of dire predictions, our imaginations had still failed to prepare us.
This was, partly, a selectivity of memory. “It can’t happen here” is a phrase that, even as it was used in conjunction with darker warnings about Trump, betrayed a bedrock faith in American democracy that overlooks its savage foundations. The white supremacist project, still going strong as an overt tenet of even liberal government policy well into the 20th century – black Americans were largely cut out of the New Deal – should at least have raised as a possibility a white mob storming the government at the behest of a racist president. The fact that they looked, in their costumes and homemade gas masks, so utterly ridiculous wasn’t even out of keeping with precedent: that end of the extra-political spectrum has always gone in for fancy dress and flaming theatrics.
From a processing point of view, what was stranger, on Wednesday, was that an event with the force of a foregone conclusion still broke a fundamental rule of superstition: that by anticipating the worst, we invite the universe to pleasantly surprise us. The word “coup” has been used in relation to Trump plenty of times since November. Prior to the president’s incitement of the mob, however, it was, even in sincere contexts, used if not as hyperbole, then at least with the expectation that by naming it we lessened the likelihood it would happen. You could take Trump seriously as a threat to national security, believe wholly in his efforts to corrupt the election and still not get fully behind the notion he would encourage a power grab – not just because he is lazy, chaotic and a fool, but because, as an extremely broad principle, nothing ever tends to unfold as predicted.
The day still had to be lived through. As with 9/11 and the beginning of the pandemic, the unreality of Wednesday’s events butted up against quotidian matters to make them seem even more bizarre. It is a function of human resilience that no matter what happens, you still, as Sylvia Plath put it in The Bell Jar, have to “eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world”. Many of us ditched the job part of that observation and spent the afternoon trying to dispatch our chores while flipping incredulously between news channels; nonetheless life went on. People from other countries texted. I tried to explain what was going on to my children and didn’t get much further than, “You know how Donald Trump’s a terrible person?”
Once again, the goalposts shifted. With each breach of moral standards, Trump has widened the range of public behaviour that can still be absorbed. His supporters smashed windows and graffitied doors and trashed congressional offices, but they were not an armed militia, which, I caught myself thinking, before turning to analyse the thought in amazement, was something to be grateful for. It could have been worse, as those streaming out of the Capitol building shouted to reporters it would be the next time.
In the hallway outside my apartment, my neighbours and I went over how crazy it was, how we couldn’t believe it, what it all meant and where it would go. “It’s Germany 1933,” said one. And whether or not this was true, we all nodded in agreement, then went back inside our homes to make dinner.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist.