Capitol riot rattled him, but Yoni Applebaum is more worried about 2024

Publication Date12 January 2021
Date12 January 2021
This week, Hartman's president, Yehuda Kurtzer, spoke with Yoni Appelbaum, the Atlantic's Ideas editor, who also taught history and literature at Harvard University, Babson College and at Brandeis University, where he received his Ph.D. in American history.

This conversation was recorded on Jan. 7, 2021, the day after a pro-Trump mob displaying various far-right and neo-Nazi symbols stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Yehuda Kurtzer: We're recording the day after quite a bit of drama taking place here in America around what should have been a pro forma process of the confirmation of the electoral college vote in Congress, [became] something of an inept coup attempt in Washington.

Today I'm joined by a friend and colleague, Yoni Appelbaum, the ideas editor at the Atlantic. Yoni, thanks for joining me today on this momentous moment. We knew something was going to be going on in Washington, and in America, around the time of the kind of pre-inauguration.

I don't think we quite anticipated how dramatic and timely this conversation would be. So first, thanks for being here. And how are you? How's your family? I know you live in Washington. How's the mood around you?

Yoni Appelbaum: Tense and watchful. I thankfully live distantly enough from Capitol Hill that I was not directly exposed to the events yesterday, although I have many colleagues who were there in person.

I think that this is a city that is on edge, that did not expect — perhaps should have expected, but did not expect what unfolded yesterday and, and is a little uncertain about what will enfold today, but the streets are relatively calm and some degree of order is being restored.

Tell me a little bit about just what the last 24 hours have looked like and felt like for you. What has the climate felt like for you?

I think we should all step back for a second and remember that this is supposed to be a very boring period in American politics.

We elected a new president back in November, that became clear within about a week of the election. We've gone through an extended period of the loser being unwilling to accept his loss, mounting a series of sort of fantastical legal challenges that have been laughed out of court, including by many judges whom he appointed.

And we arrive now at one of the sort of strange and oddly formal rituals of our democracy: on Jan. 6, these ballots, that have been cast by electors in various state capitals, arrive at the United States Capitol, are sent on by the National Archives, which receives them, and they are counted.

The purpose of this ritual — and it's the ritual steeped in a couple of hundred years of history — is that you wanted to be sure that that the ones that are arriving at the Capitol were in fact the right ones, because you wanted to be sure they hadn't been swapped in the mail, so to speak, that whatever certificate was there was signed by the people who were supposed to sign it, that it had the correct numbers on it. It's a verification procedure. It was intended to ensure that we are counting the right electoral votes.

It is a formality, it is a ritual. It is not a point of debate or contestation. It's not a moment to decide whether or not the states had counted their ballots correctly. It can be a moment, if there are multiple contested slates of electors coming from a single state, to decide which one to honor, but that's not the case this year. And so this ought to have been an extraordinarily boring day in the nation's capitol.

Instead, I woke up and first watched the president of the United States — having summoned thousands of supporters from across the country by lying to them about what was taking place and what had taken place — rouse their passions and their furies, deliberately incite a crowd of people who were already on edge, who already had been lied to by the president and told that evil forces were subverting democracy, stealing a victory from out of his grasp.

And then he turned and retreated to the White House after having encouraged that mob to go pressure Congress. And the mob went and pressured Congress exactly as he had asked them to do and burst through the lines of police, who clearly were not expecting them to do this, who were prepared for a handful of agitators, but not a vast crowd bent on violence.

They came into the halls of the Capitol building, which is somewhat labyrinthine; there are a wide variety of entrances to that complex, it is difficult to secure.

The ordinary working people, the staff of the United States Capitol, are friendly and polite. As I walk in and out of that building, I get to know some of them.

I really want to emphasize this: they're not privileged elites. They're ordinary workers who mop the floors and secure the doors. That's whose lives were most at risk yesterday in the violence. And they had no reason to have feared it.

And that was what we were left scrambling to unpack. How we had come to this, the nation that likes to brag it is one of the world's oldest democracies, watching as a violent mob attacked the seat of government in order to disrupt the orderly transition of power. It's something that we have rarely seen before.

I live on a battlefield; 150 years ago, there was a battle in my neighborhood as a Confederate army came as close as any Confederates came during the Civil War before being turned away. Abraham Lincoln came up here and watched that battle. It was a near won thing, but, in fact, the Confederates were turned away from the Capitol.

Yesterday, they were not. There were Confederate battle flags flapping over the shoulders of some of these riders as they walked through the Capitol. That was not a sign I thought I would ever see.

I want to talk about an essay that you wrote that read kind of like prophecy as I was reading it again yesterday. It's titled "How America Ends," from the Atlantic in December of 2019.

For so much over the last few months, there's been a kind of scoffing at the unseriousness of the president's claims contesting the election. Yesterday demonstrates that it is a far more serious threat to American democracy than the skeptics claimed.

This has kind of been part of the Trump presidency all along. The kind of, "'we take him literally, but not seriously' or 'seriously, but not literally,'" depending on who you are.

I've sensed politically a kind of, "let's hold our breath, get to Jan. 20, and of course, he's going to leave quietly."

I don't know what to think now. Do you think that this marks a turning point about how serious and vigilant we have to be for the next two weeks? Or do you think this marks the kind of final release of that frustration, and now we can kind of quietly wait the next couple of weeks out?

So one of the crimes, which I will one day have to atone for, is having written the headline "Taking Trump seriously, not literally."

I am guilty here. And there's two halves to the formulation.

The point of the article, written by a journalist named Salena Zito, was that Trump supporters don't take him literally — they don't always assume that he literally means what he says — but they take them extremely seriously.

And I think that the second half of it sometimes falls out of the conversation. Trump is remarkably direct about his intentions, although he is remarkably plastic about his means.

Trump is remarkably direct about his intentions, although he is remarkably plastic about his means.

He has said from the beginning that he intends to win the election by any means necessary; that he does not regard his loss as legitimate, would not regard any loss as legitimate. And we all ought to have been taking him extremely seriously about that even though when he says legislatures will throw out these votes, perhaps that is not literally the mechanism that he will use.

And so I think that we remain in an extremely...

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