The story of the Capitol riot is being rewritten before our very eyes
On Nov. 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald murdered the president of the United States. There are a lot of questions about what happened, but there was never any question about who Lee Harvey Oswald was.
Oswald was a passionate and committed Communist. In 1959, he gave up his American passport and defected to the Soviet Union. There, he married a Russian woman and lived in Minsk. Three years later, he returned to this country and immediately began attending rallies in support of Fidel Castro. In the fall of 1963, Oswald traveled to Mexico City and met with KGB agents there. A few months before in Dallas, he had tried to murder Gen. Edwin Walker because Walker had given speeches attacking Communism.
Lee Harvey Oswald never hid his politics, not for a moment. He talked incessantly about Communism to anyone who would listen. And yet many Americans never really understood what Lee Harvey Oswald believed, because news outlets didn’t tell them. Instead, almost immediately, the media began spinning a very different story. President Kennedy, they suggested, had been murdered by conservatives, possibly by conservatism itself, “by hate,” as they often put it.
The explanation was never very precise, but the idea was always the same: Right-wingers killed John F. Kennedy. The Soviet Union, naturally, was happy to agree with the assessment. As a Soviet spokesman put it, moral responsibility for the Kennedy assassination lay squarely with, “Barry Goldwater and other extremists on the right.” In the end, the coordinated lying paid off. A year later, Goldwater lost to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in a historically lopsided presidential election. By that point, many voters associated Goldwater with murder.
As the decades passed, the media kept repeating this lie. On the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, The New Yorker magazine was still blaming anti-Communism for the fact that an avowed Communist had murdered the president. Just because it’s absurd doesn’t mean they won’t say with a straight face. By now, it’s likely that most Americans believe that’s exactly what happened. And why wouldn’t they believe it? That’s what they’ve been told.
History is a political tool, not simply a record of what happened. History is a way to shape the future. History is used to hurt some people and to help other people gain power. History is never neutral. We are watching our own history being written before us right now. Consider the below statement, which was uttered on MSNBC Tuesday night by historian Michael Beschloss:
BESCHLOSS: This was a president of the United States inciting an insurrection, a terrorist attack on Congress … We observe 9/11. We remember the fact that there were attacks that landed, one that almost landed, which was an effort to fly an airplane into the Capitol [and] kill lot of members of Congress. That almost happened. Here is a terrorist attack that did happen.
As Beschloss has said repeatedly and pointedly over the last 24 hours, we must “never forget.” Now, it’s true that Michael Beschloss is a historian in the same sense that 7-Eleven is a restaurant, but he sells what is called popular history, the kind of history that sticks. That’s just the history being assembled in print and on cable news, which at this point are the media of choice for those of us who lived in a world before the Internet.
For Americans under 30, history is written exclusively on social media, and that’s where the real demagogues live. Tech platforms are the domain of people for whom factual reality is not even a consideration. What actually happened in a given place at a given time is totally and completely irrelevant. Ideology is all that matters. Sandy Cortez is a master of this medium, of course. Here’s her description of the events of Jan. 6, as broadcast to kids across the country on Instagram.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I jump into my bathroom and I close the door and I just keep hearing bang, bang, bang … I open the door when all of a sudden I hear that whoever was trying to get inside got into my office … and I just hear, “Where is she? Where is she? And this was the moment where I thought everything was over.
We’ve played clips like that for you before, and we’ve always made fun of them, but actually it’s not funny. People will believe this crap; some already do. Anyone who was physically present at the Capitol that day knows it’s ridiculous. There were no rioters in Sandy Cortez’s hallway. Trump voters weren’t trying to kill her. A lot of the rioters were angrier at Mitch McConnell than they were at any Democrat.
To some extent, what you saw on Jan. 6 was an intraparty struggle, an act of mindless destruction aimed at Republican leaders and born of long simmering frustration. The people who run the Republican Party don’t care about the people who elect them. That has long been true, but Republican voters finally figured it out. On Jan. 6, they exploded. Lindsey Graham was likely in graver danger than Sandy Cortez or Ilhan Omar. They were literally calling poor Mike Pence’s name. He didn’t do anything, but they were furious with him. That’s not a defense of rioting or even an ideological point. It’s just true; it’s what happened.