January 9, 2021 — Sometimes trauma results from “open advocacy of utter and unmitigated nutjobbery” (and sometimes it’s personal)

On the morning of January 6, I read Andrew Coyne’s Globe and Mail article “The GOP is putting US democracy at risk.” The piece included a memorable description of the Republican Party:

The polarization that is destroying American democracy is not between conservatives and liberals. It is not between populists and elites, or even authoritarians and non-authoritarians. It is between fantasy and reality, or perhaps between insanity and sanity: between those who believe, or pretend to, in the most preposterous fictions — the political equivalent of flat earthers — and those whose belief system is limited to the world as it actually is… It is the open advocacy of utter and unmitigated nutjobbery — the stuff of the QAnon cult and other loons — that is the hallmark of the modern Republican Party.

That afternoon, as the world watched in horror and amazement, the nutjobs — in the form of hundreds of rampaging extremists, among the leaders of whom was a shirtless QAnon theorist in a horned headdress (last seen at an Arizona rally with the sign “Hold the Line Patriots. God Wins”) who looked as though he had stepped straight from the pages of Where the Wild Things Are — breached astoundingly porous police barricades and assaulted the US Capitol. The horde chanted, tangled with badly outnumbered law enforcement officers and waved a colourful assortment of flags with the usual slogans: Keep America Great, Trump Is My President, Gun Owners For Trump, bright yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” banners featuring a coiled rattlesnake, giant Confederate flags, and dozens of American and US state flags. (One character inadvertently demonstrated himself to be geographically challenged, given that the flag flapping below his Trump banner was that of the independent country of Georgia, rather than that of the southern state which, earlier in the day, had further rebuked Trumpism by electing two Democrats in its Senate run-off election. Social media users, of course, gleefully weighed in: “WRONG CAUCASIANS DUDE,” commented one.)

But while the mob of misfits may be all too easy to mock, their extremist views and predisposition to violence are far from a joke. (In a CBC radio interview, columnist Paul Waldman of The Washington Post described them as “authoritarian-type people who are enthralled with the idea of breaking down windows and doors.”) They had been urged to march to the seat of government that morning to protest the electoral college vote certification by Trump himself, during his daily diatribe against the “fraudulent and stolen” election. (It featured, in Trump’s unhinged view, “cheating like you’ve never seen” — “Stop the Steal,” he tweeted, and — earlier on January 6 — “Get Smart Republicans. FIGHT!”). His legal lackey, the hair dye-dripping counsel Rudy Giuliani, chimed in as well, urging “let’s have trial by combat.” The result, as succinctly characterized on the Twitter account of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company (472,800 followers), was “a riot to uphold white supremacy.”

Of course these dramatic developments and their aftermath will entirely consume the 24-hour spin cycle for days; the following afternoon, I took a news break by listening to Drive-By Truckers stridently anti-Trump album The Unraveling (its second track, “Armageddon’s Back In Town,” makes as appropriate a soundtrack as any for the era we’ve all been living through — “There’ll be no healing / From the art of double-dealing… ’Til you can’t tell the darkness from the flame”). At least today Trudeau managed to make a definitive identification: he finally dropped his usual diplomatic tone regarding the soon-to-be-former occupant of the White House, stating that “what we witnessed was an assault on democracy by violent rioters, incited by the current president and other politicians.”

The new year had already, even pre-insurrection, gotten off to a decidedly depressing start. Rereading my last piece, from only 2 weeks ago, it’s stunning to see how dramatically the COVID-19 situation has worsened. From a daily record of 2,447 cases on December 24, the provincial 7-day average is now up by almost 30%, to 3,394, with new highs being reached almost daily (3,519 on January 7, with 89 fatalities — the deadliest day of the entire pandemic for the province — then soaring to 4,249 on January 8). “We’re in a desperate situation, and when you see the modelling, you’ll fall out of your chair,” stressed Premier Ford (a phrase which was, predictably, repeated ad nauseam in news clips over the following days). “There will be further measures, because this is getting out of control.” Ford wasn’t precise on what measures, or when they might be coming, or on how he defines “getting out of control,” but given that the latest daily case number was literally over double what it was when the current lockdown was announced in late December there is near unanimity that the situation is certainly not in control.

In Ottawa, the 7-day average has skyrocketed, from just over 40 to 144 cases, with a record 234 today, January 9. It now seems incredible that there was significant debate here, less than two weeks ago, about whether the local restrictions would be shortened. The announcement on January 7th that the return of in-person school for elementary students would be pushed back by two weeks landed not as a surprise but as an inevitability. I guess all one can do is focus on silver linings, like the fact that I am privileged enough to be able to continue working safely from home, and the fact that the school board is demonstrably far better organized for online teaching now than it was last spring. Still, Henry was not an immediate convert to the new routine. “Why do we have to have 12 years of school?” he demanded to know, in a very Calvin-esque fashion, midway through his first morning of virtual learning. “Why can’t we just have, like, 6?”

Why do I feel compelled to write these accounts? Well, because I feel happier whenever I complete one — but why is that? One explanation: today I re-listened to the intro to Gaslit Nation, Andrea Chalupa and Sarah Kendzior’s podcast which dissects Trumpism and other equally nefarious goings-on in authoritarian states around the globe. The January 6th episode — taped before the attack on the Capitol — began with a long soliloquy by Chalupa on the value of making and consuming art to deal with trauma, as an outlet for expressing one’s feelings and a means of doing what you can “to build a relationship or conversation with your trauma.”

I reached for the dictionary, to be sure I was thinking through the concept accurately. Trauma can be defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience,” or as “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock.” It can, of course, manifest itself on multiple levels. Most reported — certainly of late, but also probably generally — are incidences of mass societal trauma, such as that generated in the United States by the events of this week, or that which has arisen globally as a result of the myriad ways that the pandemic has altered our lives. Collective distress also plays out in various forms as personal trauma within individuals; we all process profound challenges in our own unique ways. Whereas a deeply personal trauma or unexpected rupture — of, say, a separation — can leave one numb or indifferent to the macro-conditions beyond the front porch.

“Just go out and make something,” suggested Chalupa, on the podcast. “It does help tremendously.”

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