Not long ago, I wrote an article for Commonweal about the benefits and dangers of what I call rootedness. I define the word as a sense of belonging in the world based on an identification with a particular thing, whether that is a religious faith, a geographical community, a shared activity, or a philosophy. The benefit of being rooted is that we feel less alone. The danger is that when made to choose between our rootedness—which provides our sense of who we are—and the truth sitting right in front of us, many of us, perhaps most, find a way to ignore the truth.
The negative extremes of rootedness were on full and frightening display on January 6 during the storming of the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead. What the rioters demonstrated nearly as well as the fact of their rootedness was its particular variety. I say “nearly” because while the idea that the rioters are actually rooted in, that is, white supremacy, was on full display too (witness the Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol), it was not the ostensible reason for their collective criminal action. No, for that they took their cue from President Trump, who filled their heads with lies about the 2020 presidential election being “stolen” from them—lies that a clear-eyed look at the facts would refute—and then sent them, with all the justification they felt they needed, to wreak havoc on the world’s most important site of the business of democracy.
This is deeply ironic in several ways. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, has to do with the source of Trump’s appeal for many of his followers. It is not news that Trump has made people feel less constrained in airing their views—many of them noxious—about minority groups. Trump’s followers dismiss feminists, the LGBT community, and people of color as “grievance groups” who unfairly and endlessly demand politically correct speech and special treatment instead of accepting personal responsibility as the price of admission to a free society. Meanwhile, so the thinking goes, it’s open season on whites, whose very skin color has become a mark of doing something wrong. (“Gee,” says a Black man I know quite well, “I wonder how that feels.”) Encouraged by Trump, they refuse to take it anymore—thus becoming the latest and most dangerous grievance group in the country.