It was the summer of 1987 when I first stepped inside the United States Capitol to work instead of visit.
As part of a summer program, I spent a couple of months interning with syndicated columnist Don Lambro. Rather than have me run errands or fetch coffee, Don sent me right off to cover committee meetings and lurk outside the General Accounting Office so he’d be among the first to get his hands on newly published GAO audits of government waste (obviously a man after my own heart).
I loved it. I’d previously worked as a local-government reporter, so the journalism bug had already bitten me. And it was an exhilarating summer to be in the Capitol with a press pass and a fascination with politics. (Ever heard of the Iran-Contra Affair?)
The following spring, I was back in Washington for a semester-long fellowship through UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school. I spent much of it deployed to the office of then-House Minority Whip Trent Lott. While I did constituent service and correspondence, most of my time was spent in committee rooms and hallways meeting a wide variety of people — from young staffers and harried journalists to seasoned lobbyists and powerful lawmakers.
A year later, when I returned to the nation’s capital for the third time as a reporter-researcher for The New Republic, I again spent much of my time on Capitol Hill. I relished the work. I drenched myself in the history and grandeur of the place.
So, how did I feel as I watched a mob tramp through the Capitol building on January 6, battling police officers, destroying property, and attempting, however cluelessly and ineffectually, to halt the peaceful transfer of power?
I was angry, of course. Weren’t you? But I also felt literally sick to my stomach. They were trashing a place I revere. They were trashing an institution that, whatever its inherent limitations and manifest flaws, has inspired generations here at home and around the world. They were trashing the American republic itself.
Led into the building and encouraged by a cadre of alt-right provocateurs, the mob also produced priceless propaganda for the enemies of our country. “The celebration of democracy is over,” one Russian official wrote. “America no longer forges that path, and consequently has lost its right to define it. Much less force it on others.” A state-run Chinese newspaper headlined its coverage this way: “An iconic humiliation! The madness of the Capitol has dragged the U.S.’s standing into its Waterloo!”
I’m disgusted, then, as well as angry. And I’m deeply saddened. What happened on January 6 was not an isolated incident. It was the latest in a series of punches to the gut of our body politic. Attempted assassinations and kidnappings of public officials. Riotous attacks on other public buildings, from state capitols to police stations. Property destruction and vandalism. Violence and threats of violence.
Mob psychology has been extensively studied. We know that human beings will often do things as part of a mob that they would never imagine themselves doing on their own.
Reversing this dangerous turn in American life and politics will require multiple steps. First, all of us, across the political spectrum, must denounce violence. We must tell all activists, including those whose goals we may share, that no matter how much they may be frustrated by electoral or legislative outcomes, they have no right to take the law into their own hands. Period.
That’s the easy part, actually. Here’s the harder one: all of us, across the spectrum, must make integrity our number-one criterion when choosing leaders. The mob that trashed the Capitol had been fed a constant diet of misleading statements, exaggerated claims, and false promises. They were lied to and whipped into a frenzy by President Trump and his allies in Congress.
The Capitol will survive its trashing. But will America’s institutions of freedom and self-government? Only if we elevate real leaders, with integrity and courage, to the highest offices of our republic.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).