Awe and reverence. I remember the first time I entered the U.S. Capitol. I was 14 or so. I came down from Pennsylvania by train, and I was overwhelmed by the glory of the place. This was where Lincoln and Henry Clay had worked. This was where the 13th Amendment was passed, the Land Grant College Act, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act. It was such a beautiful building, I was stunned.
I got inside, found the tunnels and explored the complex. I figured if I walked really fast, people would think I belonged there, so I trucked along as fast as my little legs would carry me — heart racing and imagination aflame.
It’s decades later. I live a few blocks from the building now and have been inside thousands of times. The awe and reverence have never diminished an iota.
The people who work there have their human frailties, but at moments of great crisis, like 9/11 or Wednesday’s mob rampage, most of them show a devotion to our common enterprise that makes me cry with admiration.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio once took me on the Senate floor and showed me how generations of senators had carved their names in the drawers of the desks — ancient hands with their penknives scratching away in the wood, a centurieslong parade of lives dedicated in their imperfect ways to our country.
That is why the Capitol, not the White House, is the altar of our democracy, the sacred gathering spot of those who served, strove and died building this nation.
One day in 2013 a freshman senator named Ted Cruz shut down the government. He was months into his first term, a time when his eyes should have been wide with wonder and his heart full of humility. But he co-opted the Senate, with no realistic prospect of serving any cause, but simply for the purpose of making Ted Cruz famous. He gave a 21-hour filibuster speech on the Senate floor that riveted right-wing media for a news cycle.
I was in the Senate Dining Room shortly afterward when he walked in. The emotional temperature plummeted. Everybody, of both parties, despised Cruz for putting himself above the Senate, for his own arrogance and narcissism.
But it worked. Cruz became a prominent GOP figure, a fundraising machine. The model of being a Republican lawmaker changed. It was no longer somebody who passes legislation; it was someone who pulls a publicity stunt that owns the libs. Millions of Americans felt scorned by a cultural and media elite. They were willing to follow anybody who could make himself despised by the people they felt despised them.
Donald Trump came in the wake of that. And then, this week, Josh Hawley. As of Wednesday morning, Hawley was the model of what a Republican senator was going to look like in the post-Trump era. He cannily understood what the party faithful wanted. Publicity stunts. Owning the libs.
But there are dark specters running through our nation — beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth. They have the stench of Know-Nothingism, the hot blood of the lynchers, and they ride the winds of nihilistic fury.
Read the history books. They have always been lurking in the shadows of our nation’s greatness. Hawley didn’t just own the libs, he gave permission to dark forces he is too childish, privileged and self-absorbed to understand. Hawley sold his soul to all that is ugly for the sake of his own personal celebrity.
Human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers. The mob that invaded that building Wednesday exposed the abyss. This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul. And it wasn’t just the mob that exposed this. The rampage reminded us that if Black people had done this, the hallways would be red with their blood.
We are a flawed and humiliated nation, but when well led, we can be more self-sacrificial than we have any right to expect. I despised the sight of the Confederate flags being paraded through Capitol halls, but I loved everything Mitt Romney said and did on Wednesday. Romney showed what moral leadership looks like, and how just a few voices can shift a herd.
Leadership matters. Character matters. The thousands of people who work in the Capitol complex were chased from their chambers or barricaded in their offices by the furies that are ravaging this nation. The shock of this atrocity is bound to have a sobering effect.
I’m among those who think this is an inflection point, a step back from madness. We’re a divided nation, but we don’t need to be a nation engulfed in lies, lawlessness and demagogic incitement.
We look to you, our 535 representatives, to simply do the people’s business, to cut deals so people can stock their pantries and school their kids, and so that a 14-year-old, or a 59-year-old, can enter your building with eyes of wonder, awe and devotion.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.