The Custom of the Capitol
This is what democracy looks like?
When I went to Capitol Hill for the first time, I had one foot in and one foot out. I had just applied for my press pass, and I wanted to know all the things that were second nature to everyone else. I wanted to feel the pull of the behavior of the staffers—to envy the perfectly professional way that they dress, the boring heels that they wear—but I was afraid, too, of being sucked in. That’s how I thought it would feel when I took a press job in Washington: the closer you are to the centers of power, the more your behavior conforms to the general clockwise energy, like water circling a drain. The government has a mythic gravity, one that over time seems to erase morals, sacrificing conviction to the insidious god of strategy, goals to the legendary pressure of politics. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, by the time I arrived, was facing skepticism: She had a loud and righteous voice, but hadn’t she basically voted the party line?
The aesthetic of the place is domineering—uncluttered, but not austere. Beautiful small tiles cover the floor on the Senate side, with bright blue elements in a pattern surprising in its complexity. In the Senate press gallery, above the rows of cubicles for reporters, the ceiling suggests Italy: a grand, gold chandelier and cherubim painted on the small domes. Sure, it’s the center of politics, but I expected it to be plainer. I grew up in Chicago, where our schools and government offices tended to have less a neoclassical tinge than an industrial one, bureaucratic leaning brutalist. It was the perfect environment for self-loathing and work. I would soon feel my first pang of naivete. The tiles, of course, are not a backdrop for contemplation or paper pushing. They are meant to prime you for performance.
What did I wear that first day? It was July, so a thin, black, silk dress. It exposed me a bit too much, clinging to the skin. One of my coworkers walked me the long stretch to the House side, past Mitch McConnell’s thick wooden door, across the rotunda, and then Pelosi’s. She showed me the not-quite-identical press room on that side, with long tables and phone booths—and how you can step straight out through a set of double, glass-paned doors onto a balcony that overlooks the House floor. From the balcony above the rostrum, the place where the Speaker sits, you can see all the representatives’ faces. There are small round leather stools attached to the ground along a few rows of long, sleek wooden bars. No photography or recording is allowed in either the House or the Senate, but in the House, you can bring your phone and laptop. As the votes on any particular resolution trickle in—reps will have five or fifteen minutes to cast, and then several more minutes pass before all of them are tallied—green Ys and red Ns appear next to each representative’s name, projected onto the wall above the press gallery. This gives reporters the vertiginous experience of walking along the wall, craning the neck upward, looking for any votes that are out of the ordinary—in this case, Rs who voted Y and Ds who voted N.
The House, on July 16, 2019, was voting on a resolution to condemn Trump’s tweets about the four freshman congresswomen of color (now known as the Squad, but, I think, not at that point) as “racist.” Actually, at the moment I entered, Nancy Pelosi had temporarily been deposed as Speaker for introducing the word racist to describe the President. Apparently, calling the President racist or similar is considered out of order by Jefferson’s Manual—a book of procedure and orderliness originally written by Thomas, annotated and updated regularly by Congress. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver had also dramatically exited, not necessarily because he supported Pelosi, but because there was too much bickering and chaos. He is a celebrated supporter of civility. I slid onto a stool and attentively watched.
What’s easier to discern in person than on C-SPAN is how long everything takes, the time-wasting, how everyone talks to each other in the spaces in between.Tweet
While the votes tallied, the representatives themselves milled about like teenagers on the House floor. I shivered—the balcony is absolutely freezing—and watched the small groups of people chatting. They were having private conversations, but they were also aware of being watched. It felt like they kept looking up at me—I imagined they were wondering who I was, the newcomer—but they were just glancing up toward the wall of names as little green Ys and red Ns popped up. I couldn’t recognize many congresspeople yet. I saw Ocasio-Cortez, carrying a large New York Public Library tote bag, in conference with Rashida Tlaib and a few others. The Republicans, crowded into one side of the room, were overwhelmingly white, and exhibited different behaviors. They didn’t mill, but sat properly in their chairs, calling out jeers in loud, deep voices, like a scene from Congress a hundred years ago. By the end of the summer, more than a dozen would announce their intention not to seek reelection.
People often say you just had to “be there” to understand. That a particular progression of moments cannot be described, or reenacted—you had to live through them to feel the chemistry that happened. Like the difference between going to an opera house and going to a movie theater to watch a live opera. Or the difference between going to a game in a stadium and watching it in HD on a widescreen. The difference is a kind of vibration in the room, an intoxication of the crowd. In Congress, it’s more difficult to understand what’s happening from the balcony than it is to watch the action on C-SPAN, or get updates on Twitter (follow @HouseDailyPress). Most reporters hang out in the lobby outside the House floor, waiting to catch representatives as they enter and exit. From the balcony, the microphones sound fuzzy. The speaker will announce a vote, run through details about the process incomprehensibly quickly, and bang the gavel. Reporters sitting on the balcony consult with one another to make sure they’re getting straight what happened. What’s easier to discern in person than on C-SPAN is how long everything takes, the time-wasting, how everyone talks to each other in the spaces in between. It’s like waiting for the bus seven times in a row.
Eventually, they voted not to strike racist from the record, and then they voted Nancy Pelosi back on the floor. Everything back to normal, nothing lost, nothing gained, except argument. It would have been strange, I thought, if “racist” had been stricken from the record; then it would have been present in news reports, but not in the historical document of the meeting. The resolution decrying the President’s remarks as racist passed. All told, these small delays in the passage of a nonbinding resolution took hours. An afternoon for what? A symbolic gesture.
The level of pure performance seems to have increased, as Democrats in control of the House know they can’t get anything past Mitch McConnell and Republicans controlling the Senate. They want to throw into relief how the Senate won’t approve anything; they want to workshop and prepare as much progressive legislation as possible for when, in the next election, they hope to elect a blue Senate and be able to enact some of it. Before the session let out for the summer, Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the stand in front of two House committees, and Hill interns lined up overnight to get into the room; Jerry Nadler opened a suit that might result in recommendation for impeachment; Maureen Dowd hosted Pelosi and Schumer at a party; and Trump slandered Elijah Cummings’s district, which includes Baltimore, on Twitter. The House also passed, to considerably less press, a bill opposed to the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel on behalf of Palestinian human rights.
As time goes on, I learn more of the rules. There are so many rules. Rules about where to walk and where to take pictures, rules about what to wear, rules about how long congresspeople may take to question people in hearings, rules about when, as a member of the press, you are allowed to ride the subway in the basement of the Senate with a member of Congress. Some of this is pomp and circumstance, the effect of which is to reinforce a hierarchy—to remind you that some people are employed by the government, and some people are not. To remind you that, while Congress is owned by the citizens, only certain people—congresspeople—are authorized to walk wherever they’d like and say whatever they’d like. It must be comforting, I think, to come to Washington and to meet velvet ropes and military outposts, to see the White House only at arm’s length and to see certain elevators reserved for senators. I imagine that this is how staffers feel, too; that dressing up, and following the rules, is one way in which they feel the weight and importance of their mandate. Other times, the decorum plays another role, which is to allow ugliness to hide in plain sight.
On July 30, I went to the final meeting of the legislative session of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It was the fifth in a series of meetings on the border called “Unprecedented Migration at the US Southern Border.” The focus of this session: “What Is Required to Improve Conditions?” The question itself was euphemistic. I had assumed conditions, a word often used to describe where people live, would refer to the manner and facilities in which immigrants and asylum seekers are detained after crossing the border. Instead, the session mainly focused on the working conditions of Border Patrol officers and their supposed resilience amid the general impossibility of their jobs—jobs made impossible not by the Trump Administration’s lack of interest in humane treatment, but by the number of migrants.
The whole thing was a little less than two hours long. Testifying were two witnesses, Customs and Border Protection’s acting commissioner, Mark Morgan, and the Department of Homeland Security’s deputy inspector general, Jennifer Costello; they gave opening statements, and then members of the committee could each question them for a certain amount of time. Senators on the committee slid in and out of their leather seats to watch or to question. Mitt Romney heard each witness’s opening testimony before leaving. But mostly it was Senator Ron Johnson’s show, as the chair of the committee.
Johnson spoke at length of his concern about attrition among Border Patrol agents and, in particular, about whether the agents would be negatively affected by the squalid conditions in which migrants were being forcibly kept. He was limber, leaning genially back in his chair. “I am concerned,” he said to Commissioner Morgan. “In your testimony you’re talking about Border Patrol agents becoming ill. The illnesses coming across the border, we have a pretty long list of them. I’m concerned about drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, those types of things. I’m concerned about Border Patrol attrition.” It was as if migrants themselves were germs, as if it were not the arduous journey, the freezing and unhygienic detention centers with no hot food or water, that makes many of them sick.
The visceral language continued: Morgan spoke of the need to “stem the flow” of migrants as the true solution to the crisis, bringing to mind a gushing wound. On the table reserved for press in the committee room, there were two paper handouts made by Johnson’s office, a little green logo in the corner of each bearing a silhouette of Wisconsin and his name. At the top of the first sheet was “Illegal Immigrant Arrests, Apprehensions Nationwide by Fiscal Year,” with a bar graph depicting data from Customs and Border Protection going back to 1925. The number of apprehensions of single adults, as shown by Sheet #1 (and corroborated by other, independent, assessments) has gone down drastically since the ’90s and ’00s and remains low. Sheet #2 zooms in: “Minors and Families, Apprehended at S.W. Border or Claiming Asylum at Ports.” This number has spiked in the past year, leading Republicans not to wonder why so many women and children are migrating, but to accuse human traffickers of creating “false families” to get their wards across the border.
Johnson wanted them to be held longer, to undergo further scrutiny before being released into the US. “The problems of releasing people that come across the border illegally, rapidly, into our country without really knowing who they are—it’s just a reality, our laws prevent us from holding people more than twenty days, and because we can’t get the information, we’re probably releasing them even sooner than that in many cases, correct?” Morgan assented.
Johnson That represents a real danger to not only potentially our country, but to those individuals.
Morgan Especially with the amount of fake families that we’re uncovering every single day.
Johnson I mean, it is true that we really don’t have time to determine, “Is that the father? Or is that the human trafficker? Is that his daughter? Or is that his trafficking victim?”
Morgan It’s a challenge.
Later, Johnson continued, describing a congressional trip to the border: “I saw about a 40- or 50-year-old man with about an 18-month-old girl, and listen, I know children can be fussy—having just talked about the fraudulent families, I mean, I have to admit, I just looked at that situation right there, and that is not his daughter.” They mentioned, with little affect, that the Department of Homeland Security is now collecting and testing DNA from detainees—a fact that has only recently gotten any attention in the wider press.
Such casual racism was stunning—this single hearing added more to my understanding of Republican stubbornness and partisan gridlock than any article I’ve read. Everyone I described it to was shocked. And yet, none of it was “news.” No facts were revealed, no new positions taken. The headline coming out of this hearing could have been: “Republican Senators Focus on Well-Being of Border Patrol Agents Over That of Migrants.” Or, “In Hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson Expresses Racist Beliefs.” I felt some responsibility to convey not the facts, but the vicarious frustration that I felt being there. Of course, anyone could watch the committee hearing from afar, on C-SPAN or archived on the Senate website—anyone could see for themselves—but not everyone was in the room like me.
Unlike the European cities it emulates, there are no layers of history here—just that horrible orangey beige stone.Tweet
I recall great works of journalism when writers reflected on witnessing a particular trial. I seem to remember Hannah Arendt writing of the long Eichmann trial that as time went on, fewer and fewer journalists showed up. Trying to find it later, I’m unable to locate the passage. (Was it, instead, Janet Malcolm in Iphigenia?) I flip to the postscript. Eichmann, of course, is about how much responsibility an individual holds within an evil machine. Arendt was able to single out Eichmann; why are we so unwilling to single out Johnson? “What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people—the larger the better—in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. . . . It is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities, according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.” This is, I think, really the difference in being here, rather than watching everything unfold on TV—one becomes able to think in terms of individual actors rather than generalities and skeptical of distributed morality. One begins to see through the veil of party unity that so many politicians hide behind. Like looking closely at a single letter printed in a newspaper and seeing all the dots it’s made up of. We speak now of “Republicans” where we should speak of Jim Jordan, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Ron Johnson. Each one, in their own way, a terrible person.
And me: Am I part of the machine now, too? As a credentialed reporter, I can’t cry out or participate. I can watch, and outside of official proceedings, I can ask questions. Earlier, I had seen Ted Cruz, holding a can of Coke, and Dianne Feinstein walking together. I was close enough to interrupt them. If I had, what would I have said?
When I lived in New York City, I was always talking to other people, carrying other people’s things up subway stairs, stopping to help people parallel park. Here, I tried to offer up my farm share to someone else when I was out of town—no one wanted it; they had already purchased all the vegetables they wanted that week at the farmers market. Everyone seems able to leave gatherings at the time they intended; I’m always compelled to stay until the last drop. People drink, sure, and often to excess—but that excess ends in waves goodbye rather than in hugs. When, in October, the Washington Nationals won the World Series for the first time in history, there were no overturned cars or climbing on lampposts. The composure of being at work extends to most of the bars and restaurants. I have the urge to act out, to be nosy and ask everyone I sit next to on the bus who they are and what they do, in the same way I was compelled to disrupt the Senate hearing. My coworker calls these “intrusive thoughts.”
The buildings are enormous, the bridges are like Rome’s. I was told that DC was modeled after the gardens at Versailles. But unlike the European cities it emulates, there are no layers of history here—just that horrible orangey beige stone. I went to see a touring band play, and the lead singer said, “I forgot where we are.” To have history, you can’t simply have monuments; you also need a population to prop them up. Here, that natural accumulation is stunted, the city’s grandiosity hollow. DC looks like a European city, but it feels more like a college campus—a green zone for politicians, who, as on a campus, are often unaware of the city’s longtime residents, who don’t have a vote in Congress.
I wander around, I try to look for signs of accumulation. It’s a mast year for oak trees, and there are thousands of acorns collecting on the ground. I find myself listening to a Nina Simone song on repeat: “Man became the thing that he worships / Man today became his god / That was the day that man and woman truly became bored.” Is this what DC is? A city devoted to the worship of man. A boring city. I wish I could break through the veneer.
Compared with the airy cavities of the Capitol, the White House, as anyone will tell you, is small, a cozy cradle for the beating heart of the country. I thought when I signed up for a self-led tour that I would enter this organ, wander its folds, and exit profoundly changed by the authoritarian darkness of its depths. I spent every day walking past it—I wanted to see inside the spectacle, to be close to the core of aggravation. I arrived ten minutes before noon on a sunny Friday in October, winding my way to the southeast corner, around all the blocks that are frequently barricaded.
I wore all black—even though the endless Washington summer had stretched, unabated, into October—and fancy white heels I had bought at a thrift store a week prior. I was way overdressed. Most people were wearing flip-flops, baseball caps, and vaguely right-wing T-shirts. You’re not allowed to bring a bag. And in my race to the entrance, I dropped both the pen and the pencil I had brought along to take notes. It was as if they had been plucked from inside my pocket. I couldn’t even go as a writer.
I was already a little weepy. My boyfriend had told me earlier that morning that he didn’t want to go with me, that he hadn’t ever wanted to go. I had sensed this, but ignored it. I thought he would barrel through his ambivalence. The process of applying for the tour is so specified there wasn’t a chance of substituting him with someone else. Now I worried whether I was wrong to go at all. Did it express some kind of tacit support for Trump to be counted as a visitor? Would I show up in some kind of statistic put out by the White House—The White House is more popular than it’s ever been! One million visitors!
The first thing you see when you walk in at the east entrance is several photographs of Melania on her safari tour—photos of her wearing a pith helmet, photos of her surrounded by African children. As you turn to face the iconic curvature of the Oval Office, visible through a window, the portraits of the first ladies on the ground floor intermingle with photographs from the past few administrations, and several of Trump. His body language immediately distinguishes him among the Presidents: he looks almost like a cross Lego, feet firmly planted and top half of his body leaning slightly forward, hands at the sides. Sometimes one arm is raised in salute. He never slackens one side of his body to orient himself to the person standing next to him, like Obama, or leans forward, smiling, to greet anyone, like Reagan. He is unlike the portrait, upstairs, of Teddy Roosevelt done by John Singer Sargent, in which one overwrought hand grips a banister and the other is hidden in the folds of his coat. There is nothing duplicitous. Instead, he is waxen and stiff, not like a military officer but rather like someone who doesn’t know how to act, so ends up overacting. It is strange to see a photo of him putting the Medal of Honor on someone, clasping it behind their neck like a necklace; in none of the other imagery is he close to touching anyone. He is entirely absent from the photomontage of Presidents with dogs.
Upstairs, the Secret Service agents start buzzing. “Wheels down,” one officer says to another. The President has made it back to Washington and will be returning to the White House in his helicopter any minute. The state dining room I’m in is plain; there’s still a stage set up on one side, with one of those ugly cloth skirts. The Secret Service agents lightly suggest to the masses shuffling through that if we move on to the middle rooms and turn our attention toward the windows, something interesting may be happening. They must enjoy this faux secrecy, I think to myself. They love to show him off.
Shortly, two black helicopters appear in the distance, near the Washington Monument. One flies off to the side. The other comes head on, and for a minute, it looks as though it will crash through into the Blue Room, where I am standing. It comes incredibly close, then falls out of sight, landing on the White House lawn. “I think I saw a shadow inside it!” says one person next to me. “Wait till we tell the others!” The Secret Service agents, basking in the spotlight, tell everyone that this was something really special we saw. “Who wants to meet the President?” one joked. “I’m the only one here wearing a hat!” says one overweight man with a deplorables T-shirt and MAGA hat. “If everyone tweets at the President, maybe he’ll come up. If enough people do it, he’ll probably see it,” says the agent.
The self-guided tour was so banal, a museum with no information: you’re just supposed to appreciate the quality of the place, the opulence—but it’s not that opulent. I thought about my boyfriend. The atmosphere was not heavy, like he’d expected. The tourists glowed with happiness and interest. They didn’t care to learn anything, they just wanted the experience of being there. I observed nothing weird, no one acting in any way out of the ordinary. I realized that many of the people who visited probably felt comfortable here, probably more comfortable than on the streets of Washington, wearing Trump shirts. I had asked my boyfriend to explain to me why he was averse to going. He’d texted back:
I have been thinking about it
Something about rejecting dc idea of where power is
Something about trump
Something about Bernie getting sick
I’ll keep looking
I asked him to say more about Bernie.
Idk just like
How we place all power in one person
And if Bernie doesn’t win . . . socialism will have missed its window
I guess like
It’s wrong and sad and scary that one person has all this power
And in Bernie we finally have someone who might wield it justly or something approaching justly
But the thing is fucked
But that’s not rly getting to it
What is the angel of history
The angel of history—Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, enigmatically named by Walter Benjamin as the symbolic watcher of our destruction and then claimed by the left. I’m not sure why my boyfriend evoked it here. Benjamin wrote, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Terry Eagleton interpreted, “It is by turning our gaze to the horrors of the past, in the hope that we will not thereby be turned to stone, that we are impelled to move forward.”
This is the way many Americans have been treating the Trump Administration: as twisted metal adding to wreckage of the 20th century. We see his rule as mingled with the words of fascist leaders before him, with the foreclosed homes of 2008, with the chauvinism of the ’80s and ’90s. We need to remember his kinship with the Nazis, in order to propel us away from allowing him to exist. But standing on the threshold of the White House’s front door, looking out at the country from the focal point of power, it felt more like Trump is a perverted version of the angel of history. “His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.” Trump squints, his mouth pursed, and legs spread. They are both orange-hued. “Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.” Trump, determined to undermine American rationality—the sense that one thing can lead to another, that any actions have consequences. “But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them.” Trump, over the summer, on Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm: “We don’t even know what’s coming at us. All we know is it’s possibly the biggest.” And instead of blowing toward progress, as in Benjamin’s formulation, it blows toward isolation. Trump tries to build a border wall to keep out all the debris. Hence there is no wreckage inside the White House: it is a lonely and sanitized oasis, a neat monument to the past, with cheerful guards.
I stepped outside and to the right, making my way toward the front gate. Two teens were giggling, nervously filming a TikTok in front of the iconic white columns. I lingered for only a moment, not at all compelled to stay. I searched my soul, hot in my black clothes, with a blister blooming on my foot. It meant nothing to me to be there. Plus, I had to hightail it to the bank. My account was frozen, I had learned from a voice mail as I walked out. Someone had been trying to impersonate me. They had walked into a branch in New Jersey with a fake ID bearing my name and a Chicago address. As I sat in the freezing bank a few blocks away, I experienced something close to a paranoid breakdown: How could I ever prove, I thought, that I am myself? What would I do if they didn’t believe me? I don’t live in Chicago, where I grew up—I’d have to tell them—and I don’t live in New York, where my checks say I’m from. And I was nowhere near Jersey that day! No, no, no, I live in Washington DC.