The Insurrectionists Among Us
Tuesday morning, a time that already feels like decades ago, a woman named Mary Miller spoke at a “Moms For America Saving the Republic” rally for Donald Trump on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Miller was recently sworn in to the House of Representatives from Illinois and had just announced that she would vote to oppose certification of Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States. (Two days later, in a chamber that had just been ransacked by insurrectionists, she did.) Miller, in her speech, argued that what was most important, the key to her appearance that day, was that her fellow Trump supporters needed to capture the hearts and minds of children. She used a most curious example to illustrate this point.
The backlash was immediate: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and several members of Congress from Illinois blasted her comments, and there were multiple calls for her resignation. Miller has not made any public statement since the backlash hit, and she had no comment on the thousands of her fellow Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building on Wednesday in one of the darkest scenes any of us have ever witnessed in this country. But she did make sure to show up and vote against Biden’s victory late Wednesday night. It is possible, even likely, that her Hitler comment will be lost in all the madness of Wednesday. I bet in a week we all forget it happened at all.
But this is not the first time I have come across Mary Miller. Mary Miller isn’t just a newly elected member of Congress; she’s my newly elected member of Congress. Well, she is not currently my representative; that would be Rep. Jody Hice, here in Georgia, who is no great shakes himself. But she represents 13 counties in Central Illinois, including Coles County, where I grew up in my hometown of Mattoon. She in fact lives in Coles County (though she is originally from Naperville, in the north Chicago suburbs), in a small town called Oakland, which has a population of 880 people and is about a 35-minute drive from the house I grew up in.
I do not think I have met Mary Miller, but checking this morning, I discovered we share four Facebook friends, including a pastor I graduated high school with (and used to play football with) and my cousin Blake. But I know Mary Miller. She graduated from Eastern Illinois University, the flagship university of our county that’s just down the road from the hospital where my mother worked as an emergency room nurse for 25 years (and where my sister was born), and Miller teaches Vacation Bible School at the Oakland Christian Church, an offshoot of the Broadway Christian Church in Mattoon, the church I attended through high school. She has an absurdly large family — “seven children and seventeen grandchildren,” her website declares — but the Leitch family still has her beat: My grandmother, who died five years ago at the age of 94, had eight children, twenty grandchildren and thirty-three great-grandchildren. (And that was just at last count.) I have known people like Mary Miller my entire life; I know people like Mary Miller in my very bones. It would not surprise me if we’ve met before. I’m sure, if I have, I found her lovely.
Last month, I posted the cover to my upcoming novel, How Lucky, to Facebook. One of the first people to congratulate me was another one of my cousins, a woman a couple of years older than me, who, as a girl with pigtails growing up, had a tendency to absolutely smear me in backyard football. She said she could not wait to read it, and that she was proud of me. I told her I missed her and I looked forward to getting back home and seeing everyone when the pandemic was over. Everybody still lives back in Mattoon. I can usually see them all at once.
I don’t use Facebook often, but Wednesday was a day you want to check in on people: To make sure the people you care about are OK. It was one of those days that you instantly know you’ll never forget: You want to pay attention to everything.
I checked in on my cousin too. And I found this:
And also this:
I also found a post accusing Georgia Governor Brian Kemp of murdering his daughter’s boyfriend, a doctored video of Donald Trump punching Joe Biden in the face, and so many absurd videos of poor poll workers trying to do their jobs while people screamed at them I had to stop and take a walk.
The last post was cheering on the “patriots” who stormed the capital yesterday. I wonder if she is still proud of me and my book.
The thing about all those guys breaking windows and attacking the very pillars of democracy yesterday was that, like Mary Miller, I know all of them. For all the talk Wednesday about how this felt like something you’d see in a foreign country, it sure didn’t feel that way to me. Those felt like people I knew, people I grew up with, people I see every time I hit the old Spanky’s bar back home. The ones who chuckle and call me “college boy” and ask me when I order a Bud Light if I’d rather have some white wine. The ones who, when I run into them on the street, I can talk to for an hour about the old days. Hey, whatever happened to that Jones kid, you ever run into Jessica anymore? The ones who congratulate me, sincerely, for getting out of our dying hometown, for Doing Something With My Life. The ones who always tell me they’re proud of me.
I didn’t specifically recognize any of them in those countless videos we saw of the carnage at the Capitol. But that’s what they look like. That’s exactly how they talk. I am afraid to go to their Facebook pages.
But perhaps I should not turn away so quickly.
The rage I felt yesterday was shared by millions, in this country, and worldwide. I want to see the people who invaded our Capitol — many of whom very much would have hurt more people than they actually did if security had not gotten our elected leaders out of there in time — I want to see them apprehended and punished. I want to see the people who pushed them to this, who fed them lies and stoked their fear and anger and frustration and, yeah, their racism, punished as well. (And it’s clear we need to get this president out of office immediately; suddenly 13 days seems like an excruciatingly long time.) This is not something we can walk away from. This is not something we can just hope gets better.
But we will all have to live together after this. I don’t mean all drinking together at Spanky’s like it’s all OK: I suspect those days are over, at least as far as I’m concerned. But this is still the same planet we all live on, and some of people next to you, some of the people you’ve grown up with, some of the people you’ve known your whole life … they’re in the process of tearing this whole world apart. What are you going to do about it? What are we going to do about it? What am I going to do about it?
It right now seems like we will never recover from this, but we will. We will settle into our rituals and our comforts and our old habits. But then what? Then what happens? I think I’m scared of that most of all. I don’t know how to change this. I don’t think it can be changed. Because it might just have always been like this the whole time. The Mary Millers, the old classmates, the cousins, this is who some of them always were. The lack of recognition of that is not their fault. It’s mine.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.