Salena Zito: The Great Awakening

INDEPENDENCE, Missouri — The half-circle of 13 chairs that framed the statue of President Harry Truman in the heart of the historic Independence Square this past fall was placed there in the days after 13 American soldiers were killed in the attack on the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in late August.

The flags on either side of Truman flew at half-mast, with the chairs bearing the names of each service member lost in that attack. All hailed from small-town corners of our country. Their average age was 22. Eleven were Marines, one was a member of the Army, one a Navy medic.

Youth court students and volunteers in the community had placed the memorial there.

They weren’t alone. Memorials like this were placed in bars, front yards and town squares all across the country. Some of them still stand.

The loss of these brave service members marked the beginning of an awakening. Many people stepped outside the comfort of their political beliefs and began to question everything coming out of the government.

Few national journalists noticed it at its inception because few national journalists leave their desks or disconnect from Twitter long enough to listen to people outside of their bubble. Had they listened, they would have heard the questions and the doubts.

The more President Joe Biden’s White House stubbornly and willfully refused to answer questions and insisted it had acted rightly, the more distrust in government grew.

The images of Biden walking away, his back to the press and metaphorically to the people, in the days and weeks after the pullout projected arrogance and negligence. When he repeated that exit, it only served to hasten the awakening.

Soon, the questions about Afghanistan became questions about how the government was handling the pandemic — in particular the mandates, masking and the treatment of our children. Many people had been afraid to make their complaints public — they saw how lives and livelihoods could be destroyed if you questioned the motives of the government or teachers unions.

Across the political spectrum, people who had been struggling so hard to keep their businesses open and their children in school or who dared to question the usage of masks or the authority of the government were called racists, fascists, grandma-killers, insurrectionists and white supremacists.

Never mind that most of them had done all of the right things. They stayed home at the beginning, washed their cardboard Amazon boxes before they opened them, refrained from hugging their parents and children and grandchildren, lost jobs, lost friends, lost family members, got boosted and then saw their children flail emotionally and academically. They watched crime escalate in their cities and suburbs. They watched depression and suicide affect their loved ones and fentanyl flood their nice neighborhoods and communities. They watched their cities turn into ghost towns and their grocery and energy bills diminish their wealth.

No one in the press really picked up on this movement. They see everything as either Republican or Democratic. This awakening is not so easily characterized. It is an inside-outside movement reacting to a government that chose to play politics with the virus and continue a longstanding partisan battle.

This week, it finally became acceptable among the insider set to say that the pandemic is over. But this abrupt change is part of an apparently coordinated effort to save a political tribe; as such, it does not pass the smell test for most people.

It is now too late to save the insiders. People had moved away from elite insider opinion long before the insiders finally gave their permission to say the pandemic is over. Their insincerity is overwhelming. Something deep has changed for all the outsiders, and very few insiders ever saw it coming.

PHOTO: World Wide Walkout Protest, Sep 1, 2021. Photo by GoToVan. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Salena Zito joined the Washington Examiner in 2016 as a Western Pennsylvania-based columnist and reporter covering national politics and culture. She is also a weekly columnist at the New York Post, contributes to The Wall Street Journal and co-authored “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” with Brad Todd. In 2018, she won first place for her columns in the Associated Press for her coverage of American politics, and she also won the Barbara Olson award for excellence and independence in journalism.

She has taught journalism at the Harvard Institute of Politics, Washington and Lee University, and Hillsdale College.

She has interviewed every president, vice president and candidate who sought their party’s nomination on both sides of the aisle in the 21st century.