Last week’s attempted insurrection in Washington should have come as no surprise to anyone – it’s what the Trump presidency has been building towards.
That being said, the foundation was in place long before Trump came along, as Republicans in particular have been undermining government – and the people’s faith therein – since Reagan’s time.
As Nobel-laureate Paul Krugman notes in a New York Times column this week, Republicans long ago embraced nutjobs and conspiracy theorists once on the fringe and now central to the party.
“This coddling of the crazies was, at first, almost entirely cynical. When the G.O.P. began moving right in the 1970s its true agenda was mainly economic — what its leaders wanted, above all, were business deregulation and tax cuts for the rich. But the party needed more than plutocracy to win elections, so it began courting working-class whites with what amounted to thinly disguised racist appeals,” he writes.
“So what has changed since then? For a long time Republican elites imagined that they could exploit racism and conspiracy theorizing while remaining focused on a plutocratic agenda. But with the rise first of the Tea Party, then of Donald Trump, the cynics found that the crazies were actually in control, and that they wanted to destroy democracy, not cut tax rates on capital gains.”
Conservatives, in particular, have been guilty of speaking untruths to hide their true intentions, a pattern that long predates Trump’s administration, though he does take the cake for outright lying. Those who vote for right-leaning parties usually do so against their own self-interest, so it requires a great deal of lies, appeals to base instincts (racism, sexism, etc.) and fear-mongering, with the three usually tied together into a package, augmented by fraud, voter suppression, gerrymandering and a host of other anti-democratic tricks.
The riot that erupted in Washington on January 6 was the culmination of years of intentionally fomented distrust, hammered home by repeated lies about the 2020 election having been stolen. While some of the politicians mouthing the lies undoubtedly knew the truth, they counted on the ignorance of their supporters to embrace the lies as reality. That’s just what the thousands who stormed the Capitol actually did.
Trump set the stage even before the election, claiming that if he lost it would be due to cheating or fraud. Having lost to Joe Biden, he immediately declared the election rigged, a lie he repeats to this very day.
In the immediate wake of the election, with Trump neither conceding nor acknowledging reality, his supporters in Congress and the administration joined their voices to his, with others complicit in their silence. What was the harm, they asked, in humouring the president until he came to terms with the loss? Well, the harm was on clear display last week.
With Democrats and some Republicans calling for Trump’s ouster, those supporting Trump now decry the moves as divisive, making hypocritical appeals for unity. Critics aren’t buying the road-to-Damascus conversions.
“It’s an open and shut case. The president incited a violent insurrection against another branch of the U.S. government. He needs to leave office immediately — either via resignation, the 25th Amendment or impeachment. His most egregious enablers — such as Sens. Josh Hawley (R.-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) — should be either censured or expelled for violating their oaths to protect and defend the Constitution,” writes conservative commentator Max Boot in the Washington Post.
Trump’s incitement of the mob, abetted by many in the minutes, days, months and years leading up to the insurrection, was just the latest in his assaults on democracy, an authoritarian/fascist tendency long a part of his modus operandi, and indeed of right-wing politics.
With Trump’s encouragement, the extremism bubbled over.
Since the launch of his campaign, Trump has displayed many of the hallmarks of fascism with its demagoguery and bluster, to go along with platitudes about making the country great again and his scapegoating of certain ethnic groups – charges of racism, sexism and a variety of other unpleasant traits seem to roll right off him – but appeal remains that he’s not a mainstream politician. (Trump’s claim that “antifa people” were to blame for the riots make for an apt comparison to the Reichstag fire, another page taken from the fascist playbook.)
Fascism is about an inspired and seemingly strong leader who promises moral renewal, new glory and revenge. It is about the replacement of rational debate with feelings, of grievance or otherwise. That’s why the lies, half-truths and fabrications by Trump have no impact on his followers – even those who know he’s lying don’t care. In the end, he hates those who they hate, particularly minorities and elites his supporters believe look down on them as deplorables. That Trump’s positions are unconstitutional, illegal, unaffordable or just plain crazy doesn’t matter.
In short, many who support Trump – more than 74 million people voted for him despite knowing exactly what kind of person he is – would rather have an autocracy than a democracy, fine with the many attempts, legal and not, Trump made to overturn the results of the November 3 election.
Trump himself has always been a would-be authoritarian. From the very start of his presidency, he’s praised and courted dictators. It’s a list led by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to whom Trump has repeatedly kowtowed. Then there’s his love affair with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un. Trump embraced President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, an authoritarian who’s accused of arranging the killings of hundreds or even thousands of drug users, sellers and other alleged criminals, along with a range of human rights abuses. He’s made overtures to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s been eroding Turkey’s democracy as he sets the stage for a dictatorship.
Trump praised Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who was accused of killing opponents and curtailing freedoms, saying he’s doing a “fantastic job.” Trade-war bluster notwithstanding, Trump has had kind words for President Xi Jinping of China, another authoritarian ruler opposed to democracy and human rights.
There’s a pattern there that should be part of any analysis of Trump’s post-election attempts to undermine democracy in the United States.
In the meantime, prosecuting those responsible for the riot, particularly the politicians right up to Trump who set the stage for it, has to be the top priority. An impeachment conviction would preclude Trump from running again, though perhaps not continuing the grift of soliciting funds from gullible marks. The historical record must, however, be clear about Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanours.