Last December, Ross Douthat suggested that “there are two Republican Parties.” One of them governs dutifully, “certifying elections, rejecting frivolous claims and conspiratorial lawsuits, declining to indulge the conceit” that Donald Trump’s defeat could be overturned anti-democratically.
The other GOP, Douthat argued, “is acting like a bunch of saboteurs.” However, these Republicans “are doing so in the knowledge—or at least the strong assumption—that their behavior is performative.”
He called it dreampolitik, “a politics of partisan fantasy that . . . feed[s] gridlock and stalemate and sometimes protest but not yet the kind of crisis anticipated by references to Weimar Germany and our Civil War.”
Douthat wondered—naïvely in retrospect—if “certain kinds of partisan fantasy might actually be stabilizing forces, letting people satisfy their ideological urges by participating in a story.” Or perhaps “once enough politicians have endorsed dreampolitik, the pressure to make the dream into reality will inexorably build.”
On January 6 that pressure gave way to a rampaging and murderous mob of pro-Trump insurrectionists.
They ransacked the U.S. Capitol to disrupt President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to power, assaulted officer Brian Sicknick with chemical agents (likely contributing to his fatal stroke hours later), and shouted “kill him with his own gun” at officer Michael Fanone while they tased him to the point of causing a heart attack.
It was ironic to see anti-police violence from a movement identified with slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” and “Back the Blue.” But it should not have been surprising. In fact, pace Douthat, none of it should have been surprising. Because for anyone paying attention, agitation for violence on the right has been widespread and increasing disturbingly specific.
For an example of this festering interest in violence, which is both anti-government and anti-police, consider a recent article by Claremont Institute fellow and Boston University professor emeritus Angelo Codevilla. Published just days before the November presidential election, “The Police and Us” argued that it was time for conservatives to start “hurting cops.”
Alas, the Left has shown that hurting cops tends to make them your friends. Hence, if you want respect from police who you do not control, make sure you give them lively reasons to fear you.
Codevilla went on to advise readers to organize themselves into local armed cells:
Call it self-defense groups, neighborhood protection, vigilantes, friends, anything but “militias.” But the essence is the same: rely on yourself and on people who have known each other for a long time—no infiltrators, please—united and armed to take care of themselves as they think best.
Codevilla concluded with a call for “jury nullification” in favor of “anyone remotely like yourself who is charged in any confrontation with those tribes and with their authorities.”
It’s hard to see this—by one of the “intellectuals” of the nationalist program—as anything but a call to proto-insurrection. And this was before the election.
Appeals for revolutionary violence on the right were supercharged following President Trump’s defeat.
Three days after votes were cast, conservative activist Ned Ryun (who ironically served as a member of Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission), itemized a number of alleged election irregularities—“you’re telling me the semi-senile basement dweller won roughly 3 million more votes than Obama did in 2008?” “Look at Milwaukee and the statistical improbabilities of the Democratic votes there.”—before channeling Malcolm X to propose violence as a remedy for his grievances:
The frightening part of what is happening is that regardless of who eventually wins, half the country will think the other side stole the election. It undermines the legitimacy of whomever takes the oath of office in January. There’s no avoiding that now. And that is a devastating place to be in for us as a country . . .
History tells us that at some point if a country cannot settle its differences like civilized people at the ballot box in a system they trust, they stop talking with ballots and start communicating with bullets. [Emphasis added]
Former Trump national security spokesman Michael Anton—best known for authoring the “Flight 93 election” essay analogizing Democrats to terrorists bent on destroying the republic—made a similar argument, suggesting hopefully that Trump supporters might be aroused to “rebellion”:
No one will really know who won. Partisans on both sides will insist they do, but they won’t—not really . . .
But far more ominously, one half the country—or to be more precise, the class that rules in the interests of (at most) half the country—will surmise that it can rule by fiat. The other half will conclude that they are subjects.
Whether that conclusion resigns the latter to apathy or stirs them to rebellion is the question that will determine the course of our politics going forward.
Anton, like Codevilla, is not a shitposter looking for milita-clicks. He’s one of Trumpism’s intellectuals.
Pro-Trump conservatives and elected Republicans echoed and amplified such menacing calls over the next eight weeks, with a particular focus on legislators, state government officials, and judges who refused to help the president remain in power.
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani endorsed threats against lawmakers who refused to help overturn the election results. “Sometimes it even requires being threatened,” Giuliani said about pressuring Michigan state lawmakers.
Freshman congressman Madison Cawthorn urged attendees at Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA to threaten their representatives as well.
“So, everybody, I’m telling you, I’m encouraging you, please get on the phone, call your congressman,” he said. “And feel free, you can lightly threaten them, and say, ‘You know what? If you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you, Madison Cawthorn is coming after you. Everybody is coming after you.”
Representative Louie Gohmert told Newsmax that the Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn the election left Trump supporters no choice but to resort to violence:
Bottom line is, the Court is saying, ‘We’re not going to touch this, you have no remedy.’ Basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you’ve got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM.
Even the idea of laying siege to government buildings to halt vote counts was discussed and advocated on the pro-Trump right.
Just days after Trump’s election loss, American Greatness contributor Chuck de Caro recalled the McMinn County War of 1946 (also known as the Battle of Athens) during which a group of two thousand veterans violently rebelled against corrupt local officials with automatic weapons, Molotov cocktails and dynamite, ultimately seizing ballot boxes implicated in a disputed election.
De Caro was explicit about the historical lesson he hoped to impart, suggesting that disappointed Trump supporters consider paramilitary action to combat perceived electoral malfeasance:
Much like the thinking of many Trump voters around the country today, the GIs realized that something more than the normal parliamentary response was in order.
So while today’s Trump voters are, as yet, armed only with their smartphones as they try to ascertain the legitimacy of Tuesday’s vote, the McMinn County GIs decided to seize the ballot boxes and count the votes . . . the hard way.
Twenty-first century Democrats of the same mindset as those corrupt McMinn County cops might take note of the reaction of voters when secrecy and deceit are applied to public electoral processes . . . or simply imagine the looks on the faces of haughty McMinn deputies as the ex-GI sappers got ready to set off their demolition charges.
In broad strokes, this was the scenario that played out at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as rioters disrupted Congress’s formal acceptance of Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Reprising the role of returning GI’s were groups like the far-right Oath Keepers militia, which recruits primarily among former military personnel.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn attracted widespread condemnation for advocating that Trump invoke the Insurrection Act in the weeks following the election and demanding a “re-vote” under military supervision. Fewer people noticed that Flynn also encouraged his followers on social media to donate to a group called the “1st Amendment Praetorian,” which describes itself as a “volunteer force of military, Law Enforcement & intel agency community professionals standing up to protect the 1st Amendment and those who use it.”
The co-founder of 1st Amendment Praetorian, a former Green Beret named Robert Patrick Lewis, also promoted the Battle of Athens narrative to his followers, while directly threatening Republican officials.
“Tar, feathers, pitchforks, torches and a railroad tie to carry them to the city line would go a long way right now. Or we can go Battle of Athens,” Lewis tweeted in response to a complaint about the Republican governors of Arizona and Georgia. “You should have one of your aides teach you a history lesson on the Battle of Athens,” he tweeted directly at Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona. “You’re skating on thin ice, buster.”
On the day of the insurrection, the official 1st Amendment Praetorian account—the same group Michael Flynn told Americans to support financially—tweeted “#WETHEPEOPLE OWN DC” over a picture showing that demonstrators had “breached the Capitol.” It wrote “Happy Warrior” above a photo of the shirtless “Q Shaman” Jacob Chansley inside the Capitol.
The attacks on police, the threats against legislators, the attempt to violently disrupt the democratic process: All were part of a militant narrative that pervaded right-wing discourse since—and even before—the 2020 election.
What’s striking is that this fetishization of violence was not merely in reaction to an electoral loss. In the days leading up to the election, some pro-Trump commentators were preparing for violence after Trump won, consumed with the idea that Democrats were organizing a “Color Revolution,” wherein anti-Trump demonstrators would attempt to topple a re-elected Trump.
Color Revolution-obsessed activists believed Trump would technically “win” the election (either via the courts or legislatures) and then would face destabilizing protests from groups that might be credibly labeled “Antifa” or “BLM.” Because that hoped-for scenario did not come to fruition, a new, pro-insurrection narrative was needed.
But it’s important to note that the idea was for violence if Trump won, and then violence when he lost. The violence is the constant. The violence is the point.
With Joe Biden now safely inaugurated as the 46th president, Douthat’s dreampolitik has turned to the subject of secession or, more euphemistically, “national divorce.”
After Rep. Liz Cheney voted to impeach Donald Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection, Wyoming state GOP chairman Frank Eathorne told Trump confidant Steve Bannon that his party was considering support for secession. “Many of these Western states have the ability to be self-reliant, and we’re keeping eyes on Texas too, and their consideration of possible secession,” he said on Bannon’s podcast.
The Texas GOP has also flirted with the idea. State party chairman Allen West, angered by the Supreme Court’s decision to summarily dismiss a petition backed by 18 states to throw out the election results, issued a press release suggesting that “perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh also entered the secessionist fray, telling his audience that America is “trending toward secession” and that “there cannot be a peaceful coexistence” between the right and left.
Things have moved surprisingly quickly for a taboo subject that, in the modern era, has never been more than a plaything for cranks and purveyors of self-published race war fantasy fiction.
The Claremont Institute recently hosted an online symposium called “A House Dividing.” The question: Should the union be disbanded? Two pseudonymous authors took up the question. (The Claremont crowd’s use of anonymity is not uncommon, either in their racist poetry or their intellectual calls to arms. Recall that the “Flight 93” essay was originally attributed to a Roman consul because while Michael Anton professed to believe that the literal fate of America was at stake, he’d didn’t believe it enough to risk his high-paying job at a New York finance firm run by liberal Hillary Clinton supporters.)
One contributor to the secession symposium, an “American professor” using the handle “Tom Trenchard,” imagines looking back at December 2020 from a perspective five years into the future. Trenchard tells the story of the end of the United States of America with evident pride, and is quite explicit about the threats of violence and civil war that made it possible:
The rapidity with which this was accomplished was crucial to its ultimate success, and almost unbelievable in hindsight. They were aided by the establishment of efficient systems of communication running throughout the hundreds of rural and suburban counties sympathetic to the movement—the so-called “Town Crier Committees.” This system, working in conjunction with self-dubbed “Minutemen” vigilante groups, provided the coordinated resistance necessary to enforce the county endorsements of Trump’s leadership . . .
With the adoption of the provisional Constitution for the United American Counties in January 2021 . . . the stage was set for a decision by the newly-inaugurated Biden and the areas remaining under his jurisdiction. Would he go to war with Trump’s counties and attempt to compel union as Lincoln had?
“Trenchard” predicts/wishes/pleasures-himself-with the idea that, if push comes to shove, today’s unionists would lack the fortitude to impose their will by force, because “there was no moral controversy that would come close to this kind of stark alternative; no higher ideal that would plausibly justify shedding the blood of fellow Americans.”
But this raises the question: What was the moral controversy for which founders of “Trenchard’s” new “United American Counties” were willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?
A vague opposition to “woke” politics and cancel culture? Anger over pronouns and bathrooms and drag queen story hour? Frustration with stalled Section 230 reform?
Or is it simply personal allegiance to Donald J. Trump?
Who can say. But it is useful to recall that this culture was preparing for violence even if Trump had won.
So maybe it’s not about anything other than hatred of their fellow Americans.
What comes next?
It would be pleasant to believe that dreampolitik will dissipate and the militant fever will break with Trump out of power. And perhaps that will be the case.
On the other hand, it’s possible that, like the proverbial bear with a taste for human flesh, the right-wing base may find that a return to “normalcy” and ordinary partisan politics doesn’t quite satisfy their bloodlust.
Looking ahead, we should probably steel ourselves for a resurgence of the militia movement and an increase in lone wolf right-wing terrorism of the sort last seen in the mid-1990s. Depressed Trump supporters who “trusted the plan” might take the Claremont Institute literally instead of seriously and take matters into their own hands, not understanding that the scribblings of dapper, wealthy, middle-aged academics calling for militia groups are performative and not prescriptive.
We should prepare for showdowns with separatist groups and sovereign citizens, perhaps emboldened by local sheriffs or county officials. Remember the Michigan sheriff who excused the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer? Or the New Mexico county commissioner who was arrested for his role in the U.S. Capitol insurrection and for threats against President Biden?
The word “nullification” may become a more regular feature of political discourse as ambitious state and local government leaders defy federal regulations, testing Washington’s will to enforce them.
We could see a new, more militant resistance to Biden administration-backed public health measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the vaccine is rolled out nationwide. Or to adoption of the vaccine itself.
If this darker future begins to unfold, it will be important for the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize infiltrating, disrupting, and prosecuting seditious or militant groups. And to the extent that such groups might be backed by wealthy conservative donors or others associated with the Trump administration, it may require political will, or at least the will not to interfere with career officials seeking to prosecute high-profile suspects.
For those of us who still consider ourselves conservative, we cannot yet return to a Republican party that, at best, maintains strategic silence in the face of violent or secessionist agitation. And at worst is egging it on from the fancy sinecures of Conservatism Inc.
A cancer of complicity afflicts nearly the entire movement, and while there are decent leaders who deserve support—particularly from far-right primary challengers—the GOP is too compromised by extremists to be trusted with political power any time soon.
Update April 28, 2021, 3:25 p.m.: The article originally read: “They ransacked the U.S. Capitol to disrupt President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to power, murdering officer Brian Sicknick and shouting “kill him with his own gun” at officer Michael Fanone while they tased him to the point of causing a heart attack.” The medical examiner later claimed that “all that transpired played a role in [Sicknick’s] condition”) but ruled that his death was not directly caused by any individual rioter.