Throngs of self-styled conservatives and Republicans have now reached the thunderous realization that Trump is not just a harmless clown. Former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that “I never thought I’d see a day in our country where people from any side of the political spectrum would storm the Capitol in order to intentionally stop the constitutional transfer of power.” He acknowledged Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, but insisted that this kind of incitement was par for the course in politics, and he was shocked that people took Trump literally.
It seems we have an entire party stocked with Captain Renaults.
While it’s good to see some lines being drawn at long last, it may be too late. As with the response to the coronavirus, timing is everything. If steps had been taken immediately, they would have been successful. But after the contagion has spread, it’s too little, too late. Republicans had many, many chances to curtail the spread and isolate the super-spreader, but they kept saying there was nothing to it, or it would simply go away, or it was all a hoax perpetrated by the left to install socialism.
I like a conversion as much as the next person, but sorry, there was always a whiff of fascism about Trump. Don’t tell us you’re just discovering it now. His fascination with strength instead of values, his promises to commit war crimes (legal niceties be damned), his twisted admiration of strong men, his avalanche of lies, his ignorance of and contempt for law, his targeting of minority groups, his stoking of grievance and victimhood. It was all there. Yes, it was interspersed with humor and entertainment. Think that means it can’t be dangerous? Have you ever seen a Hugo Chavez or Rodrigo Duterte speech?
Didn’t Republicans see him encouraging violence among his followers at rallies in 2016? Don’t they remember the thuggish threats his people issued during the 2016 campaign?
No? Well, let’s refresh our recollection. In April 2016, Trump and Ted Cruz were still battling for delegates. Here is what Trump’s recently pardoned consigliere, Roger Stone, said at the time:
They’re trying to steal it in two different ways. It is interesting to me that in every primary or caucus where Ted Cruz won, we have certified, proven, sworn evidence of massive voter fraud, which will later be presented to the credentials committee in Cleveland in an attempt to unseat delegates who were illegally elected.
Threatening “days of rage” in Cleveland, Stone continued, “We’re going to have protests, demonstrations. We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal . . .”
Stone didn’t even bother to clothe his threats of physical violence in humor.
Trump was always clear about his attraction to political violence. Speaking of Clinton, he warned that if elected, she could curtail gun rights. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.” The crowd booed. He then added: “Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
That became a tick. He would invoke the Second Amendment as a code for encouraging his supporters to resort to violence. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” he tweeted in 2020, “and save your great 2nd amendment. It’s under siege.” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Trump screamed from his keyboard. Heavily armed protesters showed up at the Michigan State house.
Even after some members of that mob were arrested for plotting to kidnap and possibly assassinate the governor and blow up the capital, Trump continued his incitement against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Appearing at a rally in Michigan, he joked about the attempt on her life.
Let that sink in. The FBI had arrested a group of domestic terrorists who were planning an attack on a sitting governor, and the president of the United States made light of it: “I’m the one, it was our people that helped her out with her problem. I mean, we’ll have to see if it’s a problem. Right? People are entitled to say maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t.” Gov. Whitmer wrote a few days later:
Every time the president ramps up this violent rhetoric, every time he fires up Twitter to launch another broadside against me, my family and I see a surge of vicious attacks sent our way. This is no coincidence, and the President knows it. He is sowing division and putting leaders, especially women leaders, at risk. And all because he thinks it will help his reelection.
Did Mick Mulvaney & Co. miss that? Did they not notice when Trump loyalists cheered on vigilantism? When rioting broke out after the George Floyd killing, Trump lapdog Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the middle east?”
Trump’s acolytes got the idea quickly enough. Rep. Steve King tweeted an image of red states fighting blue states with the caption, “Folks keep talking about another Civil War. . . One side has about 8 trillion bullets, while the other side doesn’t know which bathroom to use.”
Perhaps today’s aware Republicans were otherwise engaged when Trump and his gang made Kyle Rittenhouse a hero, and offered a Republican Convention speaking slot to the gun-brandishing lawyers from St. Louis? What did they make of Trump’s tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts?”
Even his famous boast about the loyalty of his followers was revealing. He said he could “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any followers.” As we now see, he might gain some.
Since Republicans said hardly a word, one must conclude that they were not alarmed when Trump phoned the Georgia secretary of state and instructed him to “find” 11,780 votes—in other words to steal the election he was accusing his opponents of stealing.
As Jay Nordlinger writes, Trump’s interpretation of the Tiananmen Square massacre was that it was a close call—not for the democracy demonstrators, but for the Communist party. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Throughout his catastrophe of a presidency, Trump has demolished trust in institutions, leading his progressively radicalized followers to doubt all sources of information except himself. And here we are: The greatest liar in American history has more fanatical believers than anyone has ever commanded. As historian Timothy Snyder put it, “Post truth is pre-fascist.”
Republicans who are drawing a line now and saying that they never imagined Trump’s personal militias would smash cop’s heads with fire extinguishers and defecate in the halls of the Capitol must also answer this question: What else do you expect when you falsely allege a stolen election? Faith in elections is the sine qua non of a functioning democracy. If elections are not free and fair, what alternative is there to violence?
Now Mulvaney and Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell and many others are finding a line they think is too far. Inciting a mob to invade the Capitol in order to stop the certification of the election is the one thing, the only thing, that got their attention. Good for them. But while they and nearly the entire Republican party and its opinion-shaping satellites were averting their eyes, and cooperating, and enabling, the Trump virus spread. It’s now an epidemic, and there is no vaccine on the horizon.