Over the last four years, “Trump Derangement Syndrome” has been a popular term deployed against those that have forcefully objected to Donald Trump’s heinous actions. Its purpose was to spread the idea that there was just something about Trump (other than the reality of him, of course) that drove people crazy enough to say so many bad things about him. It was always deployed in bad faith, a way of deflecting the real derangement (supporting Donald Trump) and projecting it onto the other side.
Of course, anyone that dared to invoke Nazis or other fascist regimes throughout history when discussing Trump’s rise was always met with “TDS” accusations. Nevermind that invocations of these historical examples was never done to say Trump was worse than them, but to draw the obvious parallels to them in the hopes that we don’t repeat history. Trump’s movement always had all of the familiar hallmarks of fascism: The destruction of the concept of truth, the demonization of the press and minority groups, and the belief in the illegitimacy of the opponent were all there from the start. Once upon a time, his biggest defenders all knew this. But then he won the GOP nomination, and anyone who pointed out the same things they once did was being hyperbolic and alarmist. On January 6th, a mob including literal Nazis stormed the Capitol in Donald Trump’s name. Trump’s own officials now call him a fascist. If only someone could have seen this coming!
A few months before the 2020 election, a friend of mine invited me to a chat group of fellow outspoken, left-of-center folks to discuss politics. We were mostly strangers, but all in the same boat: feeling like we were screaming into the void day after day, arguing with people about if the sky is blue or water is wet, trying to figure out how to extinguish this burning house when half the people we talked to didn’t even believe it was on fire. The group helped us keep our sanity, allowing us to vent and ensure each other that we’re not crazy for being so mad. That’s not to say we all had the same opinions on everything. But we did all agree on a baseline level of facts and reality. More importantly, we all agreed on a baseline level of morality, such as “you should care about people other than yourself,” a controversial statement in these times. When you don’t have to spend all of your time arguing over those core principles, you can focus on discussing real issues. This group produced some of the most insightful and productive political conversations that I’ve been a part of.
One unifying element between the members of this group is that at certain times we’ve been those people viewed as alarmist, hyperbolic, hopelessly biased and unable to see both sides. And yet, two days after an event took place that all of us could see coming from a million miles away, we were all still in a state of shock. Did that just happen? Did the President just attempt to overthrow the American government by sending a violent mob to storm the capitol? Yeah, he did. As details of the insurrection kept coming in, we started to realize that all the jokes, memes, and goofy images of rioters in costumes and taking selfies was hiding a much more sinister situation. Here is just a small list of the violence that took place that day that has not gotten nearly enough attention:
- Five people died, including a Capitol police officer, who was bashed in the head with a fire extinguisher
- One of those killed, a QAnon follower named Ashli Babbit, was shot by capitol police after she tried jumping over a barrier that was the last line of defense between the rioters and politicians. She had recently retweeted a tweet calling for Mike Pence to be convicted of treason
- Rioters intentionally crushed a group of police officers against a door and continued to push as they screamed in pain
- Rioters assaulted police officers, including beating one with an American flag
- Rioters scrawled “Murder The Media” on doors and walls
- Rioters chased black officers through halls and called them the “N-word”
- Rioters brought a gallows, and chanted “Hang Mike Pence” as they stormed the capitol
- One rioter, whose trailer was full of guns and ammunition, texted a friend that he was going to “put a bullet in Pelosi’s noggin”
- Several rioters were seen with zip ties in hand. One can only assume that these were for taking politicians hostage, and possibly executing them on live stream.
- Two operational pipe bombs were found outside the capitol, and bombs were found outside both the DNC and RNC
- A truck with assault rifles and a cooler full of molotov cocktails was found not far from the capitol
- Rioters pepper sprayed the police and possessed flashbang grenades
- The vast majority of rioters that have been doxxed have social media profiles full of violent fantasies and threats
It is an absolute miracle that more people didn’t die. If you had asked anyone before this week, what would happen if a giant mob stormed the capitol and breached it when all of Congress was inside, the answer would probably be: the police and secret service would have to kill the people that got inside. But since law enforcement was overpowered, strategically stood down, sympathetic to the cause, or some combination, that did not happen. Which meant that the rioters actually got in. Which meant that had the politicians been evacuated literally seconds later, and a heroic Capitol police officer didn’t lead the mob away from the Senate chamber, we could have been watching assassinations broadcast on livestream. After Trump, the next three elected officials in the line of succession to the Presidency were in the room that day. They all could have been killed. Some of the rioters just got caught up in the moment and acted as tourists and really were harmless. But many came prepared to take and hold the capitol. Almost all of them either expressed fantasies about killing Democrats or subscribed to a conspiracy that fetishizes it. If they would have found Nancy Pelosi in that building, they would have murdered her. I’m confident in that.
If all of these actions were carried out by a rogue foreign terrorist cell, it would be bad enough, but the real scary part about this insurrection is that it was set in motion by a party that represents about 40% of American society. And it wasn’t just in service of violence and vengeance. Its goals were political first and foremost: overthrow the American election, ensure that Donald Trump remains President, and end American democracy as we know it. When talking about what happened on January 6, we need to open up the scope of our analysis to be much bigger than that day, week or even year. And the scope of the people involved needs to be way, way bigger than Donald Trump and the rioters themselves.
It is not up for debate on whether Donald Trump incited this. He literally did. He worked his crowd into frothing anger and then told them to march down to the Capitol and demand that Mike Pence and the “weak” Republicans do what they ask. This wasn’t a spontaneous thing, or something the crowd was surprised by. Most of them knew that this was the plan. Here is a twitter thread from December 21st detailing exactly what was going to happen. Then, when the insurrection had started, after painting a target on Mike Pence’s head with his speech and earlier rhetoric, Trump sent out a tweet attacking Pence. “Hang Mike Pence” was chanted throughout the Capitol. While all that was happening, Trump was calling various Republican senators, asking them to help him overturn the election. They were hiding in the Capitol from their biggest fans.
Why were so many people so eager to destroy their careers, risk their lives, and betray their country on this day? Was it because Donald Trump hypnotized them? No. It was because they have had their brains pumped full of lies for years by a vast right wing media machine. Over the years, that machine has been effective in selling many “Big Lies” that benefit conservative stakeholders, such as: climate change is a hoax, supply side economics works, and Democrats cheat in elections and their victories are illegitimate. Obviously, that last one is the Big Lie powering this moment. It’s not new. It’s been a big part of conservative ideology since I’ve been paying attention to politics. But just like he has done with every other insidious aspect of conservatism, Trump has latched on to it and supercharged it since the beginning of his foray into politics. He accused Ted Cruz of stealing the 2016 Iowa caucus. He preemptively accused Democrats of stealing the 2016 election that he ended up winning. And of course, he sold the lie that the 2020 election was stolen
It wasn’t just Trump that sold this lie. It was the entire Republican party and their media ecosystem. TV channels, social media celebrities, radio personalities and more all went all in on the election fraud lie. If they didn’t, they would get a tongue lashing from Trump, another more batshit outlet would step up and take its place, and the conspiracies would get even crazier. Not too crazy for the Republican party though. Even Republicans that have gotten credit for not spreading these lies, like Mitch McConnell, hedged way longer than they would allow any Democrat to hedge on the question of who won the election. Bogus lawsuit after bogus lawsuit was filed. Every “reasonable” Republican that was “just asking questions” about the validity of the election already knew the answers to their questions. They were intentionally sowing doubt in Democracy, poisoning the brains of their voters.
The election fraud lie was never really very convincing. They barely even tried to produce any evidence, and Joe Biden won by so many states that it wouldn’t even matter if they did. That’s partially what makes all of this so unconscionable. The politicians that sold this narrative knew they were lying. So did the propagandists. The most charitable explanation for their actions was that they were afraid of the Trump base and lied to their constituents to further their careers. The least charitable explanation is that they were trying to overturn a legitimate election, end American democracy, and turn the country into an authoritarian state ruled by one party. For many, it was probably a little bit of both. In any case, none of these people that went along with it should hold office ever again.
The vast majority of the Republican party went along with the election fraud lie. That is reason enough to never take them seriously on anything again. But some went much further. Both Trump and other Republicans, like Lindsey Graham, pressured election officials to throw out legal votes. After a violent mob sieged the capitol based on an obvious lie, 147 Republicans voted to continue that lie and overturn Biden’s legitimate win. These politicians are enemies of democracy and have blood on their hands. If this coup would have worked, these Republicans would have honored it and worked to build out the illegitimate fascist regime. The notorious raised fist that Senator Josh Hawley, the instigator of this objection process, raised toward the insurrectionists should live in infamy as one of the most shameful photos in American history.
It wasn’t just the election fraud lie that drove this crazed crowd to attack the Capitol. It was also QAnon, a vast, sprawling conspiracy theory that alleges a lot of things, but most importantly it alleges that Democrats are all satanic pedophiles and Donald Trump was put on this earth to stop them. Not only have mainstream Republicans consistently played footsie with this theory – keeping their distance while still giving winks and nods to it — multiple open QAnon supporters have been recently elected to congress and embraced by the party. Trump himself is incapable of honestly disavowing anything that supports him, so his tepid disavowals and honest embraces have only fueled it. I honestly don’t think mainstream Republicans realize how much this theory has captured their base. Maybe they will now after a mob of people with Q hoodies and a shirtless dude adorned with Viking horns named “The Q Shaman” stormed their place of work out for blood. Regardless of whether Republicans have embraced Q or not, they have cultivated a fact-free, conspiratorial ideology that centers Democrats as the ultimate enemy. QAnon just takes the structure they’ve built a couple steps further.
Although everyone involved in this insurrection believed extreme theories, these weren’t the type of tinfoil hat loners that we’ve been conditioned to associate with conspiracy theorists. It wasn’t a bunch of Ted Kaczynski types that had been living alone in the sticks. For the “Trumpism is caused by economic anxiety” crowd: it wasn’t a bunch of down on their luck, unemployed steelworkers either. It was off-duty cops, decorated military veterans, CEOs, business owners, lawyers, bartenders, etc. One even took a private plane to the event. It was a group that included the full spectrum of White America. It could have included your aunt or uncle or co-worker. A lot of people are waking up right now realizing that they have a co-worker that they always got along with that is now, for all intents and purposes, a terrorist. This group was not just made up of the fringes of society. It was made up of people that subscribe to the same ideology: Trump supporters, conservatives, Republicans. Don’t believe me? Ask them. CNN’s Elle Reeve interviewed many people at the Capitol storming, and she said she made it a point to ask them if they considered themselves in the mainstream of the Republican Party. She estimated that about 75% of them said yes.
All of this anti-Democratic insanity, violence, and lies were on the ballot this November. A vote for Trump was a vote of approval for something like this. Trump has made it very clear that he doesn’t respect election outcomes and would do whatever it took to stay in power, regardless of the outcome. 74 million people voted for him knowing this. This is, without question, an authoritarian movement. As Timothy Snyder, an expert on tyranny and authoritarianism, wrote days before the election: “To vote for Trump is to traduce the meaning of voting, which is a normal part of the transition to authoritarianism. Because the collective effect of votes for Trump is to create background plausibility for a coup, each vote for Trump is participation in a plot to end the American republic. It is to vote for a future in which voting does not matter.” This is the true scope of the insurrection we’re dealing with.
So this is where we are: Trump committed a bunch of crimes to try to win the election, and then he committed a bunch of crimes to try to get the election he lost overturned, then when neither of those worked, he incited a violent mob to storm the capitol to possibly kill his enemies. His party helped him with all of this. They ensured that the transition of power could not complete peacefully. All of this was happening with the backdrop of 4,000 Americans a day dying from a virus that Trump consistently lied about and helped spread through his incompetence. Many Americans remain locked in their houses because of this. This is how the Trump presidency ends, and it could have been much, much worse had a lot of people not worked their asses off to get Joe Biden and a host of other Democrats elected to end it. If this is what you would have predicted at the start of all this, you would have been accused of having “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and not taken seriously. But you would have been right.
I believe everything I’ve written in this post to be pretty obviously true. I don’t think the opinions I’ve espoused here should be controversial to anyone that’s been paying attention. But they are. If I had to bet, the average person reading this piece would describe its thesis as hyperbolic, biased, or unfair. That’s not because anything I said in it is untrue, but because the implications of what I’m saying reflect so badly on so many people, and that is hard to hear. It is also very difficult for people to lay the blame for something entirely on one side, because that makes you seem biased, and so a counterweight must be brought up to evenly distribute blame. That is intellectually dishonest and unhelpful, and so I refuse to do it. What I’m saying here sounds dire and extreme. That’s because our reality IS dire and extreme. Us “alarmists” have been saying that since the beginning. And now, we have unfortunately been proven right.