I’m not here to wax idealistic about what America “means” in the year 2021. It’s been an ugly, painful stretch since Trump took office, and even before then you didn’t have to look hard to spot the inconsistencies, the cruelties, the greed that marked the darker side of what the national experiment had become. And yet, even at the worst moments there was a strain of hope that pervaded, and the hope was based on the promise (if not the reality) of the revolutionary system of democratic government we had set up almost 250 years ago. In many ways the will of the people has been consistently subverted, and in other ways perverted, but through it all the people retained the power to change what they wanted to change with their vote. Something better was within our grasp, even if the actual grasping of it seemed unlikely. And this is because, despite the many flaws of the system, we still live in a representative democracy.
The people who stormed the nation’s capital on Jan. 6 shared a common goal: they wanted to subvert that democracy. They waved American flags, they chanted U-S-A, and they came dressed in patriotic symbols, but deep down their ultimate aim was to overturn a fair election in favor of an aspiring autocrat and to erase the last vestiges of popular representation that are fundamental to America’s existence. The collective fascist impulse had as its central aim the overthrow of popular will in favor of their ousted leader.
If any of them happen to read this post, you can script their reaction, since it was the operating thesis of the whole movement: “The election was stolen!”
To this, it’s hard to decipher whether they’re gullible or lying. There’s an argument to be made that decades of right-wing media propaganda that have cast liberals and Democrats as their blood enemies, along with the insistence of Republican politicians that Joe Biden’s victory was unlawful, has rendered them brainwashed. If that’s the case, and if they truly believe based on absolutely no evidence that Trump won the election, perhaps you can understand or even credit their outrage. Many of them seem absolutely sincere. But simultaneously, you have to condemn their credulity; nobody else is fooled by this nonsense. Four years ago, despite our massive disappointment, opponents of Donald Trump understood he had won a valid election under the electoral college. There is simply no evidence of voter fraud, and there never has been.
Maybe some of the rioters were true believers. But as a group, the people in D.C. and Trump supporters generally share a trait that has become commonplace among the right wing in our country: A proud, willful ignorance of the truth. They have the unique ability to disbelieve a series of known facts because they simply don’t want to believe it, and their desire to have things their own way overrides logic and evidence and rationality. More importantly, it overrides any respect for or commitment to the American system of government.
This is what I mean: Among Trump supporters, there is no appreciation for what America means, or is supposed to mean, or could mean. Nobody says the word “America” more often, or flaunts its symbols more readily, but no group is so profoundly ignorant about the history and democratic purpose of the country they live in. America, to them, is a word to wield aggressively against outsiders and heretics, and the flag is nothing more than a tribal tattoo. Civic duty is a foreign idea, and actual democracy an inconvenience when it stands in the way of their base in-group desires. They couldn’t be more disconnected from the concept of America even as they bleat out the word in near-hysteric pitch.
All of this, of course, is an American version of fascism spearheaded by one of the most rotten, self-interested narcissists in our history. The fact that Trump exists isn’t surprising; there are a lot of people in this world, and some of them are going to be awful and powerful at the same time. The fact that so many people support him is terrifying, and the rot in their souls was on full display as they fought police and destroyed property and threatened congresspeople, all for…
For what? For the right to overturn an election based on “evidence” that anyone with a brain can see is entirely manufactured? For the right to express their anger that other people in this country disagreed with their political philosophy, and that those other people were more numerous? For the right to show what kind of terror they would unleash if they were ever set loose to run the show?
The big question after Wednesday’s events is whether it was a one-time show of force, or if this is just the tip of the spear. It was easy to restore order, relatively speaking, but we also can’t forget that revolutions tend to be carried out by a very small portion of a nation’s people. Trump has tapped into this wild anger better than any politician, which is why sniveling ambition vessels like Ted Cruz continued to object to the election results even after it became clear that they had blood on their hands; he dreams of being president, and he wants to tap into the menacing id of those who swear fealty to Trump. He’ll never succeed, since he’s so unpalatable as a human being, but he’s correct in discerning that the anger transcends Trump, and that someone could come along to harness it the way he did. It won’t be easy—Trump has many natural entrancing qualities that will be hard to duplicate, especially by those who consciously try—but this specific kind of entitled rage isn’t going away, and it will be looking fervently for its next messiah.
Whenever that next savior emerges, he will have to loathe the notion of American democracy just as much as Trump, and just as much as his supporters. He will have to be willing to throw it all aside in favor of an autocratic, American form of fascism that satisfies his people on a guttural level. You cannot fake this. There are dozens of congresspeople, Cruz included, who had the audacity to bemoan the violence even after whipping the people into a frenzy by claiming election fraud. We can call them “halfway crooks”—they want the benefits of this kind of support, but they don’t want the ugliness that comes with it. Trump doesn’t mind the ugliness, and that’s what makes him so powerful. The next Trump, if one comes around, will have that same quality, that same careless energy that shrugs its shoulders at the potential loss of human life.
It’s hard today not to think about Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran who was shot and killed inside the Capitol building. The videos, which can be found on Twitter, are horrendous—she attempts to climb through a window somewhere in the building, a shot rings out, and she falls backward. One eyewitness told journalists on the scene that she immediately said she was fine, but the videos from the scene show her lying on the ground, a look of shock in her eyes, as blood covers her mouth. It was clear she was dying.
A look at her Twitter feed this morning shows that she completely bought into the mythos of Trump, complete with the paranoia, the grievance, and the sense of vague rage at being somehow censored, somehow stifled. She was one of the true believers, it’s clear, to the extent that when the secret service and the police told her to stop what she was doing, she instead pressed on, and it cost her everything.
What is this for? What is the ultimate aim? Whether it’s based in ignorance or malice, the truth is that the people in the nation’s capital on Wednesday were fighting for an end to fair elections, an end to popular will, and an end to democracy. Some are grifters, some are sadists, and many more are zealots, but they share a single impulse. And while they invoke the country’s name, and wear its colors, and shout its slogans, in their heart of hearts is a single message. It’s a message we’ve heard before, outside our borders, and it’s one that resonates as clearly as a beating drum:
Death to America. Death to America. Death to America.