Republicans double down on gaslighting narrative in House hearing: ‘It was not an insurrection’

Republicans clearly have settled on their strategy for a post-Jan. 6 narrative about the Capitol insurrection: Gaslight, gaslight, and then gaslight some more. That was made crystal clear today in a House hearing on the insurrection, when a parade of GOP House members consistently tried to convince the public that what it witnessed that day wasn’t real.

One congressman tried to claim that “it was not an insurrection, and we cannot call it that and be truthful.” Another doubted that the mob was comprised entirely of Donald Trump supporters:” I don’t know who did the poll to say they were Trump supporters.” And their go-to white nationalist complained that “law-abiding citizens” were under attack from “the national security state” in the course of investigating and prosecuting the insurrectionists.

The hearing, titled “The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions,” featured testimony from former Trump officials—then-acting Attorney General Phil Rosen, and then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller—involved in the slow response by security forces to intervene in the riot. Both men generally refused to directly answer any of the questions posed to them by Democrats, and mostly claimed they had done nothing wrong that day.

But the hearing was dominated by Republicans who insisted that Democrats were making much ado out of nothing, like Charles Boyer telling Ingrid Bergman that those gaslights weren’t flickering. The most audacious of the bunch was Congressman Andrew Clyde of Georgia, who opened the hearing’s second half with a straight shot of alternative-universe ether:

This hearing is called “The Capitol Insurrection.” Let’s be honest with the American people: It was not an insurrection, and we cannot call it that and be truthful. The Cambridge English dictionary defines an “insurrection” as, and I quote, “An organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” And then from the Century Dictionary, “The act of rising against civil authority, or governmental restraints, specifically the armed resistance of a number of persons against the power of the state.”

As one of the members who stayed in the Capitol and on the House floor, who with other Republican colleagues, helped to barricade the door until almost 3 p.m. that day from the mob who tried to enter. I can tell you, the House was never breached, and it was not an insurrection.

This is the truth: There was an undisciplined mob, there were some rioters and some who committed acts of vandalism, but let me be clear—there was no insurrection, and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a boldfaced lie.

Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall, people in orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures—you know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January 6, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.

There were no firearms confiscated from anyone who breached the Capitol, so the only shot fired on January 6 was from a Capitol Police officer who killed an unarmed protester, Ashli Babbitt, in what will probably, eventually, be determined to be a needless display of lethal force.

Congressman Ralph Norman of South Carolina was similarly skeptical. All those Trump banners carried up the Capitol steps that day by people who got started at a Trump rally failed to persuade him that the crowd actually was comprised of Trump supporters:

When I read this sheet, and on the timeline, let’s see, at 2:07, “a mob of Trump supporters breached the steps”—I don’t know who did a poll that it was Trump supporters. You had the media saying the same thing, just like the media was saying Officer Sicknick was killed with a fire extinguisher, which he was not. But I don’t know who did the poll to say they were Trump supporters.

Clyde similarly displayed a kind of cognitive obtuseness—refusing the plain meaning of words, declining to see what’s plainly in view, while inverting reality and claiming it’s the opposite—while remaining somehow oblivious that his definitions of “insurrection” perfectly described the events of January 6, while an event he considers an “insurrection”—namely, the so-called “Russiagate” investigation—bears little to no resemblance to one:

You know, but the only insurrection I’ve witnessed in my lifetime was the one conducted by the FBI with participants from the DOJ and other agencies under the banner “Russia Russia Russia.” High-ranking employees from these federal agencies and members of an independent counsel coordinated and fed a false narrative for over two years that the 2016 election was stolen and illegitimate. Democrats were on the news almost every night saying the evidence is there, and the mainstream media amplified the fake news. This was indeed a very coordinated and well-funded effort by a determined group of people to overthrow the duly elected president, Donald J. Trump.

Georgia Congressman Jody Hice thought that Trump had established his innocence in inspiring the mob by having urged them at one point to march to the Capitol “peacefully and patriotically,” apparently magically overwhelming his exhortations that “if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore” and using the word “fight” some 20 times:

I would like to address how the media and the many Democrats have put forth a narrative that has been circulating around about how January 6, and has never been corrected. For example, the narrative that President Trump incited riots on January 6, I don’t know even understand, Madam Chair, why you yourself don’t speak the truth as to what President Trump actually stated. And what he said on the morning of January 6, he said that “I know every one of you will soon be marching over to the Capitol buildings to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard today.” Madam Chair, why don’t you talk about how the president used those words, “peacefully and patriotically,” instead of cherry-picking words that you want to use to portray an image of something that did not happen.

Congressman Yvette Herrell of New Mexico also clearly was partaking of some of the same Trump-cult kool-aid, claiming that “fake news” had “poisoned the well”:

Do you feel like the well has been poisoned here? We’ve had so much fake news, cynical politicians, disinformation—far, far from the truth. I mean, we’ve heard that Officer Sicknick was killed by a fire extinguisher in the riot, but indeed he died by natural causes, a stroke. … How much of an impact do you think social media and other outlets had on an investigation?

Miller replied to her that “some people are using that against us very effectively”—to which Herrell quipped: “Yes, I think they call that ‘fake news’.”

Then, apparently keying off Clyde’s rant, she asked each of the witnesses: “Do you classify the events of January 6 as a riot or an insurrection? One or the other.”

Many of the Republicans wanted to talk about Black Lives Matter and antifascists in the context of last summer’s civil unrest over police brutality, reverting to their tried-and-true narrative about a “violent left” that “burned down cities” as being a kind of excuse for a Republican mob to attempt to stop the counting of Electoral College ballots.

Congressman Clay Higgins of Louisiana seemed especially angry:

Nineteen people died during BLM riots last year. Hundreds and hundreds were injured. Teo thousand police officers were injured from BLM riots last year. And yet, we’re gonna discuss today, as if none of that happened, the events of January 6. The hypocrisy of this body is indeed disturbing to the scores of millions of Americans that supported President Trump and love this country, and have been denied access to their own Capitol for over a year!

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, who has become Republicans’ go-to white nationalist since the retirement of Iowa’s Steve King, tried to claim that the post-insurrection investigation and resulting indictments and arrests were all the work of the Deep State:

Outright propaganda and lies are being used to unleash the national security state against law-abiding citizens—especially Trump voters. The FBI is fishing through homes of veterans and citizens with no criminal records and restricting the liberties of individuals that have never been accused of a crime. Mr. Biden calls January 6 the worst attack since the Civil War. A president was impeached for his alleged role in that riot. It was reported early, completely unconfirmed, that an armed insurrection, quote, beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher. The government has even enlisted Americans to turn in their own neighbors. Federal prosecutor Michael Sherwin on CBS News’ 60 Minutes continued the, quote, “Shock and Awe,” end of quote. Many of my Democratic colleagues opposed the “Shock and Awe” strategy in Iraq. We should similarly oppose its application against American citizens.

His Arizona colleague, Congressman Andy Biggs, also wanted to divert everyone’s attention to leftist protest violence, apparently on the grounds that it justified the insurrection, or at least made Democrats look hypocritical for trying to hold Republicans accountable for it:

Democrats have said that the events of January 6 were an assault on democracy, and if that’s true, if disorderly conduct in a restricted building is an assault on democracy, then what do we call setting fire to federal court in Portland, Oregon, with people inside—what do we call that? For years, we have watched riots in American cities while House Democrats remain silent or actually supported the violence. The federal courthouse in Portland came under attack every night and Democrats said nothing.  

And then he played a video showing select scenes of nighttime protest violence in Portland. No one mentioned that the protests did not involve an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in a national election.

Not a single Republican denounced Donald Trump’s role in the events or even managed to acknowledge that the insurrection was inspired by the broad dissemination of Trump’s claim that the election was stolen, and its broad support by a large number of congressional GOP members and right-wing pundits. That apparently didn’t fit into their cognitive bandwidth.

Investigators tighten circle around Proud Boys for Jan. 6 violence with two more key arrests

Life comes at you fast sometimes. Just last summer, Zach Rehl led his Philadelphia-based contingent of Proud Boys in a counterprotest to support then-Vice President Mike Pence. This week, he was arrested for helping lead a mob inside the U.S. Capitol that was intent on lynching Pence.

Rehl was one of two Proud Boys arrested by the FBI this week and charged with the most serious federal crimes facing the insurrectionists at the Jan 6 Capitol siege: conspiracy to obstruct the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, and to attack Capitol Police officers. Also arrested this week was a Proud Boys leader from North Carolina, Charles Donohoe.

A total of 13 Proud Boys, who played a central role in the ability of the pro-Trump mob to break down police barricades and enter the Capitol building that day, have now been charged in the insurrection. The indictment is similar to one unveiled by prosecutors against two other key Proud Boys figures—Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs—who played key roles in leading the mob that day.

Last July, Rehl’s Philadelphia Proud Boys group gathered outside a Fraternal Order of Police lodge where Pence was speaking, and a small cluster of protesters had gathered. The men shouted at Black Lives Matter protesters and at a group of women.

Rehl, left, with Biggs on Jan. 6.

Rehl, a 35-year-old Port Richmond man, was among them, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “drinking beer and chatting with others in the parking lot who were openly carrying a Proud Boys flag.” Among the men they were chatting with were Philadelphia police officers, underscoring the Proud Boys’ cozy relationship with police officers around the country—a relationship that helped feed their smug far-right extremism. Rehl is a veteran and the son of two Philadelphia police officers.

On Jan. 6, their view of Pence had clearly transformed, largely because the vice president had chosen not to try to contest the validation of the Electoral College votes as Donald Trump had urged him to do—which the crowd at Trump’s rally that morning viewed as a betrayal. The mob entering the Capitol was filmed chanting: “Hang Mike Pence!” Pence himself narrowly escaped encountering this mob, it was revealed during Trump’s subsequent impeachment trial.

Rehl, who later turned up in photos in The New Yorker showing Proud Boys trashing the Senate offices of Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, is expected to have his first hearing in federal court in Philadelphia Friday. His indictment makes clear that federal prosecutors are preparing a conspiracy case charging several Proud Boys with conspiracy, including Biggs and Nordean.

According to indictments released in those cases, investigators say that Biggs, 37, of Ormond Beach, Florida, and Nordean, 30, of Auburn, Washington, were equipped with radios and a bullhorn as they led a mob of about 100 men through the streets of Washington and up the Capitol Mall. Several Proud Boys were among the rioters who shattered windows that enabled others to enter the building and attack Capitol Police officers inside.

‘It’s really bad news for Republicans’: Continued GOP defections could upend party primaries

The great GOP exodus continues in some of the very states that will prove most critical in the battle for control of Congress in the midterms. In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that some 19,000 voters have left the Republican Party since Donald Trump's Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol. And while that represents a tiny slice of the state's 8.8 million registered voters, the number of voters who have left the GOP accounts for about two-thirds, or 64%, of overall defections—up from a third or less in typical years, according to the Inquirer.

The data on exactly who is leaving the GOP—pro-Trumpers or never-Trumpers—are still a little murky. Based on interviews, the Inquirer concludes that the defections are fueled more by a swath of older, formerly loyal and highly engaged Republicans who have been turned off by Trump's takeover of the party. 

"Former Republicans interviewed largely were united in why they left," writes the outlet, "They saw it as a protest against a party that questioned the legitimacy of their votes and the culmination of long-simmering frustration with Trump and his supporters, who now largely control the GOP."

Lifelong Republican Diane Tyson, 68, renewed her license at the DMV on Jan. 5 and opted to wait until after the pro-Trump Jan. 6 rally in Washington before deciding whether to change her party affiliation. The attack that unfolded along with her watching her congressman vote to nullify the Keystone State's election results sealed the deal. Tyson officially became an independent on Jan. 7.  

“I knew I could not be a Republican anymore,” she said. “I just can’t—it’s not who I am. The Republican Party has gone down a deep hole that I want no part of. I don’t want an ‘R’ after my name.”

Similarly, 70-year-old Tom Mack, who has been a Republican since the late 1970s, offered, "It’s not the Republican Party I know. ... It’s drifted far away from my beliefs."

If the Inquirer is right about about the demographics of the GOP defectors and the trend holds, the Republican Party could end up saddled with a slew of right-wing primary winners heading into the 2022 general election contests. The party will also be losing some of its most active and loyal voting base—the people who are more likely to turn out in off-year elections and non-presidential cycles. 

The whole cocktail will make it that much harder for Republican candidates who prevail in the primaries to muster the votes to beat Democrats in the midterms. “If these voters are leaving the party permanently, it’s really bad news for Republicans,” Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, told Reuters.

Reuters homed in on GOP defections in the three battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and found that roughly three times more Republicans as Democrats had left their party in recent weeks. In all three states, the outlet also noted that defections were concentrated in the urban and suburban areas surrounding big cities—areas where sagging GOP support for Trump helped deliver the presidency to Joe Biden.

Based on interviews, Reuters also concluded that Trump was the main catalyst fueling the exodus, though some party switchers did say they don’t believe the Republican Party was supportive enough of Trump. 

But the sentiment of Nassau County Floridian Diana Hepner, 76, suggests that Republican Party leaders really blew their opportunity to pivot away from Trump following the election and reestablish itself as something beyond a cult of personality.

“I hung in there with the Republican Party thinking we could get past the elements Trump brought,” Hepner said. “Jan. 6 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Now Hepner is hoping to be a "centrist influence" on the nominating contests in the Democratic Party. 

Political observers generally agree about the inflated rate of GOP defections, what remains to be seen is whether the trend continues and how it affects the contours of the nominating contests that are already taking shape.

In North Carolina, for instance, the GOP saw a slight uptick in party affiliations following Trump's acquittal, a reversal after weeks of declining registrations following the lethal Jan. 6 riot. There’s still a lot of time between now and next year, but the Jan. 6 riot does appear to be an inflection point. And despite Trump’s acquittal, the impeachment trial really gave Democrats an opportunity to reinforce for voters Trump’s culpability for the murderous assault on the Capitol.

Last week, following the vote to acquit Trump, there was a slight increase in weekly NC Republican Party registration changes, reversing the downward trend

— Michael McDonald (@ElectProject) February 21, 2021

Faced with real consequences for participating in insurrection, MAGA followers turn on Trump

It’s become self-evident that the members of the mob that raged up the National Mall and into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 believed they were doing so with the blessing of their president, Donald Trump, after he directed them there in his speech that morning at the Ellipse. They really believed Trump’s lie that they were saving America from a stolen election—leaving many of them angry and baffled when their fellow MAGA fanatics claim that the insurrection was actually the work of “antifa” leftists.

And now that they are facing real legal consequences for their actions, many of them know who to blame for their misfortune: Trump. Their ex-leader threw them under the bus, and they are happy to return the favor.

Take William “Billy” Chrestman of Olathe, Kansas. A bearded Proud Boy who was mistaken for founder Gavin McInnes when video of the insurrection first appeared on social media, he now faces multiple federal charges related to his behavior that day, including conspiracy, civil disorder, and obstruction of an official proceeding. His attorneys are claiming that Trump invited him and his fellow Proud Boys to engage in the violence.

“It is an astounding thing to imagine storming the United States Capitol with sticks and flags and bear spray, arrayed against armed and highly trained law enforcement,” Chrestman’s attorneys said in a court filing this week. “Only someone who thought that they had an official endorsement would even attempt such a thing. And a Proud Boy who had been paying attention would very much believe he did.”

Chrestman’s attorneys claimed in their filing that the rioters were “actively misled” by Trump: “Trump told the assembled rabble what they must do; they followed his instructions. Then, he ratified their actions, cementing his symbiotic relationship with the rioters.”

He’s hardly alone in that stratagem. A Texas real estate agent who flew to Washington by private jet to attend Trump’s rally said she was there because of Trump, and invaded the Capitol on his behalf. “He asked us to fly there. He asked us to be there. So I was doing what he asked us to do,” she said.

“I think we all deserve a pardon,” she said. “I’m facing a prison sentence. I think I do not deserve that and from what I understand, every person is going to be arrested that was there, so I think everyone deserves a pardon, so I would ask the President of the United States to give me a pardon.”

She regretted having gone at all: "I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it's embarrassing," Ryan told The Washington Post. "I regret everything."

A number of other arrestees are making the same claim, mostly for strategic legal reasons. Even though it is unlikely to be enough to establish their innocence, legal experts say, it could be a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing, especially for those with clear criminal records.

"Trump didn't get in the car and drive him to D.C., but it's important to understand the context," attorney Clint Broden, who represents Texas defendant Garret Miller, told USA Today.

"You have to understand the cult mentality,” said Broden, whose client is charged with entering the Capitol and threatening U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, saying she should be assassinated. “They prey on vulnerable victims and give them a sense of purpose. In this case, Trump convinced his cult followers that they were working to preserve democracy."

Pittsburgh resident Kenneth Grayson had announced his intentions even before the rally on Facebook: “I’m there for the greatest celebration of all time after Pence leads the Senate flip!!” he wrote. “OR IM THERE IF TRUMP TELLS US TO STORM THE (expletive) CAPITAL IMA DO THAT THEN!”

Grayson’s attorney, Stanley Greenfield, said his client did not intend violence, and was only responding to Trump’s pleas. "He was going because he was asked to be there by the president," Greenfield said. "He walked in with the crowd. But he went there, yes, with the invitation of the president. He just wanted to be a part of it."

One of the insurrection’s most recognizable figures, “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley of Arizona, also blames Trump. He even said he would have be happy to testify against Trump in his February impeachment trial.

Chansley’s attorney, Al Watkins, told reporters: "Let's roll the tape. Let's roll the months of lies, and misrepresentations and horrific innuendo and hyperbolic speech by our president designed to inflame, enrage, motivate. What's really curious is the reality that our president, as a matter of public record, invited these individuals, as president, to walk down to the Capitol with him."

Watkins said Trump's refusal to issue pardons to the insurrectionists served as a wake-up call for his client.

"He regrets very, very much having not just been duped by the president, but by being in a position where he allowed that duping to put him in a position to make decisions he should not have made," said Watkins.

A 20-year-old Maryland man, Emanuel Jackson, similarly blamed Trump, even though bodycam footage showed him hitting police officers with a baseball bat. "The nature and circumstances of this offense must be viewed through the lens of an event inspired by the President of the United States," Jackson’s attorney, Brandi Harden, wrote in court filings.

A profile of the people charged so far in the insurrection compiled by the Anti-Defamation League found that one-quarter of them have connections to right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

Of the 212 individuals identified by COE, 52 (or 25 percent) have ties to known right-wing extremist groups, including Oath Keepers (six people), Proud Boys (17), Groypers and other white supremacists (10) and the QAnon conspiracy theory (14). A number of Proud Boys members and Oath Keepers have been charged with conspiracy in connection with the January 6 insurrection. A conspiracy charge means the government believes these individuals agreed to engage in criminal activity that day.

The remaining 75 percent are considered part of the new pro-Trump extremist movement, a decentralized but enthusiastic faction made up of self-described “patriots” who continue to pledge their fidelity to the former President.

The movement’s true believers who participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege and are now facing federal charges are similarly perplexed and outraged by the large numbers of fellow MAGA “patriots” who are now claiming that the insurrection actually was the work of violent “antifa” leftists. This fraudulent claim—promulgated not just by conspiracy theorists and fringe partisans, but by elected Republican officials, including members of Congress—has spread so widely that one poll found that a full half of all Republicans believe it.

This infuriates the people who participated and now face charges, because they all are ardent Trump supporters who believed then that they were participating in a nation-saving act of patriotism—and many still believe it now. They can’t fathom how quickly their fellow “patriots” have thrown them under the bus and are now depicting them as actually acting on behalf of their hated enemies.

“Don’t you dare try to tell me that people are blaming this on antifa and [Black Lives Matter],” wrote insurgent Jonathan Mellis on Facebook days after the event., prior to being charged with multiple crimes. “We proudly take responsibility for storming the Castle. Antifa and BLM or [sic] too pussy … We are fighting for election integrity. They heard us.”

“It was not Antifa at the Capitol,” wrote “Stop the Steal” organizer Brandon Straka, who has ties to Trump. “It was freedom loving Patriots who were DESPERATE to fight for the final hope of our Republic because literally nobody cares about them. Everyone else can denounce them. I will not.”

Siege of the Capitol the culmination of the GOP’s long embrace of anti-democratic authoritarianism

Republicans scurried to distance themselves Wednesday from the horrifying takeover of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., by a riotous mob of fanatical Donald Trump supporters. “Those who made this attack on our government need to be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham. Those storming the Capitol need to stop NOW,” chimed in Sen. Ted Cruz. The Senate Republicans’ Twitter account posted: “This is not who we are.”

This is, however, exactly who they are. What happened Wednesday was the apotheosis of the GOP’s two-decades-and-longer descent into right-wing authoritarianism, fueled by eliminationist hate talk, reality-bereft conspiracist sedition, anti-democratic rhetoric and politics, and the full-throated embrace under Trump of the politics of intimidation and thuggery. It came home to roost not just for Republicans, but for us all.

This radical authoritarianism was evident not just in the intent of the Capitol siege—an insurrectionist attempt to force Congress to overturn the known results of the November presidential election—but in the faces and voices of the men and women who comprised Wednesday’s mob.

  • In the crowd of rioters invading the Capitol building while chanting “treason” and “our house.”
  • In the grinning young white man who offered a Nazi salute to the invading rioters.
  • In the mobs harassing journalists and destroying their equipment, telling them: “Every corner you set up now, we’ll be there.”
  • In the voice of the man chanting inside the Capitol: “Traitors get the rope!”
  • In the zip ties and handgun carried by one of the Capitol invaders, suggesting that these insurrectionists intended to take hostages, and perhaps to execute them.
  • In the voice of the woman from Knoxville, Tennessee, who explained why, despite being maced, she had attempted to enter the building: “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s the revolution!”

There is little question that one man is primarily responsible for the unleashing of this kind of proto-fascist politics: Donald Trump. As I explained a few months ago:

Predicated by his mutual embrace of the far right in the 2015-2016 campaign, Trump’s election to the presidency unleashed a Pandora’s box of white-nationalist demons, beginning with a remarkable surge in hate crimes during his first month, and then his first two years, in office. Its apotheosis has come in the form of a rising tide of far-right mass domestic terrorism and mass killings, as well the spread of armed right-wing “Boogaloo” radicals and militiamen creating mayhem amid civil unrest around the nation.

Trump’s response all along has been to dance a tango in which, after sending out a signal of encouragement (such as his “very fine people on both sides” comments after the white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017), he follows up with an anodyne disavowal of far-right extremists that is believed by no one, least of all white nationalists. Whenever queried about whether white nationalists pose a threat—as he was after a right-wing terrorist’s lethal attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, when he answered: “I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems”—Trump has consistently downplayed the threat of the radical right.

More recently, the appearance at the very least that Trump is deliberately encouraging a violent response to his political opposition has been growing. When far-right militiamen have gathered in places like Richmond, Virginia, and Lansing, Michigan, to shake their weapons in an attempt to intimidate lawmakers and other elected government officials, Trump has tweeted out his encouragement. When a teenage militiaman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot three Black Lives Matter protesters, two fatally, Trump defended him while mischaracterizing the shootings. When far-right conspiracy theorists created a hoax rumor that antifascists and leftists were responsible for the wildfires sweeping the rural West Coast—resulting in armed vigilantes setting up “citizens patrols” and highway checkpoints, sometimes with the encouragement of local police—Trump retweeted a meme promoting the hoax.

The reality currently confronting Americans is that the extremist right has been organizing around a strategy of intimidation and threats by armed “Patriots”—embodied by street-brawling proto-fascist groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, American Guard, and the “III Percent” militias, along with their “Boogaloo” cohort, all of them eager to use their prodigious weaponry against their fellow Americans in a “civil war.” And what we have seen occurring as the 2020 campaign has progressed is that the line of demarcation between these right-wing extremists and ordinary Trump-loving Republicans has all but vanished.

However, Trump never could have accomplished this kind of empowerment of the radical right, not to mention his ceaseless underhanded attacks on our democratic institutions, without having been enabled at every step by an enthusiastic Republican Party, both its establishment wing and its far-right “populist” bloc, as well as an army of authoritarian devotees in right-wing media and social media.

People like Cruz and Graham, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr, all have played major roles in enabling Trump’s multiple depredations. At every step, Republicans have avidly empowered Trump as he has ravaged our international alliances, our national security apparatus, our courts, our Justice and Education and State departments (not to mention Interior, Energy, Treasury, and multiple other departments, notably the Environmental Protection Agency).

The problems with the Republican Party and the conservative movement generally extend well beyond the past four years, and well beyond Trump himself. Indeed, the man the party empowered and enabled to undermine our democratic institutions is the embodiment of conditions created within the GOP for the previous four decades and longer, all of them profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian.

The strands of authoritarianism that conservatives wove together for many years to create the noose that is Donald Trump are all clear and on the record:

  • Ronald Reagan’s abiding anti-government sentiments (“Government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem”) became deeply embedded as a fundamental approach to governance within the conservative movement—guaranteeing not just its incoherence and cognitive dissonance, but inevitably its antagonism to democratic institutions, particularly voting rights.
  • Bill Clinton’s presidency—or rather, the conservative reaction against it—begat the far-right “Patriot” movement that Trump now essentially leads, borne of “New World Order” conspiracy theories, Bircherite nationalism, and hysterical fearmongering. It also established what became a permanent right-wing ethos in which any kind of Democratic presidency is characterized as illegitimate, and the Republican Party became the vehicle for pushing this claim (as in the Javier-esque impeachment effort the GOP then undertook).
  • During the Bush years, any questioning of the Republican administration’s conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11 invasions (thanks in no small part to a relentless drumbeat of fearmongering after those terrorist attacks) was summarily attacked by its defenders as “on the side of the terrorists” and “helping the terrorists win”—that is, disloyal and treasonous. Not just war critics but anyone who dared question Bush policies would find themselves summarily subjected to a barrage of smears and eliminationist rhetoric. “We don't want to get rid of all liberals,” Rush Limbaugh was fond of saying. “I want to keep a couple, for example, on every major U.S. college campus so that we never forget who these people are."
  • John McCain’s presidential nomination in 2008 gave us Sarah Palin, who more than any Republican politician previously normalized the know-nothing “populist” politics that now completely dominate the party. It also unleashed the tide of nativist bigotry—manifested especially in the expressed world views of her adoring fans, who had no hesitation in pronouncing Barack Obama a Muslim, a terrorist, and a man who “hates white people”—on which Trump would later surf into the White House.

This tide soon swelled to mass proportions during Obama’s presidency under the aegis of the Tea Party phenomenon, which was portrayed in the press as a populist uprising for conservative values but which in reality was a major conduit for the revival and ultimate mainstreaming of the far-right “Patriot”/militia movement of the 1990s, and all of its attendant conspiracist fearmongering and bigotry (manifested especially in the “Birther” conspiracy theories). Trump, who built his political power by promoting that theory, declared himself the personification of the Tea Party in 2011, and by the time he announced his campaign in 2015, he was broadly perceived as just that.

By winning first the GOP nomination and then the presidency, Trump culminated all these long-developing trends into a genuinely authoritarian politics fueled by ignorance and bigotry and resentment, filtered through the prism of paranoid conspiracism. All of which has led us to the pass we reached this week.

The conspiracist authoritarianism has long ceased to be merely a fringe element. Over 80 percent of Trump voters believe that Joe Biden won the election fraudulently. In one poll taken yesterday, 45 percent of Republicans approved of the Capitol siege, and 68 percent said it posed no threat to democracy. This is who they are.

The Republican Party’s hostility to democracy—embodied by conservatives’ running refrain that “America is not a democracy, it’s a republic”—has become its official policy over the past decade, manifested most apparently in its egregious voter suppression policies and court rulings that reached a fever pitch in recent years. It’s now a commonplace for Republican politicians (notably Trump himself) to fret that a high voter turnout is nearly certain to translate into Democratic wins as a reason to even further suppress the vote.

As David Frum (a never-Trump conservative) noted in his book Trumpocracy: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. The will reject democracy.” On Wednesday, that rejection became undeniably, irrevocably manifest.

Rather than taking a hard look at what they have become after the mob their president ginned up stormed the Capitol, today’s lame attempts by conservatives to gaslight the public about what happened Wednesday (with figures like Matt Gaetz and Mo Brooks trying to gaslight the public by claiming the invaders were actually “antifa”) make all too clear that the Republican Party, now consumed by right-wing authoritarianism, has ceased to be a viable partner in a working democracy. The problem the rest of us now face is how to proceed from here.