Jan. 6 may have been the culmination of Donald Trump’s efforts to overthrow a U.S. election, but it certainly was not the beginning. Even before the 2016 election, Trump began telling his supporters that American elections were corrupt. He repeated and amplified claims of voting by “dead people,” lied about Democratic officials bringing in “boxes of ballots,” and—especially after he lost the popular vote by more than 3 million—made enormous false claims about voting by “illegal immigrants.”
Trump never backed away from his lies about the 2016 election. Neither did his spokespeople in the White House, at Fox News, or across the rest of the right-wing media. By the time of the 2020 election, Trump had more than doubled down on claims that any election that failed to show him as a victor was a false election. He assailed mail-in ballots. He revived old conspiracy theories about voting machines. He ignored legitimate warnings from security officials about Russian attempts to interfere in the election and instead pushed false concerns about other nations working to help Democrats. He created a situation in the mind of his supporters where anything other than a landslide victory was “proof” that of a fraudulent election.
Before dawn on the day after the election, Donald Trump stepped in front of cameras to claim that he had won. Then both Trump and a collection of white nationalist militias set out to make that happen by destroying democracy.
That Trump would actually lose the election was certainly no surprise to anyone paying attention. Trump supporters may have turned out in greater numbers than pollsters expected, but the revulsion that four years of his chaotic reign generated brought those opposed to Trump out in numbers great enough to swamp that support. Joe Biden didn’t just reverse Trump’s surprise victories in Rust Belt states, he flipped states like Arizona and Georgia. The election results were a clear signal of how Trump’s actions to even more closely marry Republicans to overt racism, xenophobia, and isolationism had damaged the party far more than many realized.
Trump certainly wasn’t surprised by the results on Election Day. He had not only already salted the earth with claims of election fraud, he immediately called on his supporters to interfere with the proper counting of votes in places ranging from Philadelphia to Detroit to Las Vegas. Trump immediately dispatched multiple legal teams to begin filing lawsuits in defense of his claims. And he immediately began calling officials at every level in an effort to secure their cooperation in defeating democracy.
Like Trump, members of the white supremacist militia movement were not surprised by the outcome. After years of receiving signals from Trump that it was okay to “get rough” and being told to “stand by,” these groups were more than prepared to respond to Trump’s loss at the polls.
As The Washington Post reports, indictments unsealed on Wednesday show that members of the Oath Keepers—a group that recruits heavily among the military and law enforcement—were already recruiting for assault on the Capitol by Nov. 9, just six days after the election. They didn’t just reach out to existing members of their organization; a group of (now arrested) Ohio members planned a “basic training” camp to prepare new members to fight in overturning the election. And while the stories of “antifa busses” that have constantly circulated on the right are entirely fiction, the white supremacist militia group was definitely planning to bring “at least one full bus 40+ people coming from N.C.” along with massive amounts of weaponry. The plans even included describing how weapons would be brought in advance using a truck so that in case the bus was stopped, the militia members would be able to continue to Washington.
Some Republicans have—bizarrely—suggested that the fact that the insurgency on Jan. 6 involved advanced planning somehow absolves Trump of the charges in his impeachment. After all, his speech that morning could hardly have incited the mob to break out the tiki torches if they came to Washington prepared to execute … executions.
The problem with that argument is everything. First of all, the impeachment documents make it clear that the problem was greater than just Trump’s words at a single “Stop the Steal” rally. A timeline of events just since Election Day makes it clear that Trump’s incitement began well before the morning of the insurgency. Trump was very deliberate in everything he did leading up to that day, including the signals he sent to groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other white supremacist militias.
Events on Jan. 6 were not a spontaneous uprising. That’s exactly the point. They were the result of actions Trump took—not just on that day, not just since Election Day, but over a period of years—to activate a white supremacist base, reassure them of support, and encourage them to take violent action. Militia members arrested after participating in the insurgency sent messages in advance with statements such as, “If Trump activates the Insurrection Act, I’d hate to miss it.” They didn’t do that out of thin air. They did it because Trump supporters from Michael Flynn to Mike Lindell were openly encouraging Trump to take this action and they were still being invited to speak at Trump events.
Trump didn’t cross the Rubicon on Jan. 6. He waded through that stream day by day over a period of years.
In the immediate wake of the insurgency, Republicans seemed aghast to find the barbarians weren’t just at the gates, but inside the building. Calls to remove Trump under the 25th Amendment didn’t just come from Democrats. The idea that impeachment might clear the two-thirds hurdle in the Senate were taken seriously.
But all it took was the merest glimmer of disapproval from Trump to bring Republicans back in line. He didn’t even have to step off the golf course to have Tucker Carlson declaring that the Rubicon was barely a creek after all or to get the weakest spine in Congress to blame the whole insurgency on Nancy Pelosi. Republican leaders had every opportunity over the last three weeks to finally pry their party away from Trump, and to do so in a way that might have left both them, and the nation, stronger. Instead, they fainted at the first mention of the dreaded “third party.”
As with every other Trump outrage, Republicans voiced momentary outrage. Then they backed away just long enough to catch the next hand signal from Trump and from Fox. Reassured, they then stepped forward again to pretend—as they always do—that whatever Trump did was no big deal, not worth raising a fuss about, and after all didn’t Hillary Clinton once something something email? Now we’re at the point where they’re declaring that the real outrage isn’t that armed insurgents broke into the Capitol, spread blood and excrement along the walls, ransacked congressional offices, and went looking for hostages to send to the gallows waiting outside. The real outrage is that anyone is raising a fuss. The next step is the one where Republicans demand an official Trump Bridge to commemorate that patriotic Rubicon crossing. And a Jan. 6 federal holiday for celebrating his triumph.
When the next violent assault goes even further, expect Republicans to be momentarily scandalized. But only momentarily.