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.

The creep of the QAnon cult threatens to consume what’s left of the Republican Party

The bizarre and otherworldly QAnon cult—the conspiracist Donald Trump fanatics who believe that liberal Democrats and their allies have been secretly operating a global pedophilia ring that is going to end in mass arrests called “The Storm”—has not only been spreading farther and deeper into mainstream conservative politics, but the entire Republican Party appears on the verge of being completely consumed by it.

Trump himself retweets QAnoners’ authoritarian paeans to his presidency and its attacks on his critics. His former national security adviser posted video of himself and a group of friends taking the “QAnon Oath.” Trump’s son Eric tweets out open support of the “Q” conspiracy theories. Trump’s favorite cable-news channel features reporters who openly embrace the theories. Dozens of Republican candidates openly spout QAnon claims and rhetoric, and GOP organizations have used their Facebook accounts to promote QAnon theories.  

The fantastic aspects of this conspiracism—particularly the obdurate insistence by the growing hordes of True Believers that “Q has always been right” in the face of the mounting reality that not one of the theories’ predictions or claims has yet proven accurate—make it difficult in many ways to take it seriously. In an ordinary world, it would be dismissed as a joke.

But the up-is-down belief system inherent in conspiracist worldviews like QAnon has spread so far that it not only has infected democratic discourse with garbage disinformation, but its underlying nature is profoundly violent—which presents the very real threat (one we’ve already seen playing out) of unhinged QAnon believers acting out and wreaking potentially significant levels of harm.

After all, there is a reason the FBI warned last year that QAnon was a likely vector for fueling domestic terrorism: “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

Yet it continues to seep into mainstream Republican politics with almost nary a raised eyebrow. Oregon’s QAnon-loving GOP Senate nominee, Jo Rae Perkins, can even call for the imposition of martial law in her home state (to battle “antifa”) without any notable pushback. The Republican Party has resolutely—and silently—refused to withdraw its support for a single one of the 64 GOP candidates with QAnon connections.

Media Matters’ Alex Kaplan compiled a complete list of QAnon candidates:

  • Thirteen candidates have secured a spot on the ballot in November by competing in primary elections.
  • Of those 13 candidates, five are from California, two are from Illinois, and there is one each from Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas.
  • One candidate in Florida is running as an independent, who is also on the ballot in November.
  • One candidate, in Georgia, is heading to an upcoming primary runoff.
  • One candidate in New York is running as a Republican write-in.
  • In total, 59 of the candidates are Republicans, two are Democrats, one is a Libertarian, and two are independents.

“They've done absolutely nothing to discourage QAnon followers from believing as they do,” QAnon researcher Travis View told Politico, adding that this only stokes the community’s fervor. “I mean, QAnon is premised on the idea that there is a secret plan to save the world, so they take the silence more as part of that secrecy.”

The White House and its allies have offered disingenuous retorts that verge on ballsy dishonesty when asked about the friendliness of Trump and his allies. When Flynn posted his 53-second clip to Twitter on the Fourth of July, he was participating in a ritual already being shared widely that week as video posts by the QAnon community (Perkins among them) under the hashtag #TakeTheOath (which in fact is the same loyalty oath taken by members of Congress). The trend was in fact inspired by a person using the Q identity on the message board 8kun to “symbolically take the oath on social media platforms.” At the video’s end, Flynn recited the QAnon slogan: “Where we go one, we go all!”

Flynn lawyer Sidney Powell told the Washington Examiner that there was no intent on Flynn’s part to embrace QAnon conspiracy theories—rather, he claimed, Flynn only “wanted to encourage people to think about being a citizen." He claimed the phrase "Where we go one, we go all" was first engraved on a bell on one of President John F. Kennedy's sailboats—which in fact is a falsehood first propagated by the Q persona in a message-board post. Powell also told CNN that “implying anything wrong with words long ago inscribed on a bell to encourage the unity of the human race is malevolent and just plain wrong. There is nothing more to the story."

Experts laughed at Flynn’s denial. “This is absolutely pro-QAnon," researcher/author Mike Rothschild told CNN. Moreover, Flynn’s public embrace was a major validation for the cult’s True Believers, he explained.

"The Q community is really excited by all of this. Flynn is a hugely important figure to them, seen as a warrior who infiltrated the deep state by pretending to plead guilty," Rothschild said. "The video of Flynn actually taking the oath is, to them, total validation that they were right, that Flynn is a warrior who fights for them, and that they can be digital soldiers on his level."

This underlying vision—of being a heroic warrior for truth battling against the vilest of evils—is what attracts so many followers to QAnon, and simultaneously creates permission in their minds for committing the most atrocious acts of violence one can imagine. We’ve already seen this playing out in domestic-terrorism incidents that, fortunately, did not reach fruition:

  • A QAnon fanatic armed with an AR-15 and an armored truck blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam and demanded the inspector general’s report on the government investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email practices in June 2018.
  • A California man arrested in December 2018 with bomb-making materials in his car told investigators he intended to use them to "blow up a satanic temple monument" in the Springfield, Illinois Capitol rotunda. His larger intentions, he said, were "make Americans aware of Pizzagate and the New World Order, who were dismantling society."
  • An Illinois woman who became a fanatical QAnon devotee livestreamed herself on a cross-country trip, armed with a collection of illegal knives, to New York City, where she hoped to “take out” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. NYPD officers arrested her there.
  • The young man who murdered Gambino mob boss Frank Cali, who gorged himself on QAnon theories online, told investigators he committed the crime because he believed that Cali was part of the “Deep State” operation to sabotage Trump’s presidency.
  • The Los Angeles locomotive engineer, also a QAnon fan, who drove his engine at high speed off the tracks near the docks where the US Naval Ship Mercy was stationed as part of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic—it halted about 800 yards away from the ship—told arresting officers he was hoping to ram the ship because he believed the claims (primarily from QAnon theorists) that the patients were going to be secretly carted off to Guantanamo: “You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. … I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”

The QAnon cult has always had this violent idea of heroism at its dark heart, even among the once-respectable Republicans who have been consumed by it. One of the most prominent of these is Michael Scheuer, the former CIA analyst, college lecturer, and onetime Fox News regular whose career as a pundit metastasized from virulent Islamophobia to unapologetic anti-Obama “Birtherism.”

Nowadays, Scheuer can be found penning lengthy defenses of QAnon and its nonsense, claiming that dire consequences lay just around the corner for the usual laundry list of Trump critics and journalists who dared question the regime: “Maybe all of the following, gallows-headed traitors will write a Q on their palm and claim innocence by insanity?” he mused last December after Trump’s impeachment.

The supposed “Storm” arrests are only the beginnings of Scheuer’s fantasies, however. Another essay, penned a year before the QAnon screed, laid out his vision of a citizens’ uprising—replete with lynchings and domestic terrorism—in response to the “treason” of attacking Donald Trump:

American patriots have so far, praise God, been remarkably disciplined in not responding to tyranny and violence with violence. For now they must remain so, armed but steady. But the time for such patience is fast slipping away; indeed, that patience is quickly becoming an obviously rank and self-destructive foolishness. If Trump does not act soon to erase the above noted tyranny and tyrants, the armed citizenry must step in and eliminate them.

It is, of course, far better if Trump does so, and I pray and believe he will. That said, the sheer, nay, utter joy and satisfaction to be derived from beholding great piles of dead U.S.-citizen tyrants is not one that will be missed if Trump does not soon do the necessary to save the republic.

The QAnoners’ fantasies, like everything dreamed up on the far right, are certain to remain unrealized. But the likelihood that many, many people are going to be hurt in their looming attempt to make them manifest is also just as certain.