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.