It happened here. Donald Trump unleashed his cult on American democracy on Wednesday.
QAnon conspiracy theorists, far-right Proud Boys, and other white nationalist Trump cultists stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol. After order was eventually restored, fellow members of Trump’s cult — a handful of senators and more than a hundred members of the House of Representatives — voted to try to overturn the presidential election in a bid to keep Trump in power. Both efforts failed, but the riot in the Capitol building and the coup-by-legislative-fiat later that night were part of the same autocratic impulse: a deep yearning for a strongman. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, the leaders of the coup attempt in the Senate, might as well have been personally leading the Trump cultists as they rampaged through the Capitol’s corridors.
There are no political subtleties, no nuanced hot takes about what happened in Washington on January 6, 2021. It was an insurrection, period. It was an insurrection by a Trump mob, and later by their confederates in the House and Senate.
January 6, 2021, had clear echoes of February 27, 1933: the day of the Reichstag fire in Berlin, when the Nazis torched Germany’s legislative building, four weeks after Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as the German chancellor. The fire provided a pretext for Hitler to assume emergency powers and become the country’s dictator, while the Nazis framed a leftist immigrant for the arson, claiming it was all a Communist plot — just as right-wing Republicans are now falsely claiming that the pro-Trump rioters in the Capitol on Wednesday were actually “antifa” members in disguise. And it is no accident that there were reportedly a number of neo-Nazi sympathizers in the pro-Trump mob at the U.S. Capitol.
January 6, 2021, also had echoes of July 12, 1864. The Confederacy — the Southern slavocracy that is the precursor to today’s pro-Trump white nationalist movement — came closest to occupying Washington on that date; Confederate Gen. Jubal Early marched his troops on the capital, only to be stopped by Union troops at Fort Stevens near the border between Washington, D.C., and Maryland. President Abraham Lincoln was in Fort Stevens at the time, and legend has it that Oliver Wendell Holmes, then a Union officer and a future Supreme Court justice, had to tell the president to keep his head down.
It is no accident that one of the most widely seen photographs from Wednesday’s rampage inside the Capitol showed a Trump cultist marching down a corridor carrying a large Confederate flag.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote a political novel that was a thinly veiled warning about demagogue Huey Long. The novel’s title, “It Can’t Happen Here,” has become a comforting line for American political observers ever since: that the United States is too deeply rooted in the rule of law and a constitutional system of government for a dictatorship to rise up.
Trump may have failed to break the American system this time, but he has provided a road map for future demagogues.
Trump may have failed to break the American system this time, but he has provided a road map for future demagogues. Unfortunately, he has revealed that it is not as difficult as once thought. Many of the constraints on autocracy that Americans thought were built into the constitutional system were actually just norms, traditions and guidelines, and Trump has proven how easily they could be swept away.
This dangerous ending has been coming ever since Trump rode down the elevator at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, and announced his presidential campaign. Everything Trump has done as president was there to be seen — openly and obviously — from the day he announced his candidacy, through his upset win in the 2016 presidential election. The lies, conspiracy theories, racism, corruption, and criminality — Trump never hid any of it.
And yet far too many chose to ignore the danger.
Trump’s enablers have been legion. There is Mark Burnett, the television producer who helped Trump create his false public persona on “The Apprentice.” There is Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal chief who signed Trump to the show and later, as head of CNN during the 2016 presidential campaign, allowed candidate Trump to foment his demagoguery on endless loops on CNN in a bid for higher ratings.
There is Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, who allowed Trump to turn his Twitter account into a deadly political weapon. The enormous attention Trump brought to Dorsey’s platform helped aggrandize his company.
There were the billionaire fundraisers who backed Trump, from Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman to Sheldon Adelson, eager for tax cuts or more extreme pro-Israel policies.
And there were the Republican politicians who were initially repulsed by Trump and then became his slavish followers, when they realized their political careers depended on tapping into Trump’s demagogic fury.
All of these enablers had one thing in common: They didn’t take Trump seriously enough. Now, in Trump’s final days in office, many of them have finally been shaken by what they helped unleash.
The Murdoch family finally broke with Trump when Fox News actually called the 2020 election accurately, infuriating Trump when it was among the first news organizations to call the critical state of Arizona for Biden. In response, many of Trump’s cultish followers have been turning to new Trump propaganda outlets. As for Dorsey, Twitter temporarily suspended Trump’s account in the wake of the mob violence Wednesday, while warning of a permanent suspension. Schwartzman finally broke with Trump as well, issuing a statement saying that he was “shocked and horrified” by the mob’s actions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also finally stood up to Trump on Wednesday, denouncing the efforts to steal the presidential election. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” McConnell said, before the Capitol was breached. “If we overrule them all, it would damage our republic forever.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham finally stood up to Trump Wednesday night as well, saying “Trump and I have had a hell of a journey, but enough is enough.”
Like Schwartzman and McConnell, Graham had stood by Trump through four years of carnage. Only when Graham and other senators were forced to seek shelter from the mob they helped unleash did Graham finally break with Trump.
By Thursday, a few Trump administration officials had resigned after Trump’s incitement of Wednesday’s riot, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is McConnell’s wife.
Some administration officials and congressional leaders were also considering whether to try to remove Trump from office early so he can’t commit any more unconstitutional and criminal acts before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Charles Schumer, who is about to become Senate majority leader thanks to the Democratic sweep of both Senate seats in Georgia this week, called for Trump’s removal from office on Thursday, and even a Republican member of Congress, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, called for Trump’s removal through the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Pelosi is also canvassing House Democrats about impeaching Trump again.
What is most frightening is that anonymous members of Trump’s own administration have suggested to reporters that they fear Trump is now mentally unbalanced. Following the riot at the Capitol, the Washington Post reported that one administration official described Trump as being “a total monster” on Wednesday.
January 20 can’t get here soon enough.