The Rot at the Heart of U.S. Politics
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts
I said my next post would focus on President-elect Joe Biden’s approach to Iran, but it seemed important to pick up where my previous post left off because it ended on a troubling message about what lies ahead for the country.
That message came straight from President Trump, who, in his “conciliatory” video urging unity after the siege of the U.S. Capitol, told his supporters that “our incredible journey is only just beginning.”
He has rarely spoken truer words.
We may indeed only be at the beginning of what is perhaps the biggest threat to American democracy: Americans themselves — specifically those who live in a reality of their creation, one shaped by lies, denial and manipulation.
There was collective revulsion at the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6 that left five people dead, defiled the seat of the American government and exposed the ugly underbelly of a presidency built on division and dishonesty.
But not everyone was repulsed. Many Trump supporters felt the assault was justified. Some have been energized by it.
Social media is now alight with plans for more attacks on Jan. 17 and at Joe Biden’s inauguration, putting the nation’s capital — and statehouses across the country — on edge. Online chatter of revolution is rampant.
And while most Republicans aren’t plotting an insurrection, a surprising number of them seem to be OK with the last one.
According to a YouGov poll conducted right after the Capitol siege, 63% of voters said they perceived what happened as a threat to democracy — but only a quarter of Republicans agreed.
Among those who believed that voter fraud took place and affected the election outcome, 56% said the siege was justified. That included roughly half of Republicans.
And about half of registered Republican voters pinned the blame for the assault not on Trump, but on Biden.
What does this all of this mean?
It means that under Trump, the aversion to facts has gone mainstream.
It means that Trump isn’t going anywhere, because his supporters aren’t going anywhere. Impeachment and social media bans will only further rally them.
And it means that Trump’s base is much larger than people often give it credit for.
It’s arguably become the de facto face of the Republican Party and, if anything, could grow in strength and fervor, fueled by perceived grievances against everyone from the media to mail carriers to establishment Republicans — and secure in the knowledge that their truth is unassailable.
So for all the bipartisan outrage over the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol, Trumpianism is here to stay.
On that note, I also ended my post with a prescient observation by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who, four years ago, pointed out that if you don’t like Trump, he’s not your problem. Your real problem is with the tens of millions of Americans who voted for him (over 74 million in 2020 — this after a string of scandals that would’ve easily torpedoed any other politician).
And here, deGrasse made a controversial point but one that’s since been echoed by many experts. Trump is merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise: ignorance.
Ignorance Is Bliss, Except for Democracy
Journalists have long tiptoed around the incendiary word — for good reason. After all, accusing someone of ignorance is usually in and of itself a sign of ignorance (and arrogance).
And ignorance knows no political affiliation — both sides of the aisle indulge in it.
Both parties are also guilty of another cancer poisoning our political discourse: the refusal to compromise, let alone listen. Democratic and Republican moderates are a dying breed (although Republican defectors are more likely to face death threats for their disloyalty).
But Trump Republicans have taken alternative facts to a whole new level.
On climate change, for example, Democrats agree it is one of the defining issues of our time, but the progressive and traditional wings disagree over the best ways to fight it.
A decade ago, Republicans also believed that climate change was real, although they, too, disagreed on the best ways to fight it.
But under Trump, climate change has become a hoax (apparently orchestrated by 97% of the world’s scientists who agree it exists) and the Green New Deal is a socialist takeover that would make ice cream, cheeseburgers and milkshakes disappear by banning all livestock.
(Don’t worry. Ice cream isn’t going anywhere.)
But climate change denial is tame compared to some of the incredulous claims Trump has made over the years.
Among them: Doctors may be over-reporting coronavirus deaths to profit from the pandemic. Osama bin Laden wasn’t killed in the Obama-approved raid (it was a body double). MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (who fell out of favor with the president) killed a staff member. The father of Ted Cruz (who, like Obama, may not be a real U.S. citizen) is somehow connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Many of these conspiracy theories come directly from the QAnon movement, even though Trump has repeatedly claimed he doesn’t know what it is.
The president has also dismissed every charge and accusation leveled against him as a witch hunt (including this latest impeachment attempt), blaming a deep state that includes nearly every U.S. government agency, along with the people who work in them.
Likewise, right-wing Republicans are now deflecting blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying that members of Antifa masqueraded as Trump supporters — even though countless photos and videos clearly show Trump supporters posing for selfies or live-streaming themselves inside the U.S. Capitol. We can literally identify some rioters by name (which the FBI is in the process of doing). They bragged about it online.
Not only that, but the same Trump supporters who say that far-left infiltrators were behind the riots are also the ones openly calling for more riots on social media.
Their logic-defying argument begs the question: How do you reason with a person who refuses to admit what’s in front of their own eyes? What they themselves have posted?
For that matter, how do you engage with QAnon followers who stormed the Capitol because they believe Trump has been sent to defeat a deep state of Satan-worshiping, sex-trafficking cannibals that rules the planet? What do you say to people who believe that “global elites” torture children to harvest a chemical from their blood that they then inject to stay young and healthy?
Where do even begin that conversation?
This is the crossroads America stands at. What is there to even debate when facts no longer hold any currency? When people believe whatever they want to hear. When they try to overthrow elections because they don’t like the results?
There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Period. It wasn’t even close. At this point, there’s probably not enough storage space left in the cloud for any more articles debunking the wild theories of voter fraud.
Yet millions of Americans still cling to the belief that there was.
Reporters who interview Trump supporters on why they contest the election are often met with vague, disproven and at times bizarre accusations: How, they ask, could Biden win when his rallies were so much smaller than Trump’s? Because Biden believes the coronavirus exists and didn’t plan large rallies. Why was Trump leading at one point and then Biden surged ahead? Because that’s when electors began counting the mail-in ballots.
Dig deeper into the allegations and there’s no shred of tangible proof that supporters can offer other than parroting lines from conspiracy websites or the president himself. It makes you wonder if any of this would’ve happened had Trump simply conceded from the get-go instead of drilling disbelief into his followers for two months straight.
Theoretically, if they had time, reporters could show evidence refuting each claim, but it would likely be a futile exercise. Trump’s hard-core supporters could forensically examine every single legal affidavit, video, signature and ballot themselves, and they’d probably still be convinced their man won.
Thus, they’re convinced that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was an act of courage to defend — not subvert — democracy.
Both the rioters and more moderate Trump supporters often use the social justice protests last year as a whataboutism rationale for the attack.
The common refrain is that violence broke out during Black Lives Matter protests, but the “fake news” glorified the movement as a peaceful one, while portraying the Capitol assault as a domestic act of terrorism and sedition.
Let’s break down this fallacy first by playing devil’s advocate.
The BLM Comparison
There is a real argument to be made that mainstream media initially downplayed the severity of riots in Portland and other cities like Seattle and Chicago. Over the summer, we saw excessive force used against protesters, but we also saw officers being attacked with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Fox News may have overblown the violence, but by the time outlets like The Washington Post gave it prominent coverage, a section of Seattle had already become a microcosm of lawlessness that authorities had to eventually clear out.
There’s also a legitimate debate to be had over how smart, and feasible, calls to defund the police are.
Black Lives Matter shined a spotlight on the need to fund services that are better equipped than law enforcement to handle societal problems like mental illness, homelessness and domestic abuse.
Cops shouldn’t be social workers — nor do they want to be. But a social worker won’t do much good if an angry partner is trying to stab you with a knife.
You need — and can have — both. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Yet some BLM protesters want to slash (or entirely eliminate) police budgets to fund social programs without any thought as to what such cuts would do to the very communities protesters are trying to help — namely those already suffering from high levels of crime.
The country may have been united in shock after the death of George Floyd, but after that, cracks began to emerge.
While it’s not always said out loud in polite conversation, many Republicans (and some Democrats) saw a double standard in the protests that would erupt when a Black man was shot by police (even before any information was known about the circumstances), compared to the relative silence over the deaths of thousands of Black men who are shot in inner-city violence each year.
This of course oversimplifies an incredibly complex phenomenon. But make no mistake: racial resentment — on all sides — played a major role in this election.
It drove Black voters to the polls and helped propel Biden to office. But it also likely pushed some moderates who might’ve otherwise voted for Biden into Trump’s camp, especially given how effectively conservatives painted all BLM protesters as anti-police extremists. (This law-and-order message also resonated with Latino voters, surprising many Democrats and illustrating how nuanced racial dynamics can be).
There’s something else many people seem to overlook: You can condemn the violence in Seattle, for example, and the violence in the U.S. Capitol. It’s not an either-or situation.
Apples and Oranges
But you can’t compare them. That’s a false equivalence. First off, BLM leaders are calling for reforms, not a coup d’état.
The so-called CHOP occupation movement in Seattle was a mix of peaceniks and anarchists commandeering a few street blocks. Jan. 6 was an insurrection to overthrow the seat of the American government — i.e., the actual definition of anarchy.
Moreover, riots in Portland and Seattle (which Trump cited just yesterday) were anomalies. The overwhelming majority of social justice demonstrations — and there were many of them across the country throughout the spring and summer — were peaceful.
They were also backed by a rainbow of races, ages and ethnicities. And the majority of protesters made a concerted effort to prevent looting, so as not to discredit their cause. They policed themselves in a way that pro-Trump protesters on Jan. 6 did not.
Yet BLM protesters were often arrested in large numbers and routinely met with a military-like security presence. There were of course some displays of restraint among police to avoid escalating tensions. Some officers even kneeled in solidarity with protesters.
But you never saw an officer helping a Black Lives Matter protester down the steps after they ransacked one of the most hallowed buildings in America.
Contrast that visual from Jan. 6 with the one from June 1, when authorities tear-gassed peaceful protesters in D.C.’s Lafayette Square to make way for a bizarre photo-op in which President Trump held a Bible outside of a church that afterward condemned his actions.
And while violence has been committed by groups such as Antifa, it pales in comparison to right-wing extremism. In fact, right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the U.S. since 1994, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On that note, many have pointed out that it’s the height of hypocrisy for Trump supporters who pride themselves on being the party of law and order to condone battling the police so that rioters could force their way inside the U.S. Capitol, in the process killing one officer (a second committed suicide afterward).
It Could’ve Been Much, Much Worse
As additional details surface about the Jan. 6 assault, we’re realizing that more people could’ve been killed that day, and that the security breach may have been more sinister — and premeditated — than originally thought.
Pipe bombs planted in front of the Democratic and Republican National Committees had timers, raising the specter that they were meant to coincide with the riots, possibly diverting law enforcement from the Capitol.
The threat of assassination attempts was also a real possibility.
One of the people charged in the wake of the riots is Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr.
According to the AP, he sent friends and relatives a flurry of texts such as: “Headed to DC with a (s***) ton of 5.56 armor-piercing ammo”; “Thinking about heading over to Pelosi (C****’s) speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV”; “I’m gonna run that (C***) Pelosi over while she chews on her gums. … Dead (B****) Walking. I predict that within 12 days, many in our country will die.”
A participant in the text message alerted authorities, who found Meredith not far from the Capitol, along with an assault rifle, handgun and about 100 rounds of ammunition.
While some of the rioters appeared almost comical (such the shirtless man known as “Q Shaman” who donned a furry headdress with horns), others had military backgrounds, wore tactical gear and were armed. One photo of a black-clad man holding zip-ties raised the disturbing possibility that rioters wanted to take legislators hostage.
Authorities initially denied they had specific intelligence indicating an attack would happen, but reports are trickling out that they may have had ample warning to prepare for the possibility of mob violence.
The Washington Post revealed that an FBI office in Virginia raised alarms about extremists coming to Washington to commit “war” a day before the riots.
The internal document cited an online thread that said: “Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”
The Post also interviewed Steven Sund, the Capitol Police chief who resigned in the wake of the riots. He said his superiors were reluctant to beef up protection despite warnings that the protests could be much larger than expected. Then, in the midst of the mayhem, Sund said he implored the Pentagon for help more than five times, but the National Guard didn’t arrive until over three hours after the initial breach.
It’s obvious we’ve barely scratched the surface of what went wrong, who made pleas for help — and who might’ve ignored them.
This raises the troubling possibility that at least parts of the break-in might’ve been an inside job.
Reports have also surfaced that as the chaos unfolded, Trump was trying to call senators to overturn the election.
If it emerges that the president ignored pleas for help, it would be his own Benghazi.
Anger Boils Over
Backed by her entire caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has forged ahead with impeachment even though Trump only days away from leaving office.
There’s no doubt Pelosi is livid. In a “60 Minutes” interview, she described how her staff locked the doors and hid under a table for hours, fearing for their lives.
Three Democratic lawmakers who sheltered in place during the siege (with mask-less Republicans) have since contracted COVID-19.
Still, Pelosi is a deliberate strategist — she held off on the first impeachment because she worried about the blowback — and the ultimate aim of this impeachment would be to ban Trump from running in 2024 and possibly open up him to federal charges after he leaves office.
But it’s a fraught strategy that could further inflame partisan tensions and incite Trump’s base.
It also has little chance of succeeding in the Senate, although that’s no longer a given.
Remarkably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “told associates that he believes President Trump committed impeachable offenses and that he is pleased that Democrats are moving to impeach him, believing that it will make it easier to purge him from the party,” according to The New York Times.
It’s still a stretch that enough Senate Republicans will vote to impeach Trump. Then again, it might be worth dealing with the potential voter blowback when they’re up for re-election, rather than having to deal with the specter of Trump hanging over their heads for the next two or four years.
Plus, there’s no guarantee Trump would reward their loyalty anyway.
Time and again, the president has shown that while he demands fealty, he doesn’t feel compelled to return it. Just ask anyone who’s found themselves in Trump’s good graces one minute, and under the bus the next — from his one-time fixer Michael Cohen, to his former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to a string of Homeland Security secretaries.
That list now apparently now includes one of his staunchest allies: his own vice president. For refusing to break his oath to the Constitution, the president essentially branded Mike Pence a coward in front of thousands of his supporters.
Just a few hours later, Trump seemed unconcerned about Pence’s fate during the riots he incited.
And like Pelosi, Pence would’ve been a prime target for the rioters.
Chants of “hang Mike Pence,” which also went viral on Twitter, could be heard among the rioters. Outside the Capitol, a wooden gallows had been erected with a dangling noose.
Pence is one of the rare officials to have survived the duration of Trump’s presidency, which oftentimes resembled a political version of “The Apprentice,” as Trump constantly fired and hired people based on their perceived loyalties, resulting in one of the highest administration turnover rates in history.
We cannot speculate as to why some people chose to work in this type of environment.
No doubt, many genuinely believed in Trump’s policy positions and his America First ethos.
Others like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster may have felt the need to serve their country by acting as the so-called “adults in the room,” restraining Trump from his own worst instincts.
But many establishment Republicans, such as McConnell, made a Faustian bargain when Trump came to office — holding their nose at the president’s antics to enact their policy agenda.
For years, it worked, especially for McConnell, who was able to install a slew of conservative judges across the country.
And while Trump supporters often credit him for installing three new conservative judges to the Supreme Court, any Republican in the White House could’ve done that because of sheer timing.
If anything, because of his efforts to remake the federal judiciary, it’s McConnell’s legacy, not Trump’s, that will be felt for generations to come.
But this Faustian bargain came with a heavy price.
While Republicans quietly went about the business of legislating, Trump often spent his energy on Twitter stoking a persecution complex among his followers that found an ideal incubator in conspiracy movements like QAnon.
For years, the Washington establishment dismissed QAnon as a bunch of kooks, all while the group sucked in millions of believers who now represent a sizable portion of the GOP.
Republicans also indulged Trump supporters in the fantasy that the election was stolen, constantly reiterating that the president has the right to legally challenge the results, even after losing every legal battle under the sun.
Perhaps Republicans like McConnell assumed Trump’s supporters would eventually relent and move on.
Instead, they declared war on democracy by invading the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the ratification of the Electoral College results.
Ironically, these attempts to discredit the Electoral College could prove fatal to their own party.
That’s because for decades, the Electoral College has been the GOP’s saving grace, allowing the party to capture the presidency twice now without winning the popular vote.
That’s why senators like Tom Cotton implored their colleagues to consider the broader ramifications of challenging the election results, warning it might set a dangerous precedent that could be used by Democrats to finally do away with the Electoral College.
But that requires listening to reason, and senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz were too politically opportunistic to listen, while the mob of Trump rioters were too untethered from reality to care.
The Trump Voter
Granted, we should be wary of branding all Trump supporters as unhinged. Four years ago, many people voted for Trump because he tapped into longstanding (and legitimate) frustrations among working-class Americans who felt neglected by a Beltway elite that preached globalization as gospel and dismissed U.S. manufacturing as a lost cause.
At the time, Democrats made the mistake of demonizing anyone who voted for Trump as backward and racist — even though some had voted for Barack Obama — hardening their resentment and possibly even radicalizing them.
But that was four years ago. What’s the reasoning behind 74 million Americans voting for Trump this time around?
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who was a polarizing figure, Biden is about as moderate as they come.
As for Trump, has he made people’s tangibly better over the last four years?
After raising the issue of manufacturing, he never followed up with any cohesive strategy. His tariffs helped steel and aluminum workers for a time but hurt far more workers in downstream industries. His reworking of NAFTA was basically a blueprint of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump withdrew from, leaving a vacuum for China to fill.
The schizophrenic barrage of directives he tweeted and the conveyer belt of staff he hired and fired made it to difficult to focus and get anything done.
And because he couldn’t put in a modicum of effort in working with Congress, Trump failed to push through a sweeping infrastructure bill — low-hanging fruit — that could’ve been a job generator. The master dealmaker was notably absent during major negotiations.
Trump also inherited a strong economy from his predecessor and basically kept it humming along. Under his watch, the stock market surged, but so did inequality. So did the trade deficit.
His fiery rants during rallies while in office thrilled his base, but made others question his mental stability.
As for draining the swamp, practically every week featured a new corruption or ethics scandal.
The Radicalization of Republicans?
As for the storming of the U.S. Capitol, many Republicans who don’t condone it haven’t been very loud in condemning it.
Here we get to some thorny questions with no easy answers: At what point does silence become moral complicity? How much of Trump’s base can now be considered “radicalized?”
Yes, some (such as those who stormed the Capitol) fit what many would define as radical. But these radicals are also relatives, friends and neighbors.
Yes, many of the rioters were members of hate groups and avowed QAnon believers. But the people who participated were also lawyers, lawmakers, military veterans, nurses, grandmothers, and Americans from all walks of life. There was even a CEO and Olympian in the mix.
Many of these rioters embraced dark, off-the-wall conspiracy theories, but that’s not necessarily representative of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump.
Yet tens of millions of those voters to this day refuse to accept the results of the election or condemn the takeover of the U.S. Capitol — and therein lies the bigger problem: The last four years were not an aberration. President Trump has irrevocably remade the Republican party and American politics.
Denial has become mainstream among even moderate Republicans, while Trump’s die-hard supporters talk of a coming civil war entirely of their own making.
And no matter how much heat Trump has taken for instigating an armed insurrection, he’ll still be a force to be reckoned — whether he’s banned from Twitter or even from holding office — because his supporters aren’t going anywhere.
In fact, we may see them again very soon — back in the nation’s capital, trying to finish what they started on Jan. 6.