Workmen have stripped the barbed wire from around the Capitol. The shattered windows have been replaced. The blood has been scrubbed away. And from the halls of the grand white-domed building the National Guard troops have at last departed.
The coup that did not succeed in overturning the election goes unpunished. More than four hundred of its foot soldiers have been arrested but its instigator remains at large. The former president golfs at his country clubs and receives visits of tribute from the leaders of his party. Nearly half of Republicans tell pollsters Trump was “called by God to lead.” Seven in ten say the election was stolen and the current president is illegitimate.
The attempted coup of January 6 destroyed two cardinal principles of American politics. The first says that we choose who holds power not through violence but through elections. The second says that when one party wins an election, the other accepts the result and forms a “loyal opposition” while it awaits its chance to win the next time. Today we have in office a restorationist administration that behaves as if proving that “government works” will somehow restore these two principles. It will not.
These principles have been decisively severed once before in American history. That led to the Civil War, the climax of a long political crisis that only abated a decade after the North’s victory. In order to claim the presidency after the deadlocked election of 1876, Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the defeated South and in effect to end Reconstruction. It was a dark bargain, and it debased the country immeasurably by making possible a brutal and thoroughgoing segregation and disenfranchisement.
A century later an authoritarian-leaning president perverted the institutions of government and violated laws to keep himself in power. He won reelection in a landslide, but his crimes led to a scandal and investigations that eventually forced him to resign. In retrospect the unfolding of Watergate in the press and the courts and Congress is our American Oresteia. In a kind of democratic pageant the country’s civil institutions uncovered corruption and lawbreaking, ousted the lawbreakers, and restored the institutions they had damaged. The press revealed. Congress investigated. The courts expiated. And this revelation, investigation, and expiation not only purged the political system but reaffirmed its legitimacy before the public.
At the time it seemed that this mechanism had been built into the system as a necessary corrective. “In a democracy,” Jonathan Schell wrote nearly fifty years ago,
we are not permitted to seek out the truth about our affairs and then to ignore what we learn. When evidence of murder comes to light, indictments must be brought and a trial held. Our system is arranged to make such action reflexive…. Truth and justice…are rooted as powerful forces in the heart of our political system. They have shaped and determined the fundamental structures of our institutions. Thus, the system of justice is the mechanism whereby certain forms of truth compel us to act. In a democracy, we are free to do many things, but we are not free to ignore the truth.1
In the case of the Capitol coup we have thus far ignored the truth. The coup was a crime against the state, and because it unfolded live on television as a grand public spectacle, Americans believe they know the truth about it. But we do not. We do not know what kind of planning preceded the assault and who was involved. We do not know why Pentagon officials for several hours refused to send troops to the Capitol. We do not know what the president was doing as the violence he unleashed was unfolding on Americans’ television screens. And much more. We do not know because there has been no thorough public investigation of what happened. Supporters of the former president within the political system have thus far worked hard to block such an investigation.
What we have had is the impeachment managers’ presentation during the president’s Senate trial in January. Their most striking evidence was a thirteen-minute film setting out the events of the day. It was powerful and shocking, but it was widely perceived to be as deeply partisan as the trial itself. The cycle of revelation, investigation, and expiation is meant to offer the country as convincing and objective a picture of events as possible. The Watergate hearings were able to achieve that in part because so many prominent Republicans accepted the stories shaped by the congressional committees in their methodical taking of testimony. The presentation of the impeachment managers included no testimony, and while it may have convinced one or two Republican senators to cast their votes to convict the president, it did not persuade most of his supporters to abandon their overwhelmingly partisan version of events.
The result is a metastisizing corruption at the heart of the polity. About the Capitol coup there is no shared reality. Nor is there a shared reality about the integrity of the election or of the legitimacy of the president it produced. To millions of Americans the legitimate president remains Donald Trump. A quarter-millennium of American history offers no precedent for this.
As I stood crushed amid the masses of flag-waving Trump supporters gathered before the White House on that frigid, windy January 6, I noticed one flag in particular. “Lead Us Across the Rubicon!” it implored the president. On the other side: “The die is cast!” The words imagined Trump as Julius Caesar and demanded that he march his troops into Rome and destroy the corruption and dysfunction of the old Republic. “It’s time to sweep them all away,” the young man waving the flag told me. “And you see we can’t do it by voting.”2 Since the election had been stolen, other means must be found. He and the people around him believed they had been forced to turn to them because all other “legitimate” pathways had been blocked.
To him and millions like him, those pathways remain blocked today, even as an illegitimate president has begun to change the country in dramatic ways. To them every new regulation smacks of tyranny. Every new tax is an illegal taking. Any new executive order limiting the purchase of firearms will be the beginning of the totalitarian regime they know is coming. And any move to alter the filibuster will be the clearest sign that a leader who gained the White House through fraud will stop at nothing to crush those who oppose him. Not every one of Trump’s voters feels this way, but what we know through polling and reporting suggests that most of them do.
An ambitious government and an opposition that considers that government illegitimate make for an explosive mixture. To millions of Americans the coup of January 6 represented direct and justified action. It was not successful in keeping their leader in the White House, but many of them believe that the Constitution, in its provision for citizens “to keep and bear arms,” provides for precisely this kind of violent rebellion against a tyrannical government.
To millions of others the era of Trump seems an aberration in American history increasingly distant in time. The former president’s social media accounts have been blocked. His dominance of the news cycle has ended. The new president has led quietly and efficiently, seeing to a nationwide vaccination program and passing trillions of dollars of aid to Americans who have suffered during the pandemic. The old era of scandal and conflict and bluster has receded. We appear to have returned to a kind of normalcy.
The appearance is misleading. The Republican Party is now the party of Trump. For many that means the party of “Burn it down!” The essential political dynamism of Trump lay not in his faux populism or even in his racism but in his calls to destroy the old and corrupt order. As the former CIA analyst Martin Gurri writes in The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2018):
A candidate that innocent of qualifications and political direction can be elected only as a gesture of supreme repudiation, by the electorate, of the governing class. From start to finish, the 2016 presidential race can best be understood as the political assertion of an unhappy and highly mobilized public. In the end, Trump was chosen precisely because of, not despite, his apparent shortcomings. He is the visible effect, not the cause, of the public’s surly and mutinous mood….
The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump at all, but the public that endowed him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that proved too weak to stand in his way…. Trump is in the style of our moment: a man from nowhere, with no stake in the system, ignorant of history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, but happy to bash and to break old and precious things in exchange for a little attention.
This decadence of the old elite and the institutions they built is a worldwide phenomenon. It encompasses the collapse of mainstream parties in France and Germany, Great Britain’s Brexit and the other fault lines yawning in the European Union, the emergence of new autocracies in Hungary and Poland and the Philippines, even the rise of the Islamic State. “The current elite class,” writes Gurri, “having lost its monopoly over information, has been stripped, probably forever, of the authorizing magic of legitimacy.” The success of Trump’s politics of grievance must be understood not as a movement for Trump himself but as a movement against the current order.3 He must be understood, as Gurri points out, not as an old-fashioned autocrat but as an embodiment-as-leader of the online troll:
Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web…. He speaks in rant. He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes…. This is American politics portrayed as the last circle of hell: treachery by the people, from the people, against the people. Taken literally, it would mean that not a single pillar of our institutions deserves to be left standing. Coming from a president, it has the feel of the state devouring itself.
Trump not only ran against the established order. He governed against it. In office he railed against the elites. Every day his supporters saw their president battling valiantly against the “deep state.” From the White House he ran for reelection against the elite. His railing against the system animated his rallies and inspired the crowds who invaded the Capitol: “We fight like hell,” he told them that morning at the White House. “And if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.” To his cheering followers—or at least those who go beyond the sheer performative nihilism of “Burn it down!”—the stolen election represented the last gasp of the old order, which only proved its ruthlessness and its desperation. The only sure way to fight back is to use whatever means are necessary to destroy that elite and its institutions. Lead us across the Rubicon!
He golfs, receives supplicants, issues the occasional statement. To his supporters he is not the former president but “the rightful leader of the country.” They say that the current occupant of the White House is there as a result of “the outcome,” not “the election.” For the election was stolen.
Trump controls the fervent allegiance of those tens of millions and because of this he controls the Republican Party. The occasional prominent defection is nothing more than the exception that proves the rule. Weeks after the insurrection, three in four Republicans agreed with the statement “Trump is a true patriot.” This followed his second impeachment. After a brief shiver of doubt among Republican elites—ten House votes to impeach, seven Senate votes to convict—the apostates were duly punished. They have been censured and soon they will be primaried and purged. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina proclaimed Trump “a cross between Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan and P.T. Barnum” who has “a dark side” and is also capable of “magic.” “What I’m trying to do,” the senator explained,
is just harness the magic. He could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it. He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.
He could destroy it by starting a third party, and from time to time he hints that he might do just that. Those hints swiftly pull the wavering party elite—including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who denounced him after voting to acquit him—scurrying back into line.
But his power comes not only from this threat of destruction. His support in the country has never exceeded 50 percent, and there is evidence that he grows less popular by the day, imprisoning his party in a deadly downward spiral.4 To replace the well-educated suburban professionals whom Trump’s politics of grievance drove away, the party will need to dip deeper into the well of white working-class and middle-class resentment. Who else but the supreme artist of hate and fear can find those voters and lure them with his dark hymn? The pollster Stanley Greenberg, who decades ago coined the term “Reagan Democrats,” notes that it was Trump who in 2016 and 2020 gathered to the Republican Party new voters who were animated by “white nationalism and racial resentment, and whose overwhelming motivation is a deep worry that Black people and immigrants will control the country.”5
In effect the Republicans have cast their lot with what Greenberg calls this “whole new set of voters brought in by Trump.” Only he can bring them—or anywhere near enough of them—to the polls. But the more he courts them, the more alienated suburban Republicans become. The more these “Biden Republicans” stay home or even vote for Democrats, the more the party is forced to depend on Trump. The party belongs to him.
Trump’s Republican Party is radicalizing. Across the country, Republican elites, frightened by and pandering to their base, are feeding its resentment and grievance by doubling down on Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen. Even as they weaponize the Big Lie—using it as a rationale to pass legislation that will make it harder for certain overwhelmingly Democratic constituencies to cast ballots—they are bolstering it through widely covered “pseudo-events” like the Arizona vote “audit” and other spurious recounts to come. The former FBI special agent and terrorism expert Clinton Watts calls these kinds of political events “reality rebellion,” which he defines as
essentially trying to create an entire atmosphere, a complete show, and they have inculcated their audience in such a bubble at this point that they start to shape their perceptions and belief, and it leads to things like January 6. It leads to the nonsensical vote recount that they’re trying to do in Arizona…. Because if you create an action in the physical world it makes it seem all the more legitimate to use violence and to strike out…based on that violent rhetoric that’s coming out of this forty percent of Americans that think they are justified in rising up based on some creation, some fiction.6
This “complete show” based on lies and myths produces “an action in the physical world,” like the Arizona recount, which further mobilizes the base, making the party’s most faithful voters ever angrier and more radical. We need to think of this radicalization in ways more familiar from developing countries. “For the next four years,” as the terrorism expert Malcolm Nance put it after the coup, Trump “is going to lead a political insurgency that will have a paramilitary insurgent element.”
The “insurgent element” is the violent vanguard of those Trump voters animated by “white nationalism and racial resentment.” Many of the eight hundred or so shock troops who invaded the Capitol were drawn from their ranks. Of the half who have been arrested, at least some will be tried and can be expected to make the case that they were in fact “invited in” to the Capitol by “their president” and that no federal “deep state” has the right to prosecute them. They will argue for the legitimacy of their actions. These trials might take their place alongside the election audits as pseudo-events supporting the Big Lie. Will at least some jury members take such arguments to heart, effectively nullifying the trials?
Such outcomes are possible because the country remains intensely divided over the election and the events at the Capitol. Like the election audits, trials of the rioters would bring out and deepen these divisions, further radicalizing the Republican base. So too would acts of violence. The Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois are just a few of the better-known paramilitary organizations that acted violently on January 6. There are many others. Some are national and many are local. Some are well known and many remain covert. Now that the election has been stolen and the thief responsible has begun to propose dramatic changes to the country—and now that the deep state has proven that voting is useless in blocking them—how will members of these organizations and their sympathizers respond?
It seems plausible that at least some will respond with violence. The intelligence analyst Katrina Mulligan noted shortly after the Capitol attack that the country had just witnessed “violence with a political goal in mind: Preventing the lawful certification of presidential election results to disrupt the peaceful transition of power”:
There are troubling indicators, such as a shared grievance, a strong group identity, and recruitment and training, that America could be in the early days of a violent political movement that will endure after President Donald Trump leaves office. This movement…brings together conservatives, Christian nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists, and ultranationalist groups such as the Proud Boys. While these groups united around Trump, they also have shared racial grievances that will continue to unite them even after Trump leaves office.7
Members of these violent groups see a political dispensation gaining force under an illegitimate president that privileges minorities and immigrants, which they understand as part of an elite plot to “replace” them as central participants in the country’s politics.8 Even before the Capitol attack a number of terrorism researchers saw the conditions for “incipient insurgency” emerging in the United States. David Kilkullen, an elite combat soldier who helped shape strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote that “the main long-term impact” of the violence launched against the Black Lives Matter protests last May and June might “be its radicalizing effect on a tiny minority of participants who join more violent groups as a result”:
It is commonplace in insurgencies for guerrilla talent spotters to identify recruits through street violence, inducting them into armed, organized groups over time….
One possible interpretation is that America may be in what the CIAGuide to the Analysis of Insurgency calls “incipient insurgency.”… It may involve inchoate action by a range of groups, followed by organization, training, acquisition of resources, and building external and public support, then increasingly frequent antigovernment incidents displaying improved organization and forethought.9
Kilkullen wrote those words six months before the armed assault on the Capitol. The country’s main counterterrorism officials agree with him. “January 6 was not an isolated event,” FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress on March 2. “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.”
After the Trump presidency, such domestic terrorism should be conceived not as a separable “problem” but rather as the leading edge of a broader movement intended to delegitimize American institutions. Violent acts would be the means not only to draw attention to the illegitimacy of American elections and the current administration but to radicalize those already enraged by what they see as its overreaching. The morning after the Capitol coup a reporter for PBS’s Frontline interviewed Mike Dunn, a Virginia leader of a Boogaloo Bois group. Dunn professed himself much encouraged by the day’s events. “We realized,” he said, “that we’re a lot closer to a revolution”:
Our recruiting and interest went right through the roof as well. They’re beginning to understand that the only answer is revolution…. I think that people are learning and adapting. I think we’re definitely looking at armed insurrection. Many of us in this movement, myself and a lot of other young people like me, have come to grips with the fact that death is a reality. It’s coming. We just want ours to count.10
How many such dedicated armed revolutionaries are there now in the country? Surely they number in the hundreds, if not the thousands. If they want to “make their deaths count,” what will they do? Will they stage attacks in groups? Or will they pursue “lone wolf” operations? No doubt they will follow a path of decentralized “leaderless resistance,” which is the American right’s most striking contribution to the theory and practice of terrorism.11 Whatever they might do—kidnapping or assassinating public figures, staging bombings or mass shootings—it would take the efforts of only a handful of determined violent actors to overturn the politics of the country. Such actions would be intended to provoke the security organs of the “deep state” to overreact and make widespread arrests, thereby revealing its repressive character and encouraging more sympathy for the terrorists’ cause. This dynamic would further radicalize those whose anger has already been stoked by the delegitimizing rhetoric of the Republican Party. Potential terrorists, perhaps for the first time in this country, have what is vital to make violent actions politically successful: a pool of millions of willing sympathizers.12
One need not be an expert in the history of terrorism and insurgency to see that the United States is ripe for such a dynamic. The violence, if it comes, will feed the radicalization of Republican policy in a fervid feedback loop. Already the party’s national strategy draws its lifeblood from the Big Lie. Because Democrats stole the 2020 election, Republicans in state legislatures are moving urgently to “make the vote secure” by “reforming” their voting laws—not only in states that Trump did not win, like Georgia and Arizona, but in others, like Texas and Florida, that he did. These new laws will curtail access to the polls for minority voters and in many cases will make way for Republican-controlled legislatures to wield more power to award a state’s electoral votes.13 Already this has been made easier in Georgia, and it soon likely will be in Arizona. By transferring the ultimate power to appoint electors from the voters to the politicians, Republicans are pursuing a strategy to convert their control of state legislatures into control of the White House. “The core power imbalance in America,” Ezra Klein observed,
is that Democrats win more people, Republicans win more places. In 2020, Joe Biden won 551 counties and 81 million votes. Donald Trump won 2,588 counties and 74 million votes. The Democrats’ advantage among people was enough to win power nationally, but the Republicans’ advantage in counties gave them control of more states…. There are 23 states where Republicans hold the lower house, the Senate and the governorship—a governing trifecta that eases the passage of highly partisan bills—but only 15 states where Democrats do the same.14
If in close elections Republicans can place the effective power to award a state’s electoral votes in the state legislature, they will have gone far toward establishing a permanent grip on the White House. In this way, the voter suppression laws that are being imposed across the country will put the final brick into a minoritarian wall that a shrinking Republican population increasingly relies on to hold power. Before our eyes, calls to “stop the steal” of 2020 are evolving, with the help of Republican-controlled legislatures in crucial states, into a movement to in effect “steal back” the presidency in 2024.
At the United States Capitol, after more than four months, the National Guardsmen have finally packed up and gone. Members of Congress come and go as always. But now they pass through magnetometers to make sure they are not bringing weapons onto the floor of the House or the Senate. Beyond the looming white building, the country has few magnetometers and a growing surge of political bitterness. In late April the president announced to Congress, rather poignantly, that a critical part of his program is “to prove that democracy still works—that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.” Perhaps he will succeed and perhaps one day the Capitol coup and its aftermath will be remembered as a low point and not as the gateway to something worse. But that this rather modest goal is so central to our elected leader shows how late the hour is, and how much Americans need to be assured that it is true. “Can our democracy,” the president implored Congress, “overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that have pulled us apart?” The plain answer is that there is as yet no sign that it can. All around us are signs that our angry politics are likely to grow angrier—and perhaps more violent still.
—June 3, 2021
“Blowing the Whistle on Watergate,” The New Yorker, May 5, 1973. ↩
According to internal Republican polling in April, “Trump’s unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher than his favorable ones in the core districts…. Nearly twice as many voters had a strongly unfavorable view of the former president as had a strongly favorable one.” See Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, and Dan Lamothe, “Liz Cheney’s Months-Long Effort to Turn Republicans from Trump Threatens Her Reelection and Ambitions. She Says It’s Only Beginning,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2021. ↩
See Zack Staton, “The Rise of the Biden Republicans,” Politico Magazine, March 4, 2021. ↩
See “Dateline: White House,” MSNBC, May 21, 2021. ↩
Katrina Mulligan, “The United States Could Be in the Early Days of a Domestic Insurgency,” Center for American Progress, January 19, 2021. ↩
Among those arrested after the Capitol coup, writes the political scientist Robert A. Pape, “one driver overwhelmingly stood out: fear of the ‘Great Replacement.’ Great Replacement theory has achieved iconic status with white nationalists and holds that minorities are progressively replacing White populations due to mass immigration policies and low birthrates. Extensive social media exposure is the second-biggest driver of this view, our surveys found.” Robert A. Pape, “What an Analysis of 377 Americans Arrested or Charged in the Capitol Insurrection Tells Us,” The Washington Post, April 6, 2021. ↩
David Kilkullen, “America in 2020: ‘Insurrection’ or ‘Incipient Insurgency’?,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, June 23, 2020. ↩
See American Insurrection, a PBS Frontline documentary directed by Richard Rowley. ↩
See Louis Beam, “Leaderless Resistance” (1983), available at The Seditionist, February 1992. ↩
In late May a national poll showed that 28 percent of Republicans agreed that “things have gotten so off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” The same number—nearly three in ten Republicans—agreed that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” See Karen Tumulty, “The Really Scary Reason Republicans Don’t Want to Face the Truth About Jan. 6,” The Washington Post, May 28, 2021. ↩
See Jonathan V. Last, “Reading the Republican Autopsy: It’s Real, and It’s Spectacular,” The Bulwark, April 13, 2021. ↩
Ezra Klein, “Joe Manchin and Stacey Abrams Can Meet on Common Ground,” The New York Times, March 11, 2021. ↩