Can Trump's revolutionary faction be contained?
Ours is a precarious moment.
Last week, the president of the United States incited an insurrection against the national legislature as it was acting to certify the results of a free and fair election. He paved the way for this treasonous act by repeatedly lying for two months about the veracity of the vote.
Five people died in the ensuing melee, but generalized violence was not anywhere close to the worst thing that happened that day. If President Trump had incited a riot on the streets of Washington in which five people were killed, that would have been very bad. But this was an attack on the core institution of American democracy itself — and it could easily have been far, far worse. Some in the crowd brought heavy weaponry and homemade bombs. Still others were keen to take hostages and even to track down and murder the vice president of the United States for failing to overturn the results of the 2020 election (which he had no power to do).
That makes what we witnessed last week categorically different from the kinds of protests, looting, and riots we've seen at many points throughout the recent and not-so-recent American past. Fueled by a potent mixture of painstakingly cultivated delusion and fury, Trump's MAGA militia — which also wreaked havoc that day at state houses across the country — acted as terrorists hell bent on decapitating American self-government.
This is the pertinent context for understanding the extraordinary events of the days since the anti-democratic insurrection of January 6, 2020. They include a renewed effort to remove Trump from office through impeachment or the invocation of the 25th Amendment, as well as technology companies suspending the president's social-media accounts and working to shut down Parler, a platform that over the past few months has become an alternative to Twitter and Facebook for the conspiracy-addled far right.
Such actions are entirely justified and in fact absolutely essential, first and foremost because more acts of insurrection could be coming between now and President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration nine days from now.
Congress and tech companies are right to do whatever they can to keep that from happening — to draw firm and bright lines now, demonstrating that incitement to revolutionary acts against the seat of American democracy will not be tolerated, including, and perhaps especially, when the perpetrator is the president. Our baseline for freedom cannot be that would-be insurrectionists are entitled to make use of the most powerful facilitator of grassroots political organization ever devised. (That's precisely what social media is.) To say that they have such a right is to turn liberal democracy into a suicide pact.
Could the actions of tech companies open the door to genuine abuses of power — including the "cancelation" of people and organizations for a much wider range of offenses and harms than outright incitement? Absolutely. And we should do everything we can to ensure it doesn't happen. But that is a task for another day. Right now, it is crucial that we do what we can to expel the leading insurrectionists from American public life.
Unfortunately, it's far from clear that such efforts will work. It may be too late to keep Trump's revolutionary faction from threatening American democracy now and for a long time after the passing of the presidency that cultivated and encouraged it.
The time to move against fundamental threats to the political order is when they are gathering force but still relatively weak. In our present context, that would have been the summer and fall of 2015, when Trump's presidential campaign began to catch fire by mobilizing voters who responded to his hateful nonsense, poisonous bile, and delusional conspiracies at campaign events, in his Twitter feed, and on debate stages.
But it never happened. The leadership of the Republican Party decided to let the campaign play out without much interference. At first they were sure Trump would implode on his own. Then they gambled that one of the other candidates would take him down. Finally, they resigned themselves to him becoming the party's standard-bearer, convinced that if he somehow managed to beat Hillary Clinton he could be managed and educated by the adults in the party. He'd assimilate to the norms of the presidency, and things would go on much as they always have under Republican presidents, with maybe a few shifts in policy priorities to placate the fixations of the voters who rallied to the new president's side.
This wasn't an unreasonable presumption. In the years following the Second World War, Europe faced an analogous situation and responded in much the same way. With the continent confronting an existential threat from the Soviet Union, communist parties began to organize in the West as they had prior to the war. Should they be banned? In most cases, the countries made the choice to allow them to compete for and hold political office. The hope was that in working to win votes, sharing in rule, and taking responsibility for enacting policies to benefit their constituents, the communists' revolutionary aims would be moderated.
For the most part, the strategy worked. Communist parties assimilated to the norms of liberal democracy. In taking part in the system, they ceased trying to tear it down.
But that isn't how things have worked out over the past four years in the United States.
The opening days of the Trump administration were dominated by the new president flagrantly lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration — and by his first press secretary (Sean Spicer) repeatedly parroting those lies before the press. That set the tone of the next four years. Instead of assimilating to the norms of the presidency and thereby moderating the outlook of his most devoted supporters, Trump used his position as president to radicalize them further, encouraging them at every step to plunge deeper into an alternative epistemological universe from the rest of the country. In this a range of right-wing media personalities, networks, and websites have been complicit as well.
That's the context in which to understand Trump's words and deeds since the November election. Unable to accept defeat at the ballot box, Trump opted to propagate a fantasy that his voters had by then been amply prepared to swallow whole by a steady diet of deranging lies. A substantial faction of Republican voters now believes that the Democratic Party is a radical left-wing movement out to destroy everything worthwhile about the country, that it engaged in massive, systematic voter fraud in order to steal the election from them, and that a range of political, social, and cultural institutions (including the federal courts, state officials of both parties, Congress, and the Republican vice president) are in on the conspiracy.
Back in the late 1940s and 1950s, European governments could have followed a different path than the one they did. Instead of working to moderate the small, hobbled communist parties that were seeking to reconstitute themselves on the postwar continent, they could have banned them from participation. With American help, the effort at repression probably would have worked — just as the GOP might have been able to stop Trump if had it devoted itself to the task back in 2015 or 2016.
What Europe's liberal governments would have had considerable trouble trying to accomplish is protecting themselves from these communist parties if, rather than winning a modicum of power and moderating their positions, they had won enough votes to form governments while also doubling down on Stalinist ideology. By then, the parties would likely have been too large, too powerful, and too ruthless to crush.
That's the analogical situation in which we find ourselves today — trying to protect the core institutions of American democracy against an insurrectionary movement galvanized, built up, and mobilized by the outgoing president, one that is willing to use terrorist violence to thwart the peaceful transfer of power and destabilize the system in other ways as well.
Four years ago, this movement was utterly marginal in American political life. Today it is a serious threat to the government of the United States. We have no choice but to try and contain it — even though the effort to do so may be starting too late to succeed.