At 98, historian Bernard Weisberger has seen it all. Born in 1922, he grew up watching newsreels of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as they rose to power in Europe. He vividly remembers Mussolini posturing to crowds from his balcony in Rome, chin outthrust, right arm extended. Nor has he forgotten Der Fuehrer’s raspy voice on radio, interrupted by cheers of “Heil Hitler,” full of menace even without pictures.
I've been forced to write about Donald Trump an awful lot during the past five years and the problem I always face when writing in a limited space, like this one, is which of his countless horrific qualities to focus on. The same thing happens when I need to address the consequences of the policies of his administration. There are so many terrible ones, so many victims and so many enablers. I always found myself asking, "Who deserves a thousand words today?"
Not today. I don't dispute the genuine horror, outrage and sadness genuinely patriotic people feel at seeing the desecration of one of the most potent symbols of American democracy. I share those feelings. But another part of me is glad about it. Finally, Trumpism has clarified itself. It's not about "economic insecurity." It's not about globalization. It's not about being "forgotten," "disdained by elites," or fear of the future. It's just about hatred: hatred of anyone and anything who is not a white, Christian, right-wing, American-born American. Any other attempt to defend or explain Trump's appeal is a lie and a dangerous one at that because it's a lie that perpetuates all the other lies that have allowed him and his minions to conduct a rampage against America and all that it stands for; the same rampage that finally found its physical manifestation in the insurrectional riot we saw on Wednesday.
What made all this possible? Obviously, there is Trump himself. His entire life, beginning with his real estate career, his TV celebrity, his presidential campaign and then of course, his presidency, had been built on a foundation of easily disprovable falsehood. And somehow, it worked. Trump apparently told the right kind of lies; the kinds of lies that were in the interests of the powerful people allied with him to pretend to believe. As for his victims, who cared? If they had any power in the first place, they would not have been victims. As far as Trump was concerned, lying worked. It pumped up his ego and got him what he wanted. After all, he got elected president of the United States without having any appreciable qualifications. It's not merely a mystery as to why he kept it up.
The more compelling question for our future is who were the people who bought into his lies, pretended to believe (or at least excuse) them and benefitted as a result? These, after all, are the people who betrayed their country and will still be around when Trump is either serving time or living in exile. Second, of course, was the structure of enablement his lies enjoyed. The Trump administration was one big bribe. The rich got their massive tax cuts and extremely relaxed enforcement of financial crimes. Evangelicals got their Federalist Society–appointed judges and extreme Zionism put into practice. Racists, Nazis and nationalists got their attacks on everyone who did not look and "think" like them. (These people came cheap.) Cops got to beat up and sometimes murder people with impunity. Corporations were free to pollute their communities and disempower their workers. The right-wing press got to give their "middle finger" as National Review editor Rich Lowry named it, at the rest of us and the mainstream media got ratings, subscriptions and stock prices they could not have imagined five years earlier. Remember CBS CEO Les Moonves speaking about Trump's candidacy, before Moonves lost his job following numerous claims of sexual misconduct? He may have been speaking for the entire industry when he said: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,"
All this added up to an irresistible bargain for all of them to embrace Trump's lies and pass them along to the voters, viewers, stockholders, churchgoers, whomever. The net result was the creation of an entire world of unreality in which nearly half the country lived and most of the rest of it agreed to indulge. Trump-supporting Kentucky Republican, Thomas Massie, sounds like he's making complete sense when he says, "Trump has a 94 percent approval rating among my Republican electorate—I've actually polled it twice," Massie said. "Those are people that vote in the primaries in Kentucky's Fourth District … I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do." The poor fellow…
Almost all the mainstream media expressed profound shock at the sight of Trump's most devoted followers attacking Congress on Wednesday. It played out as a "Drunk History" parody version of the Bolsheviks' 1917 storming of the Tsar's winter palace. Didn't these people know a wink when they saw one? Didn't they understand, as Selena Zito lectured the rest of us back in September, 2016 (in the Atlantic, no less,) that while, "the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally?" Apparently, not. These people have been fed a diet of literally nothing but political lies for decades now in the fantasy "propaganda loop" that right-wing billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and Rebekah Mercer have created for them. Donald Trump was just the Frankenstein monster that (we now see) pushed things a little too far. But give credit where it's due. Trump's 30,000 or so presidential lies were built on a mountain of lies that came before him, thanks to Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, both George Bushes (but especially the second one) and all of the politicians and pundits who embraced and enabled them.
Viewed from a certain perspective, one is almost tempted to feel sorry for these clowns — or "very special" people as Trump called them — in the Viking hats and the "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirts. They had become, what Hannah Arendt called, "the ideal subject of a totalitarian state"; that is, the person "for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist." Too bad, however, that — just like with Covid deniers — their purposeful ignorance combined with their maniacal aggressiveness is endangering the rest of us to the point of that (My God!) even Mitch McConnell recognized as a potential "death spiral" for democracy and said enough was finally enough.
The obvious question for which there is just as obviously no clear answer yet is, "Are we too far gone to save ourselves?" As posed by the punditocracy, it takes some form of, "How much of the Republican Party will remain in thrall to this guy that we now all suddenly discovered is a dangerous lunatic?" This question is always followed by references to rhetorical flamethrowers, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and the total of 179 lawmakers who, even after what they saw on Wednesday, still refused to recognize the rightful president-elect of the United States. (This is coupled with a running count of which rats are jumping from their sinking ship. ) But the Congressional Republican Party is just the head of an extremely pugnacious and poisonous snake. The reptilian structure it grows out of has strangled so many of institutions that make democracy possible and infected so many of the people who shape and influence it, one has a hard time imagining where we will find the resources to nurse the body politic back even to a semblance of good health.
One thing is for certain, however: we have no choice but to try. There is no "moving on" or "looking to the future" without first facing the truth. And that means legally holding responsible everyone who helped to create the criminal syndicate that took over our government and morally, everyone who supported it. They were not just "playing politics," this time around. They were toying with treason. And that's just how they need to be treated if we are to restore a semblance of functional democracy to our system and personal honor to our politics.
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