Whiplash is an inadequate metaphor.
It didn’t feel quite like whiplash to live through the horror of Wednesday’s insurrection, followed by the mundanity of Trump bestowing the nation’s highest honor on some golfers. It felt more like coming to a complete stop and then having the back of one’s neck whacked with a five iron.
A typical Trump-era news cycle is simply incompatible with the moment at hand.
Usually, it goes like this: Trump does something unforgivable, people are outraged, right-wing media both minimizes it and both-sides it, people get mad about that, and then we all move on. Things may turn out differently this time—Chuck Schumer has expressed interest in reconvening Congress in an attempt to remove Trump from office—but too much of it feels dangerously as familiar as ever.
If the Trump-incited coup attempt doesn’t bring the country back to a shared reality and change anything substantially, what in the world would it possibly take to do so?
The rallying cry at the start of Trump’s presidency was to not normalize him. John Oliver did an episode about it, lots of easily caricatured pussy-hat wearers and Fast Company columnists (myself included) adopted it, and it ultimately became a cliché. But a funny thing happened while it became trite and basic to urge people against normalizing Trump: We did normalize him. That’s why the cycle mentioned above is actually a cycle, rather than a straight line, truncated long ago.
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 should have been the breaking point, less than a year into Trump’s presidency, when it was revealed to all whom Trump’s most ardent supporters were, and that Trump was too reliant on their support not to play footsie with them. That moment should have made Trump appropriately toxic to all Americans who share the country’s supposed values and marked the start of a lame-duck presidency.
But it didn’t.
And that’s why Wednesday’s coup attempt happened.
The storming of Capitol Hill in a Trump-led effort to overthrow the will of the people is exactly the kind of endgame the president’s many critics warned about—and it actually happened. The MAGA faithful gave treason a shot, with explosive devices and the whole works, and some of them died trying to see it through. If their efforts, let alone the Confederate flags and Nazi iconography they brandished while carrying them out, didn’t expose what Trumpism is all about, what would do the trick?
America’s citizens need to agree that what happened was a historic and clarifying moment and hopefully a deal breaker for many of Trump’s political allies. For some, even apparently Senator Mitch McConnell, it was an extremely late dose of reality that knocked the political posturing out of their repertoire. (Not to give McConnell even an iota of credit for doing the bare minimum.) For others, however, the insurrection didn’t even deter them from objecting to Joe Biden’s electoral votes when it finally came time to count them. For seven Republican senators and over 120 representatives, including one who was recorded at a rally on Wednesday declaring what Hitler was right about, the day’s events weren’t enough to drop a curtain on the political theater.
Some of those politicians, such as Florida representative Matt Gaetz, even adopted the Trump tactic of throwing out a wild, demonstrably false conspiracy theory to evade any accountability for his actions—in this case, claiming that the coup was perpetuated by Antifa. (The attorney general of Texas agrees and told his following as much.) Recognizing how momentous an occasion the coup attempt was also means unilaterally condemning Trumpian politicians such as Gaetz who are either as susceptible to disinformation as Trump himself is, or who cynically wield it to score points with their fringe base, as Trump also does.
Even more important than appreciating the historic nature of the insurrection is confirming that it was not an anomaly, but rather the apotheosis of Trumpism. The storming of Capitol Hill contained all the usual tropes of a Trump rally—QAnon, white nationalism, etc.—just with actual violence rather than mere allusion and dog-whistling innuendo. That’s why Don Jr. and his cohort are trying desperately to deflect responsibility by pitching the coup as an aberration, rather than a logical conclusion. This wasn’t the fringe of Trumpism, though: This is what Trump is. It’s obvious, considering how unbothered Trump is by what happened, and how many Republicans are still taking their cues from him. It’s made even clearer by Trump’s actions. Rather than condemn his supporters who carried out the insurrection, he fired the acting Department of Homeland Security secretary after he asked Trump to condemn it.
If Trump isn’t sufficiently stigmatized, his apparent loyalists such as Senators Hawley and Cruz will walk around with their heads held high, feeling hunky-dory about their decision to endorse his coup attempt even after seeing where it ended. That will mean that Trumpism has a future. It will also mean that if a Republican loses an election, that can only mean that the election was rigged. That orthodoxy has a future too. (Fox News already laid the groundwork for this idea during the Georgia Senate runoff elections.)
We have to agree, as a country, that what happened on Wednesday, January 6, was as far as the Trump project can possibly go before we unite to condemn it. We have to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable, and, come to think of it, the fact that Trump has completely abandoned even the pretense of combating coronavirus at the most critical moment in order to perpetuate this behavior—that’s unacceptable too.
There are some encouraging signs that this time is finally different, and that the Trump brand may be indelibly tarnished.
There’s the increasingly vocal effort to remove Trump from office, along with a flurry of embarrassingly late resignations. Shopify has taken down Trump’s merch sites, a step toward marking the MAGA hat as the aggressive gang paraphernalia it should be considered. And Facebook has finally suspended Trump’s account indefinitely.
To paraphrase an oft-repeated sentiment, how can the president be unable to access Facebook, but still have access to the nuclear codes?
What more will it take for us as a country not only to remove Trump from office but fully condemn him? When will columns such as this one be considered not a partisan screed from a Trump-hater but the rational analysis of a horrified observer?
People often defer to history as the ultimate arbiter for Trump, but Wednesday’s insurrection proved that we don’t have the luxury of waiting. We need to set the historical record straight right this instant. A majority of Americans voted Trump out of office in a free and fair—and exhaustively inspected—election, exactly for this purpose. And then Trump incited a treasonous coup in order to try to stop that from happening.
If we wait for cooler heads to prevail; if we whitewash this moment into a tamer interpretation; if we don’t assert, loudly and clearly, that the majority of Americans want this madness to end forever, then the answer to the question of “What would it take?” is clear.
If we can normalize even Trump’s coup, America is lost forever The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Fast Company.