A Miserable End to Four Years of Mob Rule

The Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol was a shock but it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

We’ve seen the true colors of the Republican Party. Photo by Dalton Caraway on Unsplash

Right from the start we’ve struggled to define the Trump Administration’s particular brand of populism. Chaos. Authoritarianism. A con. A cult. An alternate reality. White nationalism. Fascism.

Finally we just called it Trumpism.

On January 6 we saw it for what it really is. Mob rule.

It took the brutalization of one of our most sacred democratic shrines to understand that. But look back over the past four years. Trump’s populist rhetoric has always been a thin veneer over something that operated more on the level of the barbarians sacking Rome.

Now the veneer is off. The lies spread by the president and his party have come home to roost. The Trumpists have stormed the gates. We’re left with the painful image of invaders standing in the chambers of the House and Senate. Some actually wearing horns and animal hides.

Future historians trying to sort all this out might want to start their analysis a dozen years back, with the presidency of Barack Obama — and the rise of the Tea Party.

The Obama administration came to power with an economic crisis on its hands and an ambitious plan to reform a broken healthcare system. Rather than counter the new Obama policies with their own ideas for solving the nation’s very real problems, Tea Party Republicans simply stood against everything. It didn’t take long for Tea Party nihilism to engulf the G.O.P. Opportunistic politicians of the right could make political hay with almost no effort. The Tea Party’s populist anger proved as addictive as crack cocaine.

Already by 2012 conservative scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann were writing that the Republican Party had lost its ability to govern. In their Washington Post essay “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem,” they described the modern G.O.P. as “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

All of this made the G.O.P. an easy mark for Donald Trump. He had the allure of a political outsider and the instincts of a con artist.

Following his surprise victory in 2016 Trump never pivoted away from campaign mode and into governing. Looking back through the lens of the mob violence at the Capitol, we can see that the central force driving the Trump administration was never deliberation or policy, or even ideology. It was Trump rallies.

Charles Homans, a journalist friend of mine, sensed early on there was something important going on with the new administration’s infatuation with more campaign-style rallies. He attended as many as he could during Trump’s first year in office, reporter notebook in hand.

In his account for the New York Times magazine, he writes that most presidents speak to something larger. The nation. The epoch. “Do you remember that Ronald Reagan delivered his Evil Empire Speech to a convention of evangelicals at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel in Orlando, Fla.? Of course not. He wasn’t speaking to them; he was speaking to history.”

Trump, he tells us, almost always speaks to the audience right in front of him.

It became a perverse kind of symbiosis. The energy of the rallies fed Trump’s ego. Any idea from his rambling monologues that got a rise from the crowd became a governing priority. The Trump faithful developed a view of nation as consisting solely of themselves.

The party that had gone supernova with the astonishing 2016 election collapsed in on itself to become a black hole of mob rule. No light getting in. No light coming out.

The greatest tragedy of this, at least in terms of its sheer magnitude, has been the hundreds of thousands dead and millions left out of work by the administration’s mismanagement of a killer pandemic. It turns out mob rule doesn’t play well with smart public health.

A lot of what went wrong with the coronavirus response can be blamed on incompetence, magnified by Trump’s psychological issues and vacant attention span. But I think the mob mentality he and his party brought to governance is a more useful explanation.

Lawrence Wright has written a painstakingly reported chronicle of the American experience with the pandemic for The New Yorker (The Plague Year, January 4 & 11 issue). He describes how the famous infighting Trump liked to encourage among his staff knee-capped the Coronavirus Advisory Council headed by Vice-President Mike Pence.

Wright gives us a telling quote from Olivia Troye, a former homeland-security advisor who worked with Pence on the council. “I can’t even begin to describe all these insane factions in the White House. I often thought, If these people could focus more on doing what’s right for the country rather than trying to take each other down, we’d be in a much different place.”

Early in the pandemic state governments were left to fend for themselves to overcome a crippling shortage of vital supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment. The president pushed responsibility for fighting the contagion down to the state and local level, then stirred up right wing rebellions against their best efforts. “Liberate Michigan! Liberate Minnesota!”

The dumbest and most visible example of this is of course the transformation of the mask from humble covid-fighting tool to culture war symbol.

According to news reports, the lawmakers huddled in a makeshift panic room during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol have been warned that they may have been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus. Made worse by a group of Republicans in the room refusing to wear the spare masks offered by their Democratic colleagues. The pull of the mob is strong, even when that mob is outside the door shouting threats to your life.

Power in the hands of the people was a radical new idea when the Founders began writing the U.S. Constitution. So they worked carefully, creating the checks and balances that would keep the new government stable.

Populism in its raw state lacks any of that. The physics of populism will always threaten to send it spinning wildly into mob rule, resulting in either bloody anarchy or a strongman come to apply chains to the mob. The French Revolution ended with Bonaparte. The Russian Revolution with Lenin.

I can’t tell you if that was the intended endgame for Trump and his Republican Party insurrectionists. Thinking so probably credits them with too much actual understanding of history.

I can only tell you where we stand as of this writing.

Trump’s final days in power are up, whether that be by impeachment, resignation or simply running out the clock. But the mob will outlast him. Already it feeds on itself, calling for the heads of die-hard loyalists like Lindsey Graham and Mike Pence. There is no loyalty in a mob.

Barricades are going up around the Capitol. Statehouses are putting plywood on the windows. The National Guard is unpacking its riot gear. Fear settles into the American gut.

There is a mountain of lies thrust up between the mob and the rest of us. An astonishing number are authored by the president — I lost count after the total hit 25,000 sometime last fall. But the problem is bigger than that. The sole governing philosophy of the Republican Party has become fabrication and fantasy.

That’s the legacy of years of mob rule disguising itself as governance. Understanding that is where the road back from the abyss begins. Fixing the damage done may be the work of a generation. But the first job is a steadfast, patriotic fealty to truth. No more false equivalencies. No more whataboutism. No more gaslighting about voter fraud or stolen elections.

The only way to stand down the mob that’s come for our democracy is to make truth the table stakes for all those who want to play in the legitimate functions of government. I’ll leave you with the words of Sen. Mitt Romney, speaking in the Senate after it was cleared of insurgents on Jan. 6.

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

“The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

Writer. Observer of mass culture, communications and creativity.

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