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 Thursday morning. It felt more like coming to a complete stop and then having the back of one’s neck whacked with a five iron.
A swift return to the typical Trump news cycle is simply incompatible with the moment at hand.
Things may turn out differently this time—Chuck Schumer has expressed interest in reconvening Congress in an effort to remove Trump from office—but too much of it feels dangerously the same 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 that idea, 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 on the way to it becoming trite 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 Trump’s most ardent supporters made themselves heard, and 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 an early lame-duck presidency.
But it didn’t.
And that’s why Wednesday’s coup attempt happened.
The storming of Capitol Hill in an effort to overthrow the will of the people is exactly the kind of endgame the president’s many critics always 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 at the time, didn’t permanently cement what Trumpism is all about, what would it take to do the trick?
Americans of all stripes must agree that what happened that day was a historic and clarifying tragedy, and 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 briefly 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 even adopted Trump’s tactic of throwing out wild, demonstrably false conspiracy theories to evade any accountability for his actions—in Florida representative Matt Gaetz’s case, claiming that the coup was perpetuated by Antifa. (The attorney general of Texas agrees and told his followers as much.) Recognizing the gravity of this failed insurrection also means unilaterally condemning Trumpian politicians such as Gaetz, who are either as susceptible to disinformation as Trump is, or who cynically wield it to score points with their fringe base, as Trump also does.
Even more important than appreciating the momentousness of this coup attempt 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 desperately trying to deflect responsibility by pitching the coup as an aberration, rather than a logical conclusion. But this wasn’t the fringe of Trumpism: 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. The point is made even clearer by Trump’s actions. Rather than condemn his supporters who carried out the insurrection, he fired acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Josh Wolf on Thursday after Wolf asked Trump to condemn them.
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 part in the deadly coup attempt. It will mean that Trumpism has potential future successors in politics, and that when Republicans lose elections henceforth, they can always cry foul about a supposed steal. (Fox News already laid the groundwork for this idea during the Georgia Senate runoff races.)
We have to agree, as a country, that what happened on Wednesday, January 6, was as far as the Trump project can possibly go and unite to condemn the whole shebang. We have to make it clear that not only is this behavior unacceptable, but, come to think of it, the fact that Trump has completely abandoned even the pretense of combating the pandemic at this most critical moment, all to devote more time to stealing an election—well, that’s unacceptable too.
Some encouraging signs have emerged to signal 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 merchandise sites, a step toward marking the MAGA hat as the aggressive gang paraphernalia it represents. 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 to not only 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 failed insurrection proved that we don’t have the luxury of waiting. We need to set the historical record straight right now. 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 their will from coming to fruition.
If we wait for the Biden administration to investigate; 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.