When will it be over? No matter how clearly, at any moment, I’ve understood the facts of the case—that Donald Trump is a symptom of a diseased Republican Party and not the cause, and that there is no “normal” to go back to when he’s gone—the question keeps returning to mind, as if it still could have an answer.
For a while last year, that question and its possible answer seemed to be comfortingly specific—would America vote Trump out in November? That Election Day stretched into a tortuous week ought to have served as a cosmic reminder that there would be no neat “end” to the Trump presidency. But still, even after it became clear that Joe Biden had won the election, even as it was recertified again and again and again, the question lingered. When would the fight over the election results be over? When could we exhale and look forward toward the inauguration, when surely Joe Biden would become president? When could we turn away from the dozens of baseless lawsuits, the president’s refusal to face reality, the right-wing media’s willingness to say whatever it wants, and move to the next phase, whatever that is?
To me, the most apt explanation for the psychic stress of what has been happening came from Abigail R. Esman and Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that this moment is like when a woman tries to exit an abusive relationship. In this scenario, America is the woman, Trump is the abuser. It’s both the most hopeful moment and an incredibly dangerous one. You could end up with a new life. Or you could end up dead.
This week, Trump and his supporters played their part in the comparison. As the literal end date laid out by the Constitution kept coming closer, they snapped. They snapped because the date was coming closer—because the same moment that represents hope to the majority of Americans represents their own personal apocalypse. No matter how ridiculous, or even transparently fraudulent, the president’s effort to overturn the election is, the alternative is unthinkable to them.
For two months we have been debating how much a coup attempt should matter when it’s a coup so dumb it has no chance of success. What we should have realized is that as we got closer to the actual end, our desperate president—a man who has faced no consequences for anything at any other time in his life and is uniquely psychologically underprepared for what is happening right now—would move from stupid lawyers to stupid thugs in order to get what he wants. Which is how a coup happened this week.
When Trump directed his mob to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, my colleague Aymann Ismail was there reporting on the rally. He went inside with the mob. Ismail wrote:
The people I managed to speak to didn’t seem to understand the gravity of what they had done. Inside a building they had broken into, they described themselves as “peaceful” to me. I talked to a kid from Florida, who must have been no more than 17 or 18. He told me, “This is nothing compared to what antifa does.” I said, “Look, they’re breaking the glass.” He answered, “Yeah, but at least they’re not destroying the things.” I showed him pictures of things destroyed. It didn’t register. On the way up, there was a woman holding a sign saying, “If we were leftists, we would be rioting.”
These sentiments are echoed in interviews Trip Gabriel of the New York Times conducted with Trump supporters this week. The people he featured really do believe Trump won the election, and though they have the good sense to tell a New York Times reporter that they don’t condone violence (an inversion of the rioters who deny that it’s violence while in the act of committing it), they think that the rioters had a point. That’s the inevitable conclusion of the theories that have been pumped into their veins—they are the victims, they are in the right, they are the ones that are oppressed, even when they are the ones subverting the will of the people.
When Twitter removed Donald Trump from its platform on Friday night, it was acknowledging, finally, that the means of incitement for what we saw on Wednesday was misinformation: theories that are carried by dozens of right-wing “news” networks but start from the top, with the president. Taking away Trump’s Twitter was the right move in the moment (and, sure, should have happened forever ago), and it should ideally also have positive consequences in the long term. Maybe Trump will drag friends and foes alike onto some new platform, but I feel sort of hopeful that a project that is largely fueled by the desire to own the libs will run out of juice if it’s made to sit in its own corner, where the libs haven’t bothered to get the new logins.
But before the discourse can settle into some new post-@realDonaldTrump equilibrium, the country has to make it through the remaining days of President Trump. Between now and Jan. 20, a mob without direction may possibly see its president be impeached a second time (as he should be). We are going to have to worry about who will go rogue in the name of something they think is righteous. Who will be hurt as a result? How many of Trump’s deranged supporters will dig in deeper, and how many will start to move away? How that splits—between who sees him as a martyr and who sees him as a loser—will determine a great deal about what kind of future America can have going forward.
We are currently paying the bill for what we have ignored and allowed for years and years and years. Allowing violence only incites more violence. A right-wing politics and media machine built around paranoia and claims of victimhood has left millions of Americans believing themselves to be on the brink of extermination by their enemies, and unable to even imagine the set of facts that make up reality. We are all rightly scared by a president who is by all accounts deranged and suffering in a way he never before has in his life, and who has now been deprived of his normal ways of lashing out.
Even now, after five people died in Trump’s riot in the Capitol, some political figures are warning that impeachment might provoke the president’s supporters into doing something terrible. This is retrospectively ridiculous—how can you provoke people into doing what they already did?—but looking forward, it’s a dangerous act of denial. The provocation isn’t impeachment; it’s inauguration. The majority of the country is waiting for all this to be “over,” but it’s the impending end that makes the moment uniquely dangerous. We are trying to hang on to get to the other side, while the “other side” is exactly what Trump and his supporters can’t tolerate.