This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.
“We condemn the violence that took place here in the strongest possible terms,” Vice President Mike Pence intoned in the House chamber the night of Jan. 6, after his boss’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and laid waste to it in a siege that left five people dead. “We grieve the loss of life in these hallowed halls, as well as the injuries suffered by those who defended our Capitol today,” Pence continued. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house.”
It sounded like a consensus. “The violence must end,” Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley wrote in his official statement on the insurrection, despite having given the crowd a fist pump of encouragement before the assault. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had joined Hawley in supporting President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s November victory, wrote on the same theme: “The Department of Justice should vigorously prosecute everyone who was involved in these brazen acts of violence.”
But it wasn’t until brazen violence left blood on the floor of the Capitol that the Republicans settled on that particular anti-violence message. For more than five years, from the moment Donald Trump entered the presidential race, the party had ever more strongly committed itself to a different position on the morality—and political value—of violence: It was useful, and they would use it.
More than “winning,” more than prosperity, violence was the rhetorical heart of the Trump movement. Ordinary Republicans were told, over and over, that the people who loved Trump were literally under attack by their political opponents, and that history and patriotism called for them to literally fight back. Coming their way was a sinister array of cultural Marxists, migrant caravans, Muslim “snakes,” Black Lives Matter rioters, and a global antifa conspiracy. They were passengers storming the cockpit in the Flight 93 election, witnesses to American carnage, champions of the Angel Moms mourning their slain children.
Their president welcomed their aggression as healthy enthusiasm, and justified it by ceaselessly inventing or exaggerating stories of left-wing and nonwhite violence, for which there was scant or no evidence. When Trump was not openly celebrating his supporters’ violence, again and again he ignored, downplayed, or covered up the evidence of violence being enacted by right-wing and state actors. He promised his audience freedom from the old niceties, and central to that freedom was the right to violence.
And where the president led, a whole national political party followed. Last August, on prime-time television, the Republican National Convention chose to showcase Mark and Patricia McCloskey as the centerpiece of the Trump campaign pitch.
The nation had first met the McCloskeys in late June, when they stepped out of their St. Louis mansion barefoot, brandishing guns, to confront a passing crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters. Patricia gripped a small handgun with her finger on the trigger; her husband, in a pink Brooks Brothers polo shirt, held an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. Yelling “Get the hell out of my neighborhood” and “Private property—get out,” the agitated couple waved their weapons at the marchers, who in return only pointed phones, recording the spectacle.
In their recorded convention speech, the McCloskeys were shown sitting under soft lighting on a plush sofa, dark wood-paneled walls behind them. Their hair was combed neatly; both wore nice blazers; they held their hands folded across their laps. They told the audience of being abused and oppressed by mobs—first in the streets, and then on the internet. Mark began by declaring that the couple was “defending our home” as “a mob of protesters descended on our neighborhood.”
“What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” Patricia said.
What had happened to them, really? The couple was charged with felonies for their actions, but Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson had already pledged to pardon them if they were convicted. They had transcended both the obvious video record of their belligerent recklessness and their own well-documented history of overreacting to perceived incursions onto their property. The RNC wasn’t talking to the McCloskeys’ real-life neighbors, or to the people horrified by the video—it was aiming at an audience that could imagine pointing a rifle at a protest march, and feeling justified.
There was a cavernous gap between the heroic myth the McCloskeys told about themselves and all observable facts and corroborating information about what they’d done. But the professional Republican Party and its “law and order” 2020 message lived in that gap. Trump’s reelection was built on the McCloskey doctrine: If you were the president’s kind of American, no evidence of physical risk is required to declare yourself “in danger” and act with deadly force, or the threat of it. The laws cannot constrain you. Even if you’re caught on video breaking them. Even if you’re just a rando with a gun.
The night after the McCloskeys addressed the nation, such a rando with a gun traveled to a protest site in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with another AR-15-style rifle—one he may not have been legally permitted to have. In videos from the scene, a suspect later identified as 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was plainly seen shooting three people, two of them fatally.
Under the Trump era’s rules of engagement, though, nothing was indefensible. Police officers ignored people telling them Rittenhouse was the shooter and allegedly allowed him to pass safely through the crowd, still toting his weapon. And soon enough after the images of the killings reached the public, mainstream figures on the right were defending him.
The highest-rated cable news pundit in history, Tucker Carlson, asked, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Others in the chorus soon included Erick Erickson, Ann Coulter, the Daily Caller’s editor in chief, a senior writer for National Review, members of Turning Point USA and the Club for Growth, the chair of the Kenosha GOP, the chief of Kenosha’s police department, Republican congressmen, and at least one U.S. senator.
Naturally this was all leading to Trump himself unequivocally defending Rittenhouse, a committed MAGA supporter. “You saw the same tape I saw,” Trump said. “He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like. And he fell, and then they very violently attacked him. […] He was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed.” The tape Trump was talking about having seen was a sequence that, in its entirety, occurred after the teenager had apparently already shot and killed one person and fled from the body. But the actual events didn’t matter; what mattered was the tale of righteous force that could be told about them.
Trump’s message about Kenosha was of a piece with the rest of his term. Throughout his time as a candidate and president, he celebrated extrajudicial and illegal violence against civilians in the face of evidence and in the face of criminal convictions for it.
In the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to bring back torture; he advocated the beating of protesters at his rallies; he promised he would pay the legal fees of anyone who assaulted his opponents. After he took office, in August 2017, he pardoned Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff convicted of profiling Latinos and torturing his immigrant prisoners, and praised him repeatedly. Arpaio’s contempt for the law was, by Trump’s standards, part of law and order. That same month, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—the one with “very fine people” on both sides—saw a white supremacist murder Heather Heyer with his car.
In December 2019, Trump pardoned Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL court martialed, demoted, and convicted of war crimes after posing for a photo with the dead body of a teenage ISIS prisoner in Iraq, whom he stabbed to death with his hunting knife while the prisoner’s injures were being treated by medics. Gallagher was also accused of shooting multiple civilians, including killing a young girl in Afghanistan, but he was not convicted after prosecutors bungled the case. Still, multiple Navy SEALs testified against him, calling him “a psychopath” and “freaking evil”; one said he saw Gallagher fire at “probably a 12-year-old.” The testimony of the SEALs was beside the point. To Trump, Gallagher was “tough” and “one of our ultimate fighters”
Gallagher wasn’t the only war criminal Trump exonerated. This past December, he pardoned four Blackwater contractors who had been convicted of killing civilians in Iraq. As the Times reported, one of the pardoned men had been sentenced to life in prison, “for his role in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad—a massacre that left one of the most lasting stains of the war on the United States. Among those dead were two boys, 8 and 11.”
Then there were the president’s border agents and ICE officers, who have been accused of abuse and even murder. They carried out the president’s policies of separating children from their parents and putting them in cages rife with abuse and vulnerable to the coronavirus. The immigration agencies that violated America’s laws and Constitution were continually praised as heroes by the president and his supporters.
Beginning in June of his final year, Trump’s federal agents were repeatedly captured on camera beating protesters and journalists, spraying them with tear gas, and kidnapping them off the street in violation of their First Amendment rights. Trump dismissed or praised this recorded and widely broadcast violence and lawlessness. After Michael Forest Reinoehl—a self-described antifa supporter who had killed Aaron Danielson, a Trump supporter and member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer during a confrontation in Portland, Oregon—was shot and killed by police on Sept. 3, Trump crowed on the campaign trail about how the officers apparently executed Reinoehl on sight. “They knew who he was; they didn’t want to arrest him, and in 15 minutes that ended,” Trump said. “There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”
None of this weakened Trump’s position within his party. The more brutal the administration was, the more justified the brutality must have been. The double standard about who was a threat and who was a victim was obvious. “Watching the Republican convention, they’re spewing this fear,” NBA head coach Doc Rivers, who is Black, said the week that the NBA players went on strike for racial justice. “All you hear out of Trump, and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that were denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”
That double standard was Republican Party policy. In late September, my colleague Christina Cauterucci wrote about how the movement to decriminalize violence against people of color and leftists existed before Trump became president but had spread rapidly throughout the right over the previous year. That month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis released a package with the Orwellian title, the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” a bill proposal that would criminalize (unconstitutionally) participating in a protest that results in property damage and would grant immunity to drivers who kill demonstrators by running them over with a car, under the pretense that these drivers would be “fleeing for safety from a mob.”
“The specifics of the proposal are worth close consideration, because it represents a rising consensus among conservative leaders under Donald Trump,” Cauterucci wrote. “DeSantis and his peers are simply trying to create space within the law—or the perception of it—for their political supporters to kill their political opponents.”
Their political supporters got the message. There was no retreating or apologizing in the Trump movement. When his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic became a liability, the president turned even public health into strife, encouraging anti-mask unrest. In April, he began tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” That was the month protesters, many armed with semi-automatic rifles and some brandishing swastikas and Confederate flags, stormed and occupied the State Capitol, to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandates for wearing masks and closing businesses to protect the populace from COVID-19. Trump called the occupiers “very good people” and urged Whitmer to “give a little.”
On Oct. 8, the FBI charged 13 members and associates of the Wolverine Watchmen group, which had participated in the protests, with having allegedly formed a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Whitmer. By the FBI’s account, the group bought and trained with firearms and explosives, surveilled the governor’s movements, and corresponded about their plan over several months. “I just wanna make the world glow, dude. […] Everything’s gonna have to be annihilated,” Adam Fox, the plot’s accused leader, said. After kidnapping Whitmer, the group also planned to put her on “trial” for treason. Suspected co-conspirator Daniel Harris proposed a simpler approach: “Just cap her.”
Ten days after the indictments, Trump told supporters at a campaign rally in Michigan that they had to make Whitmer “open up the state,” echoing the motivation of the would-be kidnappers. This prompted the crowd to start chanting “lock her up!” Trump laughed, and responded, “lock them all up.”
On the same day that Whitmer published a statement in the Atlantic telling how Trump’s broadsides against her had resulted directly in “a surge of vicious attacks” on her and her family, a Michigan judge ruled—in favor of gun rights activists—to allow people to open-carry firearms at the state’s polling places on Election Day, overturning the Democratic secretary of state’s prior ban. This decision came on the heels of several Michigan sheriffs vowing that they would not enforce the open-carry ban, anyway.
Later in his October rally, Trump implicitly threatened Whitmer. “I guess they said she was threatened. Right? And she blamed me! She blamed me, and our people were the ones that worked with her people. So let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens,” he said.
The election was just one more conflict to escalate, to see what might happen. The president of the United States spent his entire reelection campaign—at his rallies and on Twitter—calling on his supporters to prevent nonexistent voter fraud in swing state cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. His campaign recruited and trained volunteer poll watchers to show up at voting sites and confront supposed fraudsters, and referred to the poll watchers as the “Army for Trump.” In late October, Trump asked volunteers to sign up for this “army” alongside a graphic reading “Fight for President Trump!”
At the chaotic first presidential debate, Trump said, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.” This was the same night that Trump refused to condemn or disavow white supremacist groups when asked to by the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace; when Biden then asked Trump to denounce the violent and racist far-right gang the Proud Boys, the president instead told its members to “stand back and stand by,” which the group embraced as an endorsement.
The violent themes coming down from the White House had long since drawn more violence from the president’s most devoted followers. In 2018, a Trump fanatic sent 16 mail bombs to the president’s most prominent critics, including Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and CNN. In 2019, a man killed 22 people and injured 24 others in a shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. The alleged 21-year-old attacker’s manifesto mentioned Trump by name and parroted his anti-immigrant rhetoric; most of the victims were Latino.
Those incidents could be written off as the work of crazies. But by 2020, crazies seemed to have become one more flank in the president’s coalition. The idea that Democrats were devoted to the destruction of Trump’s supporters had spawned the QAnon conspiracy movement, an ever-shifting collection of paranoid theories about how the Democrats were cannibal pedophiles bent on world domination, and how Trump was engaged in a secret apocalyptic war to stop them.
For a broadly unpopular president and a party trying to hold together a fragile Electoral College map, what mattered was that the QAnon supporters were fanatically enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm could be useful. So what if they believed in impossible things? If they believed in Trump, Trump would believe in them—even if it meant turning over party organizations and elected offices to them.
The result was a campaign that carried itself like an actual insurgency. In the immediate run-up to Election Day, several caravans of Trump supporters in their vehicles clogged or blockaded streets and bridges in Democratic strongholds, including New York City and New Jersey. Most prominently, on Nov. 1, a fleet of cars and trucks—honking and waving Trump flags—surrounded a Biden campaign bus on a highway in Texas, all but running it off the road and causing a collision with a campaign staffer’s vehicle. The Biden campaign canceled the rest of that day’s campaign events out of safety concerns. “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong,” Trump said.
By then, there was no distance left between the president and the members of his party who’d once warned he would go too far. At a rally, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—who’d run in the 2016 presidential primary as a decent, God-fearing alternative to Trump—gloated about the highway attack: “I saw yesterday a video of these people in Texas. […] Did you see it? All the cars on the road, we love what they did.”
When voting finally concluded on Nov. 3, guys with guns showed up.
Beginning the night after the vote, in Phoenix, Trump’s supporters gathered outside a Maricopa County elections site where volunteers were tallying the ballots cast for Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden, and anyone else in the election. Like the Michigan occupiers, many in the daily crowds carried long guns and semi-automatic rifles, and they tried to force their way inside, where volunteer poll workers diligently counted ballots. For a time, the tallying process gradually ate into Biden’s lead over Trump, but the president ultimately fell short. Biden wound up winning the state by 10,457 votes.
On Thursday, Nov. 5, Philadelphia police arrested two armed men who were approaching the city’s convention center, where Pennsylvania’s final votes were being counted, most of them for Biden. The arrested men and their car—a Hummer with a QAnon sticker on the back windshield—matched the description of “a tip that an armed group from out of state was headed to the city’s vote-counting center,” according to the Washington Post. On Friday, Nov. 6, Philly police also announced they were investigating a bomb threat to the Fashion District of Philadelphia, which borders the convention center, only hours after CBS News reported that a man was being investigated for threatening a mass shooting in Los Angeles if Biden won.
Biden won. Luckily, no bombs blew up, and there was no mass shooting. But Trump and his Republican allies did not try to lower the heat that cooked up the threats in Philadelphia and Phoenix. Instead, most professional Republicans continued pushing the lie that rampant voter fraud in the decisive states had stolen the election from Trump. This lie extended far beyond Trump and his inner circle; a month after Biden wrapped things up, less than a quarter of Senate Republicans acknowledged the result. Days before the Electoral College certification, that fraction had risen to a still-measly slightly less than half of them.
Ultimately, eight GOP senators wound up rejecting Americans’ votes, alongside more than two-thirds of House Republicans, and before certification, many more said little or nothing to combat the coup attempt. Led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and Reps. Mo Brooks and Paul Gosar, scores of federal GOP lawmakers spread their lie even as the Trump campaign’s challenges fell apart.
There was no way to pull the core of the party back from its wartime footing. Trump lost more than 60 court cases over the results, many of them thrown out as absurd and frivolous by state and federal judges, including Republican appointees. Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called the election the most secure in history. The Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit that Texas and 17 other state Republican attorneys general filed challenging the count, with no justices indicating that they would even entertain overturning the election. Yet aside from a few clear condemnations from the likes of Sens. Mitt Romney, Pat Toomey, and Ben Sasse, the Republican Party writ large continued spraying the misinformation firehoses not only after the guns and bombs in Arizona and Pennsylvania, but also as new death threats bombarded governors and secretaries of state from both parties who certified the results and refused to acquiesce to Trump’s pressure campaign.
All the while, to the bitter end, the most dangerous MAGA supporters were urged again and again to defy the democratic results. Trump called the likes of Romney and Toomey the “Surrender Caucus” and spent weeks telling his fans to fight his loss. Between Trump’s tales of fraud and election theft and the QAnon fantasies that a secret day of retribution was at hand, thousands listened and descended on Washington.
On the morning of the Electoral College certification, with Trump supporters preparing to rally, newly elected Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted “Today is 1776.” Rep. Mo Brooks told the assembled D.C. crowd it was “the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” Rudy Giuliani declared the election should be settled through “trial by combat.”
By the time the president spoke, the crowd listening to him was chanting “Fight for Trump.” He told them they had been like a boxer fighting with a hand tied behind his back; he told them that they were going to march to the Capitol. “Something is wrong here, something is really wrong, can’t have happened, and we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said.
They went. Leading the way up the Capitol steps was a group of people chanting Proud Boy slogans. Two years before, when the press was still deciding how seriously to take the group, Manhattan’s Metropolitan Republican Club had hosted its founder, Gavin McInnes, who entertained them by reenacting the 1960 on-camera assassination, by samurai sword, of the Japanese Socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma. Afterward, the Proud Boys roamed the Upper East Side, attacking people.
Now they were swarming the center of American democracy, alongside QAnon believers and Oath Keepers and Republican elected officials, a whole political coalition trying to force a political result. Along with the five people killed and the police officers and journalists who were beaten in the melee, there were semi-automatic rifles. Someone scrawled “murder the media” on the walls. There were Molotov cocktails inside the building, and blocks away at RNC and DNC headquarters, there were pipe bombs. There were flex cuffs to detain members of Congress as hostages. Many raiders were trained ex-military members or off-duty law enforcement officers. Even Trump’s closest surrogate for these past four-plus years, Vice President Mike Pence, was a target, since—although he had never explicitly rebuked Trump’s claims that the election was stolen—he denied he had the power to overturn the certification, as Trump told his crowds he could. “Hang Mike Pence,” some rioters shouted, which would have been possible, since insurrectionists had also erected gallows outside the building.
Even as he belatedly, reluctantly called for the invaders to desist, Trump called them patriots. “We love you,” he told them in a video statement. “You’re very special.”
Not even the horror of the day could push the right-wing messaging apparatus away from supporting the premise behind the insurrection. Tucker Carlson spent his Fox News monologue arguing that the rioters, though they behaved regrettably, held understandable if not justified motivations: “[I]f people begin to believe that their democracy is fraudulent, that voting is a charade, that the system is rigged and it’s run in secret by a small group of powerful, dishonest people who are acting in their own interests. Then, God knows what could happen.” Carlson warned that the raid “will be used by the people taking power to justify stripping you of the rights you were born with as an American”—once again telling the people who lashed out that they were the true victims.
The professional Republicans who incited the violence blamed Black Lives Matter and said that it was all antifa. The Republican creed of the Trump era—that their supporters face elimination, and must fight back with everything they’ve got—has already outlasted the presidency. The Republican House Conference is trying to remove Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership position, because she dared to join in the vote to impeach Trump for inciting the riot. The Biden administration had not been in place for 48 hours before Newt Gingrich was on Fox News telling viewers it was bent on “exterminating” them, and Marco Rubio was tweeting about how a “radical leftist agenda” would “only confirm 75 million Americans biggest fears.” Biden’s inaugural call for unity—much of the right-wing press and congressional delegation instantly declared—was a coded threat against them all. The politics of rage and paranoia didn’t quite succeed in reversing this election, but there’s always another chance.
This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.