As the clock ticks down to Jan. 20, this country is experiencing something it has never seen before. Acting president Donald Trump is dismissing the results of an election that indisputably removed him from office, while loudly rallying disparate factions of his supporters to publicly demonstrate, using loud, angry threats of violence, in an attempt to intimidate elected federal lawmakers into disregarding those election results. The people who he is summoning to fulfill his wishes number among what most Americans would traditionally consider our country’s worst specimens: violent white supremacists, anti-government militia, neo-Nazi groups and others from our society’s fringes. Their collective end-goal, fairly stated, is the transformation of this country into a racist republic, with violence as its means of enforcement.
This is occurring in the context of a pervasive, national propaganda effort instigated and supported by fringe, right-wing media, much of it nationalist and white supremacist in origin. These platforms have spun an alternative, wholly fictional world where the election was somehow fraudulent and the product of a mythical conspiracy to deprive Trump of his rightful victory. Despite being rooted in nonsense and fabrication, this contrived mythology has nonetheless acquired such force and power that a large number of congressional Republicans—at least in the House of Representatives—are willing to abet and encourage it, disregarding their oaths both to the Constitution and to their country.
Only a few years ago the prospect of something as potentially destructive to our democracy as this would have been consigned to the realm of speculative fiction. Yet that is exactly where we are, right here, right now, as Congress prepares to certify former Vice President Joe Biden’s substantial and incontestable victory in the Electoral College on Wednesday.
Just how incredibly far the country has descended into this poisonous cesspool in such a short period of time can be discerned by reviewing the potential attendees who Donald Trump has been urging the entire week to demonstrate “wildly”—and implicitly, violently—in the streets of our nation’s capital as Congress votes.
As The Washington Post reported a week ahead of the vote:
Four seemingly competing rallies to demand that Congress overturn the results of the presidential election, which their participants falsely view as illegitimate, are scheduled on the day Congress is set to convene to certify electoral college votes.
Formal rallies are planned most of the day and will draw pro-Trump demonstrators to the Washington Monument, Freedom Plaza and the Capitol. But online forums and encrypted chat messages among far-right groups indicate a number of demonstrators might be planning more than chanting and waving signs.
Threats of violence, ploys to smuggle guns into the District and calls to set up an “armed encampment” on the Mall have proliferated in online chats about the Jan. 6 day of protest. The Proud Boys, members of armed right-wing groups, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists have pledged to attend.
Individuals scheduled to attend and speak at the rallies include convicted criminals Roger Stone and George Papadopolous, both of who were pardoned by Trump for crimes that relate to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s involvement with the Russian Federation during Trump’s 2016 campaign.
According to the Daily Beast, the predominant topic concerning these Trump supporters is how they can bring weapons to the rally in an effort to physically prevent Congress from ratifying Biden’s victory.
Trump diehards from across the country have organized their travel to Washington on “The Donald” forum. One of the hottest topics on the site is how protesters can bring guns to D.C., which would count as a local crime in nearly all circumstances under Washington’s strict gun laws. Others have talked about breaking into federal buildings or committing violence against law enforcement officers who try to stop them from storming Congress.
“I’m thinking it will be literal war on that day,” one popular comment posted last Wednesday read. “Where we’ll storm offices and physically remove and even kill all the D.C. traitors and reclaim the country.”
That last bit is fairly telling as to what really motivates these people: a blind, mindless desire to inflict pain on others for no good reason other than the fact that they would enjoy it. There is really no issue, no policy outcome, no coherent plan that any of them could point to as something they’d like to see implemented—only the desire to reclaim the hate that Trump has so graciously given them the opportunity to spew over the last four years. This vocal minority has seized on the collective fiction that the election was somehow “stolen” from their hero, not because that narrative makes any sense, but because blind, unquestioning acceptance binds them together and makes them feel strong and consequential.
The one thing that unites these criminals and hate groups is the threat of violence that they carry with them, both implicitly and explicitly. Their purpose has nothing to do with defending democracy as we know it. Rather, these protesters’ purpose is to assist Trump’s attempt to unlawfully seize power by subverting our democratic institutions, because Trump has catered to their hate and grievances like no other American leader in modern history. These right-wing devotees see Trump as their first real chance to exert their power and legitimize their hatred and anger, with their ultimate goal to dominate, or preferably exterminate, Democrats and those “others” who support them. The people who will gather on the streets of D.C. next week are the same people who just this weekend vandalized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home with graffiti and a severed pig’s head.
Left to their own devices, these people do not present a credible threat to our republic. But the fact that they exemplify and represent the delusions of millions of Republican voters, so much that elected officials feel compelled to submit to their wishes, should really horrify all decent Americans.
If you have the time I would recommend checking out Rick Steves’ Fascism in Europe. The famous travel writer, generally recognized as the leading authority on European travel, concisely but thoroughly takes us back to the rise of European fascism, its causes, its manifestations and its ultimate effects, in this one hour departure from his standard lighter fare of dispensing travel tips and advice. At the seven-minute mark, he includes footage from Benito Mussolini’s rallies in Italy during the 1920s, rallies which pre-figured the far more lethal rise of Adolf Hitler.
Trump’s physical and behavioral similarities to Mussolini have been noted by several sources, dating back to well before he entered the Oval Office. In an analysis Ruth Ben-Ghiat penned for The Atlantic in August 2016, the parallels between the two are clearly stated, and are worth restating here at length.
Ben-Ghiat explains how Mussolini’s adoption of a “political outsider” stance served him so well in corrupting not only the Italian public but also flummoxing traditional politicians at that time.
A mercurial hothead, Mussolini reveled in his role as a political disrupter. His crisis-mongering platforms contained a confusing blend of socialist and nationalist tenets, trafficking in contradiction and paradox, the better to challenge traditional ideas about politics. “Does Fascism aim at restoring the State, or subverting it? Is it order or disorder?” he taunted Italians in print six months before he took over as prime minister.
His grassroots followers spoke more directly, terrorizing Italy’s hinterland as a prelude to claiming control. Taking Mussolini’s incendiary rhetoric to heart, his blackshirts beat and executed thousands of political opponents—including priests—at rallies and on trains, in shops, schools, and taverns. Everyday violence primed the country for an exceptional outcome: In 1922, Mussolini staged a march on Rome and demanded the post of prime minister from the terrified king.
Italians learned in the 1920s what Americans are learning in 2016: Charismatic authoritarians seeking political office cannot be understood through the framework of traditional politics. They lack interest in, and patience for, established protocols. They often trust few outside of their own families, or those they already control, making collaboration and relationship building difficult. They work from a different playbook, and so must those who intend to confront them.
Ben-Ghiat emphasizes the personal bond that Mussolini created between himself and his base of supporters, and in particular the way that Mussolini tested the boundaries of what was considered “acceptable” behavior, by threatening and humiliating specific groups and individuals. This is exactly what we have seen over the five years since Trump came down that escalator, and what we are seeing now with Trump’s efforts to retain power by manipulating his followers, and channeling their anger towards specific targets.
Americans need to understand exactly what they are going to witness on Jan. 6 as they watch the worst of what America has produced converge on the National Mall. It will be a mob, un-American in every sense, carefully primed for the acceptance of fascism and ultimately, totalitarian rule. It is unthinking and cannot be reasoned with or talked to. It has one purpose: to inflict pain upon—and ideally, eliminate-- those who would oppose it, with no questions asked. And by all indications, it has one of this country’s two major political parties firmly in its grasp.