Trump's horror show isn't nearly over: The coup wasn't defeated, only slowed down

Trump is both a symptom and a cause of America's terrible ailment. Whether or not he returns, the disease is real

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 27, 2021 7:00AM (EST)

A campaign sign for U.S. President Donald Trump lies beneath the water in the Capitol Reflecting Pool, near the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Al Drago/Getty Images)
A campaign sign for U.S. President Donald Trump lies beneath the water in the Capitol Reflecting Pool, near the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Al Drago/Getty Images)

Monsters are real. One does not defeat them by hiding. They are not defeated by denying that they exist. Throwing them down the memory hole offers little if any safety. To vanquish the monsters of this world requires hard work and eternal vigilance.

Donald Trump proved himself to be one of the worst presidents in American history — if not the very worst. His "movement" was and remains a force of prodigious civic evil. To call Trump's political cult "deplorable" is, quite honestly, to elevate it above its real standing.

Last week, Joe Biden finally became president of the United States and the Democrats, at least on paper, maintain a tenuous hold on both houses of Congress.

But despite the historical verdict of the 81 million Americans who voted for Biden and the Democrats, Trump is likely to remain a fixture in American life and politics for years to come. Trump's followers do not understand that they were beaten in the November election, and quite likely will never accept that. The Republican Party and its voters remain in thrall to Donald Trump. Ultimately, a force that does not know it has been defeated will not stop fighting.

Writing at the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland previews the next chapter in the Age of Trump:

If this were a horror flick — and, Lord knows, these past four years have felt like one — we know what would come next. We'd be at that stage of the movie where the monster has apparently been slain, when the hero stands amid the rubble and the ruin consoling those who have survived, calm seemingly restored — only for the audience to gasp as the demon stirs back to life, rising from the dead to inflict one last blow.

Joe Biden is certainly well cast as the steadying presence come to clean up the mess. But the fear persists that the villain who created it will return. Donald Trump threatened as much in his last public statement as president, uttering the chilling words: "We will be back in some form."

We now have a better sense of what Trump's return looks like.

He is determined to be a shadow president who harasses and disrupts Biden and the Democrats' uncertain but well-intentioned plans to help the American people recover from the political, social and economic damage they suffered during the last four years. In his role as national saboteur and destroyer, on Monday Trump announced the creation of the "Office of the Former President." He was mocked and belittled on social media and elsewhere for this. But in reality, that laughter and mockery only serve to distract the American people from imminent danger.

Trump's pseudo-presidential office is something unprecedented in American history: Almost universally, ex-presidents quietly remove themselves from public life and adopt the role of apolitical statesman or philanthropist, or perhaps even kingmaker, at some later date. Trump's new office is but more evidence that he yearns to be an authoritarian strongman, and like a supervillain in a Hollywood movie is plotting his return.

Donald Trump is still the de facto leader of the Republican Party. In that role, he will command his followers to punish any Republican senator or other elected official who rejects him, or who dares to support his impeachment and conviction for inciting the Jan. 6 violent insurrection and assault on the Capitol.

Most Republicans are obedient: On Tuesday, 45 of the 50 Republican U.S. senators voted against putting Trump on trial after his impeachment by the House. It is once again obvious that for Republicans, Trump is effectively above the law and  will not be convicted for his obvious crimes. (It is the consensus of serious legal scholars that former presidents can absolutely be impeached and convicted.)

Donald Trump's followers still worship him. Public opinion polls make clear that they believe the 2020 election was stolen and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. Republican elected officials may privately recognize reality, but are literally terrified for their lives, afraid that Trump's followers may kill them and their families for "disloyalty." Believers in the preposterous QAnon conspiracy theory (which in many ways is best described as a Trumpian political religion) have largely not abandoned their faith in Trump: They believe that he will somehow return to power.

Whether or not he runs for president again, Donald Trump is now the Republican Party. His brand of neofascism, authoritarianism, greed, cruelty and Christian nationalist white supremacist grievance politics are no longer an outlier or aberration within the right-wing movement. Rather, they are its core values and operating system.

Because it has embraced naked fascism and authoritarianism, the post-Trump Republican Party will rally around a narrative of "betrayal" and "revenge." His will be the new Lost Cause, one embracing red-hat MAGA true believers instead of Confederate soldiers, fighting to keep Black people as human property.

On Jan. 6, Donald Trump and the broader right wing's embrace of political violence and use of stochastic terrorism blossomed horribly in the form of a coup attack on the Capitol. But that moment was not spontaneous: It was the result of years and decades of indoctrination into political extremism and violence by the Republican Party and the "conservative" echo chamber.

In a recent essay for the Bulwark, Richard North Patterson, bestselling author and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted the dangers represented by Trump's Republican Party:

The dangerous myth of political dispossession is now embedded in the Republican narrative.

Its implications are grave indeed; if most Republicans disbelieve in democracy, they will support its subversion by electoral chicanery — if not worse. The attack on Congress created a beachhead for anti-democratic violence: Polling shows that a full one-third of Trump supporters feel that the mob represented their grievances. More broadly, half of the party's electorate believes that GOP lawmakers did not go far enough in attempting to overturn the election. ...

It is far too little to say that the GOP has lost its way. Quite deliberately, it has become American democracy's most dangerous enemy.

To wit: the Trumpists and others of their ilk who overran the U.S. Capitol were smiling, taking selfies and posting them online, with no evident shame or concern that they may be arrested and then punished for participating in a treasonous riot and attack on democracy. Why? They believed themselves to be "patriots" who were performing a noble mission at the command of "their president."

Experts on domestic terrorism warn that the coup attack on the Capitol was not the crescendo of right-wing violence in the United States, and that the threat will not rapidly dissipate because Donald Trump is no longer president. Instead, they predict that the Capitol attack must be understood as but one more act of political violence in a rising spiral and escalation of right-wing terrorism in the United States. Moreover, these experts are also warning that the symbolic power of Jan. 6 is inspiring right-wing extremists and terrorists in Europe and elsewhere in the world to launch their own attacks.

On the threat to American democracy and society embodied by Trumpism and its adherents, Patterson offers this caution in the Bulwark essay cited above:

To repel that as-yet-faceless threat will require deeper work than a simple vote in the Senate. And it will demand more than a mere return to the relative tranquility of the Obama era. It will mean turning over the soil in which Trumpism grew, making it inhospitable to a new variety of that same, poisonous plant. This is the central challenge that now confronts President Biden.

Donald Trump, his fascist authoritarian movement, and those committed to it are not going away. They are both a symptom and a contributing cause of the deep structural problems within America's political institutions and culture. It is childish to ignore those perils because Joe Biden is president and we hope that things will somehow be "normal" again. Protecting and improving democracy takes hard work. To do that work, the American people must give up childish ways of thinking and being and embrace a spirit of civic responsibility and accountability. The country's leaders must be role models and exemplars of such behavior. To do anything less is almost to guarantee that Donald Trump will return — either as himself or in a new and even more dangerous version — and sooner than we think.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authoritarianism Capitol Riot Commentary Coup Donald Trump Editor's Picks Fascism Joe Biden Republicans