The attack on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump's forces on Jan. 6 is one of the most documented crimes in American history. Trump's coup attempt and related events were publicly planned. As president, Trump himself continually made such threats throughout his time in office. He personally summoned his followers to Washington in the days leading up to the 6th, and many of his followers recorded themselves attacking the Capitol and its defenders, or posed for selfies after they breached its defenses and entered the building. These acts of collective narcissism have become key evidence in the federal manhunt for Trump's insurrectionists. The events of Jan. 6 were also recorded and tracked by surveillance cameras, both at the Capitol and throughout Washington and the surrounding area.
A new feature in Time magazine by Vera Bergengruen and Bill Hennigan offers the following details:
Surveillance and law enforcement body cameras captured more than 15,000 hours of footage. The federal government has snagged some 1,600 electronic devices, each likely teeming with electronic communications. Citizens from across the country have flooded the FBI with more than 270,000 tips, which include videos, photos and social media posts. And the rioters themselves extensively captured their exploits on camera, posting hours of digital evidence of the rampage. Thanks to that torrent of evidence, more than 370 suspects have been arrested on charges related to the insurrection.
When viewed in total, the images, sounds and video footage of the mayhem at the Capitol (including news coverage of the day's events) offer a compelling story about Donald Trump and his Republican Party's treason and embrace of terrorism. Democrats could and should use Jan. 6 to tarnish the Republican Party and Trump's movement such as to effectively force them from public life, so that being identified as a Republican or Trump follower would be a mark of ignominy.
Every media appearance by a Republican in an interview or appearance on a cable news panel should be prefaced with the question, "Do you support Donald Trump and the events of Jan. 6?" That way, prominent Republicans could constantly be forced to reject Trump and his movement and followers. Television ads recycling the most striking images from the Capitol attack could be used to ensure that the American people are not permitted to throw the insurrection down the memory hole in an act of organized forgetting. Treason, terrorism and betrayal of America would forever be linked to the Republican Party and Donald Trump.
One can only imagine how effectively the Republicans and their news media and myth making machine would use such a gift if the situations were reversed.
What has the Democratic Party chosen to do instead? It has collectively decided to move on, in order to avoid what its leaders fear might be the "distraction" caused by public hearings and other investigations into the Trump regime and its crimes against democracy and the American people. That decision is a tactical and strategic error, one based on the false assumption that the Republican Party's obvious involvement in the national betrayals of Jan. 6 cannot or should not be used to advance the Democratic Party's overall agenda.
Moreover, by attempting to put aside events of Jan. 6 for reasons of political expediency and "bipartisanship," the Democrats are all but guaranteeing that the Jim Crow Republicans and larger American neofascist movement will continue to attack multiracial democracy — and will attempt another coup at some point in the near future.
There is another dimension to these dangers as well: Not to punish the coup plotters and attackers to the maximum extent possible is to grossly underestimate the power of ideas and images.
When Trumpists and other right-wing extremists in the United States and around the world watched the Capitol being overrun, and a coup against the "world's leading democracy" come perilously close to succeeding, they witnessed what was possible for their movement. Victory is achievable — not as something far off in the future, but in the here and now.
The Republican Party and the global right have created an alternate reality and closed epistemology uniquely suited to weaponizing the images and symbolism of Jan. 6. The Democrats and others beholden to "normal politics" and the norms of shared reality, truth and the presumed merits of democracy do not have that advantage.
That inability is in many ways the result of their role in the managerial state and a largely unquestioned belief in the inevitable nature of progress and the triumph of reason. This translates into how Democrats, liberals and progressives are overwhelmingly focused on facts and figures, the details of public policy, and are committed to the counterfactual belief that the public is rational and will make good decisions if presented with rational arguments and factual evidence.
By comparison, Republicans, Trumpists and members of the global right have fashioned themselves as heroes, conquerors, saviors, destroyers, disrupters, accelerationists and chaos agents. Their political agenda functions as a type of religion, in which faith is more important than empirical reality and where dogma supersedes intellect and reason.
Ultimately, today's Republican Party and right-wing movement have created a parallel universe. They are also immersed in a storytelling tradition and political imagination that is fixated on violence and the apocalypse. For Christian fascists this manifests as the "end times." To the degree such groups can be disentangled from one another, for white supremacists, anti-government militias and right-wing libertarians the apocalypse will take the form of a "race war" or other societal collapse. QAnon cult members are obsessed with "the Storm" and Donald Trump's supposed defeat of the "deep state." Other "conservatives" have a wish-fulfillment paranoid fantasy about a chaotic new civil war in which they can use their assault weapons rifles to kill "radical leftists," Black Lives Matter supporters, antifa members, nonwhite immigrants or whatever other group is deemed to be the enemy.
Fox News and its lead propagandists, such as Tucker Carlson, are central to the how today's right-wing and conservative movement are annihilating the truth and empirical reality. Carlson is particularly skilled and effective in that role. Most recently, he has begun to mainstream white supremacist lies about how Black and brown people will "replace" the white majority population in America. The implication is clear: White people, especially white "conservatives" in rural or exurban areas, need to use violence to defend themselves against an existential threat from unnamed others, seen as usurpers or invaders.
Carlson has also been working to destroy the truth about Trump's coup attempt and his followers' attack on the Capitol. Now, in the Fox News MAGAverse, the insurrection did not really take place. Instead, Trump's supporters are peaceful "patriots" who are being demonized by "the left." Such lies only serve to encourage more right-wing terrorism.
On this, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat warns in a new essay for CNN:
The truth of Jan. 6 — that the insurgents showed rabid hatred of the police officers and security guards — presents a problem, given the pro-law enforcement sentiments of Trump's base. So it's best just to flip the script and turn murderous rage into hugs and kisses.
That's why the Fox News host Tucker Carlson opened a recent show with the claim that the insurgents "didn't have guns," which attempts to direct attention away from (and also contradicts) hours of video evidence and testimonies about the large number of weapons, some military-grade, the exceedingly well armed insurgents carried into the Capitol.
Trump and his allies are using a second tactic as brazen as the first. Even while denying the violence, they are blaming it on a familiar enemy: the left. Johnson and Carlson have been prominent fabricators of a reality in which left-wing extremists were the real Capitol rioters. This, too, is a propaganda classic: accusing an enemy you have already invested many hours in demonizing. It's far more efficient. And with some audiences, it works.
Although 61% of Americans responding to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll think Trump "is at least partly to blame for starting the deadly Jan. 6 riot," only 28% of Republicans agreed with that statement. And more than half of the Republicans questioned agreed that Jan. 6 was the work of "violent left-wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad."
What should Democrats, liberals and progressives do to counter the right-wing "disimagination" and fantasy machine?
First, they must accept the fact that diehard Trump Republicans and other right-wing extremists are not going to return to normal society. Their commitment to authoritarianism and neofascism is deep: It is now a part of their core identities. No amount of effective legislation to improve the material realities of their lives will win them over as a group. Despite supporting aspects of Biden's political agenda such as COVID relief and infrastructure, Trumpists and other Republicans as a whole will not abandon their political cult in the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections. Fascism in its various forms is a sickness of the soul and spirit more than of the mind.
More important, Democrats, liberals and progressives need to learn to tell better stories. These stories must claim the moral high ground and embrace the idea of a righteous crusade to protect the America's democratic values. In turn, such a crusade can create space for legislation that improves the lives and futures of the American people. There have been recent moments when such moral clarity has been summoned: see Sen. Bernie Sanders and his unrepentant, unapologetic truth-telling. President Biden has had such moments as well in his quest to become a progressive, transformational leader in the mold of Lyndon Johnson or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The advice to "tell better stories" is not new. To save the soul of America in this ongoing battle against neofascism, Joe Biden, the Democratic Party and their allies on the left need to embrace that advice wholeheartedly. It is the foundation for defeating the Jim Crow Republicans, the right-wing extremists, the Christian fascists, the plutocrats and other anti-social, anti-life and anti-democracy forces.