Donald Trump continues to be the most dangerous man in America. Many people do not want to hear that; this version of reality is like an exhausting nightmare. But America needs to face the truth, and there isn't much time left.
Last Saturday, Trump held a political rally in Youngstown, Ohio. Officially it was in support of U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, but as usual it was mostly a tribute to Trump himself, who delivered an epic speech that seemed equal parts Mussolini, horror movie and cult ritual.
Trump told outrageous lies about Biden, asserting that he is mentally incompetent and and is likely to start a world war through his weakness. His speech was full of the usual white victimology and fantasies of vengeance, but was even more grotesque and delusional than usual. He accused "the radical Democrats and the deep state" of practicing "a form of political repression unlike anything our nation has ever seen," which was obvious projection. So was this:
Everyone associated with this travesty will go down in history as scoundrels and arsonists who try to demolish our justice system, shatter our most sacred traditions and wipe out the very foundations of our democracy for their own selfish, partisan gain and probably other reasons that we'll never know. ...
They spy on my campaign and nobody wants to do anything about it. ... We had a couple of attorney generals who weren't too great. But no matter what our sick and deranged political establishment throws at me, no matter what they do to me, I will endure their torment and oppression and I will do it very willingly. They will never get me to stop fighting for you, the American people.
Trump continued: with an attack on the "cruel and vindictive political class," which he said was coming after him, but not just him:
They're coming after you through me. That's what they're doing. And they've already taken away your vote. They've taken away your voice and now they want to take away your freedom. ... But as Biden laid out in that hateful and extremely divisive speech in Philadelphia ... the radical Democrats view 75 million Americans as enemies to be canceled and suppress. ... They want to censor you from the internet, banish you from the public square, get you fired from your jobs, target you for destruction with 87,000 new IRS agents. ...
But the thugs and tyrants attacking our movement — and there's never been a movement even close in the history of the United States — have no idea of the sleeping giant that they have awoken.
And then came Trump's blatant embrace of the QAnon conspiracy cult. William Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer described this surreal moment:
The swelling, quasi-religious (or maybe late-night inspirational infomercial) melody that accompanied Trump's Ohio jeremiad wasn't random, according to Trump-tracking experts. Last month, the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America identified that rising melody — hinting of a coming storm — that appeared again Saturday in Youngstown as either a) "Wwg1wga," with its title an abbreviation of the main QAnon slogan "Where we go one, we go all," that was posted to Spotify in 2020 and often appears with online posts about the conspiracy theory, or b) an exactly identical number called "Mirrors," as claimed by Team Trump.
Even by Trump's standards, the Youngstown speech was a vile example of fascist propaganda and political theater. His audience loved it. Those outside TrumpWorld and the right-wing echo chamber found it understandably revolting. But looking the other way is not an appropriate reaction.
The mainstream media are supposed to be the "guardians of democracy" and do not have the luxury of ignoring this gathering darkness. But too many journalists and media outlets are doing exactly that. What is particularly lacking is any sustained narrative that clearly and consistently explains to the American public how Trump and the Republican fascists pose an existential danger to their democracy, their society and their literal personal safety.
Some media outlets have even preemptively surrendered to Trumpism, leaning into obsolete and dangerous habits and norms of "fairness" and "balance" in a time of ascendant fascism.
In an example of the type of incisive truth-telling that is rarely featured by the American mainstream news media, Anthea Butler, author of the book "White Evangelical Racism," provided critically important context for Trump's speech in a series of Twitter posts:
Yes, it's creepy and weird. But take it all with the other rallies going on — The Re-Awaken America Tour with General Flynn, the Charlie Kirk Revivals in Arizona with Republican candidates... you have a major faction of the Republican Party morphing into Republican Religion.
Yes, it is fascism, but it is bringing elements of conspiracy theory (QAnon) alongside Evangelical Christianity to blend into a movement with charismatic "figures" who people can latch onto and imagine themselves part of the "end times" and saving the nation.
One of the most dangerous things about all of this is that it empowers regular people to believe their "special" part in a movement that can change the world morally. We don't talk about the affective part of how feelings of belonging make for powerful motivators religiously.
These rallies, especially the Trump ones, have effectively blended religious fervor, calls for violence, and patriotism into a noxious stew. Add in ways in which Republicans have called Democrats "demons" demonic, etc. You can see where this is going.
As Trump's Youngstown rally made clear, he has come ever closer to fully embracing the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theory and its claim that the world is run by a secret cabal of Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, "globalists" and other "elites" who gain power by kidnapping, torturing and killing children. Within this deranged and befouled fantasy universe, a coming "storm" will destroy all such evil, meaning that Trump or some other Christian fascist overlord will preside over an orgy of violence that will "cleanse" society. After that, the QAnon faithful and other "real Americans" will be left to rule.
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In a new op-ed for MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem discusses the already infamous moment when many of Trump's supporters saluted him with the "QAnon linked-hand signal." Conservative politics in America have typically been "irrepressibly individualistic and libertarian in outlook." Aleem writes, but the "emphasis on unity" implied by the QAnon movement "could be a sign that that's changing":
It might seem strange that Trump would pander to a crowd that has already formed an actual cult around him. Sure, psychologically speaking, Trump will never turn down an opportunity to bask in the warmth of people who love him. But why repeatedly hold them closer at a time when his main electoral obstacle is appealing to people beyond his diehards?
It's because this isn't about winning by democratic means. It seems likely that Trump recognizes that QAnon followers represent his best bet at forming a militant vanguard for his ever-increasingly authoritarian political movement. Dozens of QAnon believers have already committed acts or attempted acts of vigilante (and domestic) violence. They were key players in the Jan. 6 insurrection. And they're at the center of a new kind of politically infused spirituality that blends proto-fascist thinking, conspiracy theory and Evangelical Christianity. As ... Anthea Butler describes it, these followers "imagine themselves part of the 'end times' and saving the nation." They're primed to do whatever it takes to restore Trump to power, out of a belief that it's essential for civilization and humanity.
In keeping with his longtime deployment of stochastic terrorism as well as increasingly overt incitements to violence, Trump continues to threaten President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies if they dare to continue investigating him over the stolen documents found at Mar-a-Lago (or for his many other probable crimes).
As Wajahat Ali writes at the Daily Beast, the language of "hate-fueled violence" favored by leading Democrats and the mainstream media only serves to cloud the issue, since the threat of violence "is primarily coming from a single source":
[A]n incestuous network of MAGA actors, promoted by the GOP and right-wing media, who have increasingly threatened law enforcement, Democrats, educators, poll watchers, doctors, Republicans who don't support Trump, and anyone and every institution that stands in the way of their white Christian nationalist utopia.
Earlier this week, Igor Lanis, a 53-year-old Trump fanatic in Michigan, murdered his wife and badly injured one of his children. He, in turn, was killed after firing his shotgun at the police. His daughter, Rebecca Lanis, told The Daily Beast that her father's embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theory was a "very big contributor to what happened." She said he was once an "extremely loving" father with no history of violence but all of that changed after Trump's loss in 2020. According to Lanis, her father latched on to the Big Lie and started going down "crazy rabbit holes" which eventually radicalized him and culminated in bloodshed. ...
A quick recap: a domestic terror threat is being amplified by the former President of the United States, who is the figurehead of the GOP — a party that is currently supporting and championing extremist candidates, and working with pundits who promote hateful conspiracies that have radicalized individuals to harass, intimidate, and threaten violence.
One would think these revelations in light of the recent violence would be leading the news cycle. However, since Trump is a white man, and the criminal suspects aren't Muslim, there is no War on Terror.
Instead, some media outlets are bending over backward to court Republican viewers and criticize President Biden for speaking in front of U.S. marines, like Republican and Democratic presidents have done many times before him.
The lesson is that it's good to be a white MAGA extremist.
These apparently isolated instances of violence are leading indicators for a larger national trend: The United States feels like it is about to combust. Unfortunately, that is not just an intuition. It is a very fair description of the facts on the ground where law enforcement and other experts continue to warn that the country is on the precipice of a sustained right-wing insurgency or perhaps even a second civil war. Andy Campbell, author of the new book "We Are Proud Boys," issued this recent warning in a New York Times op-ed: "I really do believe that, going forward, it's not just going to be MAGA rallies. It's not just going to be political violence at Proud Boys rallies or leftist rallies or B.L.M. events. It's going to be political violence at any civic event that happens to fall in the cross hairs of Donald Trump and company."
New research by the Anti-Defamation League finds that the Oath Keepers, the right-wing paramilitary group that played a key role in Trump's coup attempt and the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, has tens of thousands of members across the country, including hundreds of law enforcement and military personnel. The mainstream American news media and other public voices have consistently relied on a narrative frame that presents Trumpism and the Republican-fascist movement as something anomalous, new and almost incomprehensible. That may attract eyeballs, but it certainly does not reflect reality.
The Republican fascists, the "conservatives", and larger right-wing and white right are following a well-known playbook and model.
Here are some of its elements.
In a recent New York Times feature, David Leonhardt highlights the important long-term role played by a range of institutional actors in creating our crisis of democracy and the rise of right-wing populism, fascism and authoritarianism. He observes that about two-thirds of Republican voters, and nearly half of all Republican candidates running for statewide office this year, refuse to accept that the 2020 presidential election was legitimate. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021, eight have either decided to retire or lost primary elections.
Political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author (with Daniel Ziblatt) of the 2018 book "How Democracies Die," told Leonhardt, "By any indication, the Republican Party — upper level, midlevel and grass roots — is a party that can only be described as not committed to democracy," adding that he was "significantly more concerned about American democracy" than when the book was first published. Leonhardt continues:
Juan José Linz, a political scientist who died in 2013, coined the term "semi-loyal actors" to describe political officials who typically do not initiate attacks on democratic rules or institutions but who also do not attempt to stop these attacks. Through their complicity, these semi-loyal actors can cause a party, and a country, to slide toward authoritarianism.
That's what happened in Europe in the 1930s and in Latin America in the 1960s and '70s. More recently, it has happened in Hungary. Now there are similar signs in the United States.
Often, even Republicans who cast themselves as different from Mr. Trump include winking references to his conspiracy theories in their campaigns, saying that they, too, believe "election integrity" is a major problem. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, for example, have both recently campaigned on behalf of election deniers.
In Congress, Republican leaders have largely stopped criticizing the violent attack on the Capitol.
The right-wing propaganda machine's ability to disseminate (dis)information, lies, and other distortions has no rival among the Democrats and other mainstream political actors in America. This machine was decades in the making.
New research by the Washington Post on how the Big Lie spreads through social media identifies "a powerful generation of online influencers" that emerged as a direct result of Trump's claims of election fraud. Since the 2020 election, that small group of super-spreaders has begun "to shape the national debate on other subjects," including transgender rights and the panic over "critical race theory":
"Once they've gained a level of influence, they can continue to leverage that influence going forward," said Kate Starbird, a leading expert on disinformation at the University of Washington. "Manipulation becomes embedded in the network."…
By tracking follower counts on Twitter and Facebook, The Post found that this group rose steeply in popularity in the six months before the Jan. 6 riot, gaining a stunning 25 million followers on the two platforms. ...
Of the 77 figures, 57 remain active on Twitter. To gauge their ongoing influence since Jan. 6, The Post measured their follower counts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, along with shares and retweets of posts containing misinformation on an array of topics that have shaped the national conversation since the 2020 election.
The analysis found that the massive megaphones built by posting about election fraud have given the 57 an outsize role in pushing other false and divisive narratives. For example, members of this group wrote five of the top 20 most-shared tweets about "grooming," a homophobic meme that falsely equates teaching children about sexuality with befriending them for purposes of sexual abuse….
All told, these 57 figures have composed roughly a quarter of the most-shared tweets across Twitter on those hot-button topics plus two others — drag queens and ballot harvesting — The Post found. On Facebook, those still active posted more than 10 percent of the top posts on those issues.
Political scientist Evan Perkoski, an expert on political violence, offered additional context in an interview with UConn Today:
Evaluating the current security environment, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and others have repeatedly stated that the radicalized far-right poses a threat to the US and the constitutional order. This is evident in the number of attacks and in the scale of those attacks. But to be clear, this is not the typical right-side of the political spectrum. It's the extremists who are using and threatening violence to get what they want, it's white supremacists, the Proud Boys, people who marched in Charlottesville with torches, and those who stormed the capitol on January 6th. Groups in other ideological categories simply don't pose the same threat today. ...
We've been seeing a rise in violent threats against government officials, like the attempt to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and the death threats against former Vice President Pence on January 6th.
This is a pretty standard operational profile for the alt-right. But we've seen even more of it since the FBI raid to recover classified documents from Mar-a-Lago. There have since been threats against individual members of the FBI, the federal judge who signed the warrant, and a gunman even tried to attack an FBI office in Cincinnati. You actually see a very quick feedback loop between news events and violent trends. Existing research also finds a clear, quick link between rhetoric and statements from political leaders and how their supporters behave. I think everyone today needs to think carefully about what words we're using and what precedents we're setting because it can have serious consequences.
In a recent New Yorker article, Susan Glasser, co-author (with her husband, Peter Baker) of "The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021," uses a metaphor to describe Donald Trump, comparing him to the cunning velociraptors from "Jurassic Park":
I am thinking in particular of a chilling conversation I had with a former senior national-security official who regularly observed Trump in the Oval Office. The official compared him to the velociraptors in the movie "Jurassic Park," horror-movie monsters who proved capable of learning while hunting their prey — a terrifying fact the audience learns when one of the predators chases a child into a kitchen by turning the handle to open the door.…
The man who finished his Presidency with a total of 30,573 false and misleading claims while in office ... is not going to suddenly return to power as a truthteller. He will seek vengeance and vindication. He will run the same plays again and again. He will find aides and advisers who will do his bidding, unlike the faithless traitors who surrounded him before. The velociraptor will have learned to open the door.
Peter Wehner, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, writes in a new essay for the Atlantic that he fully expected Trump to act "recklessly and lawlessly, without empathy, as if he lives in a world devoid of moral rules," but not necessarily to turn "a personal tragedy into a national calamity":
He imprinted his moral pathologies, his will-to-power ethic, on the Republican Party. It is the most important political development of this century….
Republican officials showed fealty to Trump despite his ceaseless lying and dehumanizing rhetoric, his misogyny and appeals to racism, his bullying and conspiracy theories. No matter the offense, Republicans always found a way to look the other way, to rationalize their support for him, to shift their focus to their progressive enemies. As Trump got worse, so did they….
Something malicious has occurred since Trump won the nomination in 2016. Six years ago, Republicans jettisoned their previous moral commitments in order to align themselves with the MAGA movement. Today, they have inverted them. Lawmakers, candidates, and those in the right-wing media ecosystem celebrate and imitate Trump's nihilism, cynicism, and cruelty. What was once considered a bug is now a feature.
This is the result of individuals' and institutions' accommodation of one moral transgression after another after another. With each moral compromise, the next one — a worse one — becomes easier to accept. Conduct that would have horrified Republicans in the past now causes them, at best, to shrug their shoulders; at worst, they delight in it.
Therapeutic language is very helpful for properly understanding America's democracy crisis and the rising fascist tide and movement. American society has a worsening illness but has not yet decided that it wants to get better. Absent such a decision — the desperate epiphany often described as "hitting bottom" — the sickness will continue to get worse. The unanswered question is how long we have before the illness becomes terminal. Intervention is critical — but that never works if the patient refuses treatment.