The depth and breadth of the situation we are in is staggering. The damage already done is so invasive and the remedies we have attempted are so inartful and ineffective that it may be too late. Some hoped that as soon as Trump was off the stage, we would come to our senses and normalcy would begin to return. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is not to be.
We face a situation today where fully 50 million of us, if not more, are convinced that the recent election was a fraud, the product of a massive conspiracy by the Democrats to steal the presidency from the rightful Republican incumbent in favor of a senile, incompetent has-been. What is worse, this huge segment of our electorate refuses to accept the lawful recourses provided through investigation and reports by local election officials, audits and recounts by state authorities, and the unanimous judicial declarations flowing from over 60 separate lawsuits filed in different federal and state courts. Instead, and inexplicably, all of these resources are now considered part of the conspiracy.
The U.S. Senate – once considered to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, the pride of our democracy and a paragon of legislative excellence – proved itself to have feet of clay when its members, facing a basic issue of patriotic duty versus personal interest, turned the recent impeachment effort into a partisan farce. Members of the Senate were not mere jurors, they were front-seat witnesses and very nearly victims. The House managers did an outstanding job of laying out the case for impeachment. The president’s lawyers presented a sophomoric defense that bewildered their profession and embarrassed their cause. And yet, fully half the Senate struggled incomprehensibly with the decision.
We can see now that the invasion of the Capitol on of January 6 was not an unexpected surprise, but the intended result of a deliberate campaign to undermine the basic tenets of our democracy – being the principles of an unyielding commitment to majority rule, of equal justice under the law, of the sanctity of the vote, and of a universal demand for the truth, enforced and guaranteed through an independent judiciary, and all enabled and protected by a wide and unrestricted free press. Every one of these fundamental and essential concepts of our democracy have been shredded incomprehensibly by the direct efforts of our past president.
We first saw our demand for truth begin to soften and wither when Trump began his first campaign for the presidency in 2015, filling his campaign with outrageous claims and promises. The media, faced with the 24-hour news cycle, covered everything Trump said. Trump was not taken seriously at first; he was considered a side-show, a carnival event with no chance of winning. Perhaps because of this, the template was originally laid for no critical comment from the press, just “accurate reportage” with the obligation to defend left to others.
Initially, Trumps’ charges were shrugged off as exaggerated campaign issues from an outlier. It did not matter that Trump had taken the notion of exaggerating campaign issues to an outrageous level previously unheard of. Most thought he was running as a stunt and would pull out before getting close to any real heat. Others were convinced that the party insiders would not allow him to get too close to the prize; that there were ways to derail this ill-fitting candidate before he became a real problem.
By the time the party woke up to what was happening, it was too late. With all the reasonable alternatives knocked out early, by May of 2016 the party faced the predicament of nothing but Trump or unsavory choices for the final run. The party grudgingly accepted the inevitable and came out of the convention fully believing that the year was lost.
But the machinery behind Trump knew what it was doing. The central task was to erase the credibility of the national press. When the press finally woke up and began inserting immediate corrections to lies and distortions, Trump did not concede error or retract what he had said but instead doubled down, repeating everything and blaming the accusers. The notion was that it was not Trump who was stretching the truth, it was the national media – all of whom were left-wing communists bent on destroying the county. Sean, Tucker, Rush, and all their ilk, lapped it up. Talk radio thrived. Fox News capitalized on the wedges being driven down the middle of political news. The Washington Post began counting the lies Trump told – to a number that eventually reached an astonishing middle-five-figure total. This was of no matter, of course, for Trump’s followers did not read the Washington Post.
What was at work here was, and is, a principle directly out of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda master allied with Adolph Hitler in the 1930s: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Trump’s drumbeat was paying off. Suddenly, we were dealing with “alternative facts” concerning the economy, health care, taxation, immigration – and election returns. We were told that these were not really lies or distortions or untruths – just a different way of looking at things. From the right instead of the left.
To our great dismay, these painful devices began to work exactly as predicted. In May of 2020, Trump started the theme that the election was going to be rigged. He kept this lie up without a break, and without a single fact to back it up, straight through to November. It was exactly the same theme that he ran in 2016, when he first ran against Hillary. But in 2020, Joe Biden did not run into any last-minute grenades, and he never took his eye off the critical battleground states. The result was a convincing win in total votes, including most of the critical background states, giving Biden a solid majority of the necessary electoral college.
Out came the “alternative facts” that Trump had been drumming into his core supporters for years. The Democrats had stolen the election. No matter that the media reported there to be no evidence of any wrongdoing, the national press was lying, and “everybody knows” that they were not to be trusted. No matter that every time Trump went to court over an election issue, being over 60 times in six states, the judges found there to be no case wrongdoing. Again, to the core of Trump supporters, the courts were incompetent, they did not look at the evidence, and “everybody knows” that the judges were not to be trusted. Trump had been this for years with no one seriously challenging him, and his efforts were paying huge dividends.
Because of Trump’s drumbeat of lies, we now find a furious segment of the Republican party, convinced beyond reason that the Democrats rigged the vote and the electoral college result against Trump and stole the election he had won. The same group now believes that the state election authorities are incompetent, the courts are corrupt, and Congress is ineffective in correcting the wrong.
This massive number of believers, who might be as many as 74 million strong if all who voted for Trump are counted, are writing and talking incessantly. They are not backing down. They are not coming around to reason. The Tweeter and Facebook rules will not contain them. Their declared objective is to regain control – not by the respected democratic means of open elections and majority rule, but by the direct application of force. Their text messages are filled with reference to military action, martial law, and armed protest. Signs of their efforts are everywhere. Witness the increasing number of death threats to election officials, the kidnapping attempt on the Michigan governor, and the demonstrations bristling with assault rifles and body armor that are springing up in state capitols all around. Is anyone still surprised at the armed invasion of our national capitol building in January?
What is next? And where will it end?