The cult of Donald Trump

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

The thing we most need to understand right now is how you deprogram people who have been in a cult. By cult, I mean a group of people living out an imaginary world view created by a charismatic leader. These things sometimes end with the guru hopping on a private plane to escape the authorities; others end in mass suicide; still others go up in literal smoke, as David Koresh did, or sometimes they collapse in a welter of claims of abuse and corruption. But when the cult is political, and when the guru is the sitting president of the United States, it all gets a little messier.

That’s what the core of the Trump movement is. Not all Trump voters, by any means. But the core: a cult. And these lost souls will believe anything and everything the leader says. Trump is currently denying there was anything in his speech that could be understood as incitement. But this is what he told them, just before they stormed the Capitol: ‘We beat them four years ago. We surprised them. We took them by surprise and this year, they rigged an election. They rigged it like they’ve never rigged an election before… We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it any more and that’s what this is all about. To use a favourite term that all of you people really came up with, we will stop the steal.’

So the one thing you cannot say about that mob that stormed the US Capitol last week is that they were crazy. From their point of view — a rigged election, fomented by Democrats and weak Republicans, suppressed by Fake News in league with Big Tech — they were being perfectly rational. If it were true, after all, that a vast left-wing conspiracy had used specially constructed voting machines to rig the election so that Trump’s landslide victory was erased, why would you not storm the Capitol? It would, indeed, be obligatory for a patriotic American to fight in such a case of treason. I might have picked up a musket myself.

The trouble is that Trump is mentally ill and delusional and will never concede an election he still claims he won in a landslide, and his diehard followers will always believe him. That’s been the core problem for five years. Trump created a mass movement that took over an entire party. That party has done nothing but appease him. And the immense gravity of Trump’s charge — a grotesque rigging of the election — is such that violence of various sorts is a terrifyingly rational response. That threat is going to hang over the looming inauguration, and will not go away after Wednesday.

From that day on, America will have not just one man claiming to be the legitimate president, but two. Only Joe Biden will exercise any legal or constitutional authority, of course. But he will have a pretender to the throne cavorting around the country, with a third of the population believing he is not the pretender at all. The years in which Republican elites could pretend not to have heard Trump speak or tweet, or put the most benign gloss on grotesque rhetoric, or just muddled through as his unhinged ambitions became clearer, are now over. You either have to endorse the illegitimacy of the last election and therefore of the US government (including the Congress, elected in the same ‘rigged’ election); or you can attempt to put a lawful, sane party back together again without him.

The other day, a friend asked if I would be leaving DC for a while. He was taking himself and his husband to the Delaware coast until the risk of violence subsided. Others are packing their bags. Walking the streets of my neighbourhood, I’m beginning to see the shop fronts being boarded up, as they were last summer. We’re told there are multiple pro-Trump marches on state capitals looming, and a big crowd in DC expected on 17 January as well as 20 January, the day Biden is supposed to be sworn in. A briefing for Democrats from the FBI about the plans for far-right attacks has left them aghast, we are told. Anti-fascist groups will organise a response: they created mayhem during the Trump inaugural. Just imagine if they confront a mob of Proud Boys and far-right militias next week. It’s getting very Weimar-y.

For those of us who live here, violent and non-violent demonstrations become banal over time. We’ve seen it all. Half the city burned down in 1968. I watched riots from my window as recently as 1990. The Million Man March; last summer’s explosion; and on and on. But not this. Not these streets emptied by Covid and small businesses hanging by a thread. Not a defeated president boycotting the inauguration of his successor and screaming treason in the streets. Not the bludgeoning of a cop with an American flag on the steps of the Capitol. Not this evacuation, when usually people flood into DC for inaugural parties and balls. Not this unbearable lull before something, perhaps even darker, returns.

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