In a single 24-hour period the term “Trumpism” went from being a description to a pejorative.
Americans increasingly learn what they know from what they see. Many still can’t seem to grasp the Covid-19 threat, partly because it is not visible and must be confirmed in a lab. The threat seems abstract, hence not quite real. A hoax, perhaps. This principle of using a simple-minded visual guide for all that matters operates in many spheres of life, and even for all of us in the vivid images of delight in the chaos that motivated the mob at the Capitol.
All were white, and clearly delighted with the mayhem created in spaces most of us think of as sacred.
He started his administration on the Capitol steps four years ago ominously invoking the theme of “American carnage.” Almost to the day it will end, his proxies gave us a representation of what that can look like. In a single 24-hour period the term “Trumpism” went from being a description to a pejorative. As its supporters violated the our grandest government building, we saw its face in ways we will never forget: some costumed as warriors, most seemingly aggrieved by a complex world they don’t understand. Others expressed the feeling that they have been pushed to the margins. All were white, and clearly delighted with the mayhem created in spaces most of us think of as sacred.
Trump has stood for very little beyond a virulent nationalism, focusing mostly on an unflagging sense of self-regard. He built his Presidency on the sand of his carefully combed visage, as well as a constant rhetoric of grievances. And it paid off, at least for a while. As Senator Cory Booker noted in one of the best of the delayed January 6 speeches in the Senate, Trump supporters seem to be part of a cult, carrying flags emboldened with a person’s name rather than a more inclusive symbol of hopeful values.
Watching the demonstrators milling around the Capitol, I was struck by the fact they seemed to have little to say; no argument to make, no ideal to uphold. “USA! USA!” and “Take back the steal” was heard most often. I’ve noticed the same pattern in other rallies. Holding a banner or flag is the thing. There appeared to be no war to protest, no law to challenge, no congressional action to dispute. They were there mostly to simply witness for Donald J. Trump: a real-estate speculator turned into a cult figure.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics. But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of our public discourse.
We can easily trace the American penchant for latching on to conspiracies and fantasies back to the puritans, who sought to purify the society by casting out “witches.” The temptation to demonize groups and thereby convert our own problems and frustrations to an external source is woven deep into the American tapestry. McCarthyism set lose an even more destructive wave of fear feeding off of the vague threats posed by the rise of communist parties in the old Soviet Union, China and other sections of Southeast Asia.
Since then, Americans seem especially susceptible to finding secret and nefarious activities in African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Hispanic Americans, “liberal” college professors, secret societies, “the liberal media,” “Mexicans” Muslims, federal employees and the “deep state.” These and other softened forms work as a kind of code. The mere mention in the presence of the right group—in both senses of that word–is enough to confirm the alleged threat, no evidence needed. Defining a nation’s problems in terms of “outsiders” is not unique to the United States. We are just the leading example.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to condone poisoning his critics. But we’ve evolved a political culture sometimes led by the President who condones the poisoning of public rhetoric, partly through the conveyance of gleeful personal attacks using these terms. He is his own touring circus of verbal abuse, for example, musing lightheartedly about a “liberal media” reporter recently shot in the leg, or a woman whose appearance is not up to his standard, or the bogus medical issues of opponents, or the “low ratings’ of opponents, who are supposed see that taunt as some kind of meaningful measure. And on it goes.
Most presidents have gently chided their political opponents, but they knew their mandate to cultivate inclusion was more important. And political liberals aren’t beyond finding their own demons. But none have allowed the world to be so completely shaped by an illusory museum of misfits that only exist mostly in the MAGA-fevered brain. The fact that so many supporters can tolerate this downward street fight naming is disappointing and ironic coming from a man who found ways long ago to stay far above the streets used by ordinary folks.