It’s been nearly a week since the president of the United States incited a mob to armed insurrection against the legislative branch of the US government. And in that week, it has become clear just how fascistic was that crowd of yahoos, and how Hitlerian were the ringmasters—Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and others—who lit the fuse on democracy and then sat back to watch how their devil’s work played out.
In that week, the extremism of Trump’s last-redoubt followers has been on full display, played back on an endless loop as the media finally grapples with the far-right culture that Trump both grew out of and further empowered. Ponder the person caught on camera with his “Camp Auschwitz” shirt. Or the feces-smearing nihilists who seemed to want only destruction and desecration. Think about the would-be hostage-takers, with their plastic zip ties, some of whom, thankfully, are now being investigated by counterterrorism prosecutors.
Belatedly, the rats are leaving this sinking ship. Betsy DeVos, Elaine Chao, and Mick Mulvaney all resigned following the Trump-triggered insurrection. Mike Pence and Steven Mnuchin haven’t resigned but are reportedly contemplating keeping the threat of the 25th Amendment looming over Trump as a way to rein in their mad king in his destructive final days. Senators Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey have all expressed interest in either impeaching Trump or pressuring him to resign; they, along with many of their colleagues, no longer make even the slightest pretense of obeisance, no longer feel the need to kiss the ring.
Businesses are fleeing Trumpland, and the PGA announced that it would no longer be holding a prestigious 2022 golf tournament at a Trump resort. Other businesses are defunding Republican politicians who set themselves up against the results in the Electoral College.
Pretty much every major social media site has barred both Trump himself and his money-making schemes. The erstwhile grifter-king of Twitter now finds himself a muted demagogue. Trump has been talking out of his arse—as we Brits say—his whole adult life. Now, finally, the sphincter of that honorable organ has snapped shut on him, leaving him trapped, with no way out, in his own filth.
I find myself of two minds about how to respond.
On the one hand, to be honest there is something exhilarating about this Shakespearean downfall, this unprecedented decline in a truly evil man’s fortune. Words like “schadenfreude” come to mind, or “comeuppance.”
Seeing Trump stripped of his dignity, his communication platforms, his ability to intimidate, bully and hurt; seeing him having to face a rising tide of revulsion; seeing this monstrosity about to be subjected to a second impeachment—and, this time around, with greater likelihood of Senate conviction—seeing him face a potentially lengthy list of federal and state criminal charges the moment he leaves office, as well as a likely parade of civil-damage lawsuits that could strip him of his much-boasted-of wealth; knowing that this morally malformed sociopath has finally, in all likelihood, destroyed himself… well, there is something infinitely gratifying in watching this demolition take place.
Trump’s fall from the heights feels righteously liberating—his denouement as spectacular, in its own way, as Mussolini’s undignified end, hung upside down at the hands of partisans more than three-quarters of a century ago. “A fitting end to a wretched life,” The New York Times opined of Mussolini’s demise. Trump’s finale as president hasn’t been quite as visually dramatic—and certainly his most fanatical armed followers still swear blind loyalty to him, longing for a resurrection akin to Hitler’s in the years following the failed Beer Hall Putsch—but for now, at least, Trump’s slide into disgrace and humiliation is, in its own way, just as telling.
Yet, another part of me is horrified at the sheer hypocrisy of so many of those now rushing to denounce this fallen, pathetic figure. For they are, in their actions, attempting to reacquire a stake in a moral community that they spent the past four years thoroughly renouncing.
Where was DeVos’s or Chao’s courage when immigrant children were being put into cages at the urging of Trump? Where were all the Republican senators—Mitt Romney being an honorable exception—who refused to vote to convict Trump the last time he was impeached? Where was the outrage of all the business groups now racing to disassociate themselves from him when he held Nuremberg-style rallies in which journalists were denounced as “enemies of the people” and political opponents were threatened with physical violence?
Where were these paragons of virtue when Trump was coddling neo-Nazis after the infamous Charlottesville events? Where were these belated heroes of democracy when Trump was egging on armed militias in Michigan and elsewhere, encouraging them to occupy statehouses, coming perilously close to siding with them when they plotted to kidnap Michigan’s governor, and embracing vigilantes such as Kyle Rittenhouse? Where were these defenders of constitutional, democratic government when Trump attempted to sic the military on racial justice protesters? Where were these newly minted upholders of decency when Trump used his presidential powers to pardon war criminals?
Where were the social media CEOs when Trump and his fanatical followers went ever further down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric, trolling and Twitter-mobbing any and every politician or activist or commentator with whom they disagreed?
The failed insurrection of January 6, and the enormity of its implications, made it impossible for all but the most cultish of Trump’s political followers to ignore the clear and present danger of Donald J. Trump. His people became a lynch mob on that day. And, given the preparations by the Boogaloos and other groups for armed marches on DC and on state capitols on the 17th, that lynch mob must now, as political priority number one, be deprived of its arch proponent, Trump himself. Legislators seem, belatedly, to have realized this. That’s why, by the time you read this, he may well have already been impeached.
But none of this ought to be a surprise. Trump has been incubating a lynch mob for close to 2,000 days. Every action on that awful day of January 6 was amply telegraphed over the past five and a half years. From the time Trump announced his candidacy in mid-2015, he has been a time bomb, a wrecking ball, a predator drone speeding toward a fateful collision with America’s democratic systems of governance.
Trump said—repeatedly—that he’d never accept an election result that he didn’t win, and, sure enough, he didn’t. On national TV, he told the Proud Boys to stand by, and, sure enough, they did. He said he could shoot someone in broad daylight and his die-hard supporters would stick with him—and on January 6, while he himself didn’t literally beat a Capitol Police officer to death with a fire extinguisher in broad daylight, he activated the storm troopers who then carried out that murder themselves.
Those who, until last week, chose to turn a blind eye to this escalating danger in order to serve their short-term political interests indubitably share moral culpability with Trump for what unfolded in the Capitol. Most of them, alas, will not face immediate political censure—though some, like Senator Josh Hawley, might; many others will likely be booted out of their jobs by disenchanted voters next time they run for reelection. But regardless of whether others politically punish them for their actions, I truly hope that, just as Macbeth was tormented by hallucinatory images of the blood-soaked dagger used to dispatch King Duncan, these men and women will, on a daily basis and for the rest of their lives, be wracked with guilt for the Faustian, democracy-destroying bargain they made with this most vile of men.