Deafening paroxysms of jubilation and rage greeted this doctrinal statement of Trumpism, for who could better summarize the philosophy, such as it was, in fewer words? Trump as Rambo, as tank commander, motorcycle gang leader, and on and on. The imagery of Trumpism is about strength and cruelty and dominance even as the rhetoric is about loss and grievance and victimization: about what was taken and what must be seized back by strength. And we would have to bring that strength, for certain it was that the politicians would turn out to be traitors, just like all the rest. From that fateful ride down the gilt staircase in the pink-marbled lobby of Trump Tower five years before—Trumpism’s March on Rome—it had been about this: “Taking back the country.” Taking it back from the rapists and the killers, the undocumented and the illegitimate, the Black and the brown from “shithole countries” who should go back “where they came from.” Now it had all come down to this.
“Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” Above my head a tall homemade flag on a jointed metal pole flapped and waved and finally extended out fully for a moment, and I could read the words that had been printed in black type: “Lead Us Across the Rubicon!” And on the other side: “The die is cast!” I managed to nudge with my elbow the clean-cut, thirtyish young man gently waving the pole. “I like your flag,” I said. He turned his head back at me and smiled: finally, one who understood. “Yes,” he said. “It’s time.”
To the strains of “Tiny Dancer” and then “YMCA,” the mass began to loosen and separate. I slowly followed my new friend’s flag at a distance, my shoes wet and caked with mud, my feet near frozen. Caesar had led his soldiers across the Rubicon: the river had been the unwritten boundary beyond which a general was not permitted to bring his forces into Republican Rome. And yet the parallel had much to recommend it. Could his legions have been more loyal to their commander than these were to theirs? Was not our republic, too, beset with maladies its feckless leaders had proved powerless to remedy? Infestations of grasping and illegitimate foreigners. Obscene inequalities of wealth and power. Long-stagnant incomes. Senseless and unending foreign wars. Dispossessed and desperate veterans. And most of all a corrupt political class that had lost the confidence of the people. What was preserving the republic worth when set against such mortal ills? What was that supposedly noble cause but an excuse to maintain the rotting status quo?
In our dense procession we marched up Constitution Avenue. All the museums were shuttered, all the buildings closed. Washington had been shut down, first by the pandemic, now by us. Shops and hotels had covered their plate glass in plywood. The side streets were near deserted, except for the black-and-white police cars blocking the corners with their flashing blue strobes. This day would set a record in pandemic deaths and the next day would set another, surmounting for the first time four thousand dead. We were marching in a time of plague, and I felt vulnerable in my mask. Self-conscious, too: not one marcher in ten wore them. “They’re locking us down, taking away our freedom and our country, too!” someone exclaimed. Were the words meant for my ears? Few masks, yes, but fine makeshift costuming: we were a parade in motley, a dense Children’s Crusade of Trumpsters, with our flags pointed half forward now, as if we were advancing full-tilt on Jerusalem.
Lined up against the wall of a museum, men in tactical gear stood with backs turned, pissing. A woman in a kind of red, white, and blue pajama suit gazed down at her phone and shouted, “Pence just threw Trump under the bus!” A blond-haired woman in a woolly Trump hat said to no one in particular, “The courts won’t help. The Supreme Court won’t help. The only one left is us…”
Far ahead and to my right I could see rise into view the National Gallery East Wing, I.M. Pei’s masterpiece. From this vantage in the street, the building suddenly looked cold and vaguely threatening, standing for an elite and distant world of unapproachable privilege.
It was an illusion, of course. Its doors would one day open again, and to everyone. And the lines here were not about class, or not only about that, but about allegiance and about institutions. My friend with the flag had told me, “It’s time to sweep them all away. All of them. And you see we can’t do it by voting.” Trump had run for office against government, but unlike Reagan and even Goldwater before him, he had also governed against government—against the Deep State and “the administrative state” and the permanent swamp that all these fine closed-off marble buildings represented. And now its denizens were snatching power back from him by blatantly stealing the election in broad daylight in that white-domed building looming up ahead.
If it all seems too fantastical, you might consider: How do you know the election wasn’t stolen? In part it is because you trust institutions: the governors who preside over the elections, the secretaries of state who administer them, the courts that adjudicate the claims of fraud. When you see the news that the courts threw out the suits brought by Trump’s lawyers you believe it proves the election was fair. But what if you hated and distrusted those institutions and believed instead what your duly elected president told you? That he had won in a great landslide, that corrupt elected officials were trying to steal it from him, that it was all happening in plain sight?
Up ahead gleamed the Capitol dome, looking otherworldly, as overphotographed buildings tend to do. The thousands of crusaders were pouring from Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and coursing freely, like blood from an open wound, onto the unobstructed Capitol grounds. Screaming protesters, some shooting pepper spray or bear spray or thrusting their flags like spears, had been facing off against the outnumbered and under-armed Capitol Police since before Trump had finished speaking. Already the flimsy line of metal barriers had been breached, the crowd had pushed past the base of the steps, the single line of police, broken and bedraggled, struggled to keep them out of the building. Within, Pence, whose four years of ardent obsequiousness would not save him from what was to come, was presiding. At what point had it finally dawned on him, with perhaps even now a sick-to-the-stomach recognition, that the president was serious—that he actually expected him, Michael R. Pence, former congressman, former governor of Indiana, aspiring president, to “reject fraudulently chosen electors,” as Trump had tweeted two nights before? How much effort had he put into studying whether it could actually be done? How excruciating had it been to sign yesterday’s letter, in which Pence confessed that he did “not believe that the founders of our country intended to invest the vice president with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted”?
One need not speculate about how Trump received these words. Founders? Authority? Law? Preponderant evidence suggests that Trump sees the law the way a crooked real estate developer does, as a flimsy, malleable thing you pay lawyers to manipulate and circumvent. The law bends to audacity and to power. The law is something you have to have “the courage or brains” to overcome or to master. In a midafternoon tweet, Trump made this explicit: