Harsh and gray dawned the day of the Stupid Coup, with a lowering sky of dense dark clouds, slippery muddy grass underfoot, and a stiff, unforgiving wind that kept the “Stop the Steal” flags flapping. Face-painted and brightly festooned pilgrims bearing banners—snarling Trump straddling a tank, pumped-up Trump-as-Rambo brandishing a machine gun, grimacing Trump as motorcycle gang chieftain—milled about the archaic hulk of the Washington Monument looking like the remnants of a postapocalyptic cult, with beefy bearded men in camo pants and Harley jackets, and women wearing red, white, and blue sweatshirts and draped in red “Make America Great Again” flags like Roman togas. And everywhere on hats and helmets and sweatshirts and pants was that double-plosive syllable he had spent his life affixing to buildings and airplanes and “universities” and steaks and vodka: “TRUMP: NO BULLSHIT!” “FIGHT FOR TRUMP!” “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT.”
As I advanced toward the White House and the booming, reverberating electronic voices, the crowd began to thicken and finally to coalesce. Before I knew it I had been pressed into a mass of bodies straining toward a faintly gesticulating figure hundreds of yards away, echoed by the crudely pixelated image of an amped-up Eric Trump, magnified a hundred times on the jumbotron, just glimpsable through the MAGA hats and flags. The crowd moved roughly as one, borne along by its rhythmic chants (“USA! USA! USA!” “Stop the Steal! Stop the Steal! Stop the Steal!”), and atop its messy bulk swayed the flags and the stretching hands clutching cell phones, on which the figure on the jumbotron (now the brass-voiced Evita of Trumpism, Kimberly Guilfoyle) was replicated a few thousand times as far as one could see. Pressing my elbows against the bodies beside me I struggled to keep my footing on the wet ground, swallowed the incipient claustrophobic panic, and breathed in the acrid smell of marijuana wafting over us. All we needed was a mosh pit.
“Oh, I love him!” “Yeah, he’s amazing!” The dark-haired young women jostling against me from behind were struggling to hold a sightline to stare adoringly up at Don Jr., now kissing his girlfriend Kimberly. With his slicked-back hair, open-necked shirt, and gaping jacket, he looked for all the world like a just-past-his-prime used-car salesman. “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore!” Don Jr. roared. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!” Preening like a rock star, he extended his hand-mic to the crowd to catch the answering roar. Did the Republicans now gathering at the Capitol hear it? Did Vice President Mike Pence, presiding over the electoral vote certification, hear it? For Don Jr. was shouting out a simple truth that for all its undeniability many in the party had never quite believed or managed to grasp in all its implications. Trump owned them. And as his owner’s prerogative he imposed an unstinting and singular loyalty: not loyalty mostly to him, with some prudently reserved for the Constitution and the law. No. Loyalty entirely to him. Today would be the day of choosing.
It is a testament to the powers of ambition and self-delusion that the thousands of garishly costumed people around me could see this clearly even while the sophisticated members of Congress and the media and intelligentsia could not. Moments before, as the royal family chatted in a tent in front of the White House and prepared to come out on stage, a broadly smiling Guilfoyle, clad in a smart black cape and shimmying briefly for the camera, said she hoped Pence would have “the courage or brains to do the right thing” and block the certification of Joe Biden’s election. Guilfoyle, a former Fox News anchor, is a lawyer who worked as a federal prosecutor and an assistant district attorney in California, and here she was, in a video later posted by Don Jr., professing to believe that the vice-president would soon be turning the 2020 election over to the loser. Trump himself had been explicitly pressuring and then threatening Pence for days, both on Twitter and especially at the rally in Dalton, Georgia, two nights before, on the eve of the state’s two Senate runoff elections, where he mused that Pence “is a great guy. Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”
Shortly after Rudolph Giuliani appeared (“Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!”) to propose that the election be settled by “trial by combat,” Trump himself slowly sauntered onstage to the strains of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” After admiring the crowd and praising the grandeur of the Washington Monument, he laid out in laborious and disordered detail all the ways the unprecedented landslide “we” had won had been stolen—a litany he had recited two days before in Georgia and the week before that during his hour-long cajoling and whining and threatening telephone call with Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger. And after he had read out once more all the discredited claims about all the dark doings in inner-city Detroit and Philadelphia and Atlanta—adding ruefully that the wily Georgians had now succeeded in stealing the electionagain—the president came to the point of what lay before us this day:
We’re going to have to fight much harder. And Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn’t that will be a sad day for our country…. We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing…. We fight. We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.
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:
Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts…USA demands the truth!
By then, the marauders had arrived to demand it themselves. Before thousands of chanting spectators—“USA! USA! USA!”—they were pushing against the doors and smashing the windows. Protesters were scaling the scaffolding and walls and pushing onto the balconies. Inside, the vice-president of the United States had been hustled by his security detail off the floor of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” and into “an undisclosed location,” just ahead of looters in the rotunda bellowing “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” A wooden gallows stood outside the Capitol, festooned with a noose of thick orange rope.
A noose and gallows outside the Capitol, Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021
Out on the grounds, where the sun had begun to peep through the bare branches, people strolled hand in hand, pushed carriages, chatted, laughed, snacked on sandwiches, waved a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and multifarious Trump banners, and joined the occasional chant. Some boasted full Trumpian regalia, with face paint, hats, and sweatshirts, but many others could have been average citizens on a midwinter walk in the park. As you neared the grand domed building, crossing the litter of metal barricades, the crowds grew denser and roiling and you could smell the gas, some still in wisps and swirls of nauseous yellow or acid green. Above, bodies pushed against bodies, chants gave way to scattered shouts and screams and groans.