Mark Danner has a tour de force Trump analysis in the NY Review of Books this week called “The Slow-Motion Coup.” I highly recommend you read the whole thing. It’s long and it’s worth it. Here’s just the opening:
Our political End Times glitter with surreal scenes—the green-tinted shock and awe unleashed over Baghdad, the “Brooks Brothers warriors” rioting at the Miami election bureau, the jetliner piercing the Manhattan skyscraper—and beneath the unearthly beauty of the Capitol dome that frigid January day, I gazed in wonder at the latest of them: the heaving bodies in their winter clothes, the dark-uniformed, club-wielding police falling back before the phalanx of fists and bicycle racks and flagpoles, and, floating over the straining limbs, the swirls and eddies of bear spray and tear gas in nauseous yellow and green. Was it all a grotesque mirage? Is this what revolution really looks like? And yet we know now that from this phantasmagoric tableau a vital piece was missing: he was meant to be there.
Donald J. Trump’s essential advantage is to be always underestimated: treated as a narcissistic fop, a deranged and ignorant bull in the china shop of American governance. True, he knows little and refuses to learn more because he is certain he knows all. True, he flaunts his narcissism and mythomania with petulant and unflagging pride. But for all that, he is a connoisseur of grievance and resentment and outrage, and a master at shaping from these lucrative political emotions a creative and motivating message. Could anyone accuse him of failing to comprehend the politics of spectacle? Could anyone doubt that he would have known how to shape this fantastic scene of “the people” seizing back their government into a full-fledged camera-ready extravaganza?
Scarcely an hour before and a couple miles away—just as I was shuffling off the Ellipse with my half-frozen, flag-wielding fellows to march up Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol, where, the ranting president had vowed to us, “I’ll be there with you!”—Trump was climbing into the Beast, the presidential limousine. When the driver took the wheel to return his precious cargo to the White House, Trump grew instantly irate. “I’m the fucking president!” he screamed to his Secret Service protectors. “Take me up to the Capitol now!”
They had refused, of course, and went on refusing, even after the enraged president seized one of the agents at the throat. Or so White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson recounted to the January 6 committee, unleashing a cascade of furious denials. Did the president really respond to this thwarting of his will with violence? Perhaps the better question to have explored was: What would the president have done had those Secret Service agents obeyed? How would that day have unfolded? For it is clear that he had some plan, clear that what was intended to seem an impromptu visit to the Capitol had been well thought out, at least for Trump. “Cass, are you excited for the sixth?” Rudy Giuliani had asked Hutchinson as they left the White House four days before. “It’s going to be a great day.” Why? she asked. “We’re going to the Capitol. It’s going to be great. The president is going to be there. He’s going to look powerful. He’s going to be with the members. He’s going to be with the senators.”
He’s going to look powerful. In his mind’s eye, did Trump see himself descending from the Beast amid the welter of bodies outside the Capitol, to the wild cheers of the beefy men pummeling the police—and turning from their violent work to howl and slam their gloved hands together or raise their fists—and to the shouts of noncombatants arrayed in their Trumpian finery milling about the Capitol lawn? There in his chic black overcoat he would have waved, smiled, thrust his fist in the air as the tens of thousands of his faithful, far and near, raised their voices in a bloodcurdling roar. And finally, after shaking scores of hands, taking a few selfies, and perhaps offering an inspiring word or two through a megaphone, he would have led the crowd up the steps, as the cheers rose deafeningly and the little screens of the cell phones held aloft conveyed him making his triumphant way up to the domed temple in thousands of miniature images.
For had the president chosen to stride up those steps, who would have dared stop him? His followers would have fallen in behind him and the Capitol police would have fallen away before him and he would have breached the doors himself, his gold-orange hair shining beneath the mythic white dome in the crisp cold sunlight of that historic January day.
Is that how Donald John Trump, forty-fifth president of the United States, had imagined it? And if so, what did he then intend? Would he have led his chanting, flag-waving followers through the ceremonial doors, past the looming statues, down the marble hallways, and into the Senate chamber, there to face squarely his white-haired, stalwart vice-president, poised in frozen shock on the dais? With his Senate supporters gathered around their victorious leader, shaking his hand, pounding him on the back, would President Trump have smiled up at Mike Pence, held out his famously small hand, and demanded the certificates certifying the electoral votes of the “stolen” election? And would Pence, a man who had shown himself until this very day to be one of the most obsequious public officials in American history, have dared refuse? And then perhaps, in a dramatic gesture for his rowdy minions and the senators and the congressmen and the television cameras and the whole world watching, Donald Trump with his own two hands would have torn those tokens of legitimacy asunder.
We may well never know, of course, what exactly Trump had planned for his momentous appearance at the Capitol that day. We do know that this dramatic visitation was to be the last in a series of attempts—involving false declarations on election night, forged electoral certificates, insinuating telephone calls with state legislators and secretaries of state, consultations with marginally unbalanced conservative lawyers, and endless, merciless pressure on the hapless vice-president (“You can either go down in history as a patriot or you can go down in history as a pussy”)—to overthrow the results of the election. Eight weeks after election day, after his vice-president’s betrayal, the final betrayal of all the Deep State betrayals of his four years in office (“He’s thrown the president under the bus!” a red, white, and blue–clad woman, eyes glued to her phone as we marched up Constitution Avenue, shouted out to us), Trump found himself with no choice but to seize power personally, at the head of thousands of rabid followers, some of them armed. (“They’re not here to hurt me,” he had shouted before his speech, when he learned that those bearing weapons were being stopped at the gates. “Let my people in!”) It would be beautiful, unforgettable. It would be a true and decisive victory over the Deep State. It would be his March on Rome.
Or perhaps his Beer Hall Putsch. Who can say? Would Pence, however surprisingly firm he had held to the Constitution those last few days, have dared oppose the president and his merry band in the Senate chamber? And if Pence had not managed to perform his “ministerial” role, could the election have been certified for Joseph R. Biden that appointed day of January 6? And if the election couldn’t be certified, would the matter have been thrown into the House of Representatives, where Democrats held a majority of seats but Republicans, crucially, controlled a majority of the state delegations, which the Founders in their wisdom had decided would be the deciding measure? If all the Republican-controlled delegations voted for Trump, the House would have chosen him as the country’s next president. Biden could have appealed to the Supreme Court, but could the Court, with six Republican votes, have been depended upon to render dispassionate justice, any more than it had managed to do twenty years before?
It is shockingly easy to imagine how the events of January 6, with just a tiny detail altered—a Secret Service agent, say, who was not quite so determined in opposing a screaming commander in chief—could have worked out quite differently and produced a reelected President Trump and furious Democrats marching in the streets. Would the triumphant president have called out the military to quell those crowds, as he had tried to do the previous spring during the Black Lives Matter protests? Would the senior officers—as “nonpolitical” as they pride themselves on being—have dared to disobey?
All counterfactuals, of course, are submerged beneath the relentless forward march of what actually happened. Still, however much we want to relegate the events of January 6 to the realm of the near-missed catastrophe, our politics remain imprisoned in a series of events unfolding from that day. The coup did not end on January 6 or even in the early hours of January 7, when Congress finally certified the election of the new president. Today this unfinished chain of cause and effect—call it a slow-motion coup—continues to unfold before the country. The coup drives news coverage. The coup elects candidates. And the coup has already gone far toward leaching from our democracy the one element indispensable for a peaceful politics: the legitimacy of our means of conferring power. By launching and leading his slow-motion coup, Donald Trump has led the country into an unfamiliar and darker world. We don’t know how, or if, we will emerge.
That’s just the beginning. He goes on to discuss the GOP’s complicity, the lunatic followers, Trump’s sickening childhood with a sociopath father and the possibility of Trump taking another run at it. It’s disturbing, but it’s just great. I urge you to read it.
This particular passage gets to one of my big unanswered questions about January 6th.Was Trump really planning on going to the Capitol? Was there a plan? Was Rudy’s weird comment that he was planning to stand there “with the Senators” something he really thought would happen? I don’t know if we’ll ever know. But this shows what might have happened if it did. And what has come since shows that he just moved on to Plan D. Whatever it takes. He will never voluntarily quit.