This story first appeared in The New York Review of Books (Copyright 2021).
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 American 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 election again—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.
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.
Inside was proceeding a peculiarly contemporary coup. Some attackers wielded pipes or hockey sticks or flag poles, some wore helmets or gas masks or bandanas, but in this “second 1776” cell phones and cameras were the vital weapon in every revolutionary’s hand. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs,” as Susan Sontag observed, “is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” January 6 seems likely to be the most photographed coup in history. Amid the awful violence, what still more awful things might have been done if more revolutionary image junkies had spent their time to some purpose other than selfie-taking, videoing, and live-streaming?
Which raises the obvious question of what precisely the intent was this day. “Taking back our country”—but how? Pressuring Pence to “come through for us.” Amid those milling about in wonder, those smashing windows, beating up policemen or crushing them against doors, waving American flags and posing in Camp Auschwitz sweatshirts, stealing podiums, rifling laptops, purloining mail, smearing excrement, making declamations, and documenting every moment of the intrusion—“This is my house,” bellowed a bearded Trumpisto in the rotunda, “and I’m here to take it back!”—could be glimpsed various men of quiet purpose in tactical gear, at least two of whom came equipped with bunches of flex cuffs or “zip ties.” Somewhere, secreted within the trashing and looting and destroying and photographing, was perhaps a more elaborated plan to capture and “try” the vice-president and chosen senators and representatives. Or perhaps to hold the building hostage and to make political demands—accepting “alternate” slates of electors? agreeing to a “revote” in certain states?—in exchange for relinquishing the sacred political space.
What is certain is that a rabble of hundreds of Trumpistos draped in outlandish Mad Max garb and armed with makeshift weapons managed to violently invade and conquer the Capitol of the United States and occupy it for nearly six hours. One rioter in carpenter jeans paraded a Confederate flag, a noxious intrusion of treason and frank racism not seen even during the Civil War. Later in the rotunda, one exhausted and battered Black policeman yelled out, “I got called a nigger 15 times today…. I cried for about 15 minutes and I just let it out,” BuzzFeed reported.
Ahead of the clashes, the country’s elected representatives and senators and its second-highest executive officer were forced to flee for their lives into ignominious hiding. That the day was coming had hardly been a secret. Not only had President Trump repeatedly and publicly summoned his supporters to Washington to “Save America!” on a day he promised would be “wild,” but in a report only the day before the FBI had quoted explicit online “calls for violence” and “war,” including this prophetic passage:
Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die.
Despite these warnings, Capitol Police leaders failed to request or assign a single extra police officer to duty that day, and few who were on duty were in riot gear. Mutual sympathies between police and Trump marchers are well known—“Back the Blue!” is a frequent chant at his rallies—and there were clearly many police and military among the marchers. “These guys…. A lot of them were former military,” the officer told BuzzFeed. “You have the nerve to be holding a Blue Lives Matter flag, and you are out there fucking us up. [One guy] pulled out his badge and he said, ‘We’re doing this for you.’” It is hard not to suspect that the shocking lack of preparation in the face of a widely anticipated assault is owed not only to complacency but at some level to complicity.
Trump reportedly had to be dissuaded from personally leading the march to the Capitol. Instead, he sat in the White House “enjoying the spectacle” he had unleashed unfold on television. Unnamed sources described the president as “bemused” but also, according to The Washington Post, mildly “turned off by what he considered the ‘low-class’ spectacle of people in ragtag costumes.” Still, he resisted desperate pleas to call his supporters off or to order in the National Guard. “It took him a while,” his friend Senator Lindsey Graham allowed, “to appreciate the gravity of the situation.” In fact there is little sign he ever did. At 6:00 PM, with protesters still in the Capitol, he posted this on his Twitter account, before it was suspended:
These are the things and the events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!
By refusing calls to intervene, he prolonged and protected the coup he had incited. Thankfully, Trump’s disordered, erratic mind has never been given to systematic planning. That he finally lost his bet on the sycophantic unscrupulousness of his vice-president had more to do with a handful of votes in the House of Representatives than with the vaunted truism that ours is “a country of laws, not of men.” Had the Republicans held a bare majority in the House, it is alarmingly easy to imagine the results of the presidential election being overturned.
As it is, the overwhelming majority of House Republicans, even after an attempted coup forced them to scurry abjectly for their lives—and left five people, including a police officer, dead—voted for exactly that, as did eight Republican senators. With his up-thrust fist, young Josh Hawley of Missouri will remain the poster boy of the coup. Both Hawley and Ted Cruz of Texas, highly credentialed lawyers out of Yale and Harvard respectively, like Pence discovered only belatedly that Trump was serious. Like the lowly innkeeper and everyone around him indulging Don Quixote’s conviction that he had arrived at a magical castle, they all humored the president about his chances to overturn the election. After all, as one “senior Republican official” asked a week after the vote, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.” For Hawley and Cruz, voting to overturn an election was merely a way to buff up their political résumés. What could be the downside?
Donald Trump is not Caesar, but he has a will to power and a malignancy that our degraded institutions and corrupted politicians have been wholly unable to contain. His army of millions will not melt away. They will remain as a lurking poison in the political bloodstream, politicized and angry, ready to be activated, and their nihilistic rejection of the country’s institutions and laws will only grow more venomous. Millions of them are armed. Those who died in the coup will become the movement’s martyrs. Those arrested will become its heroes.
On the afternoon of January 13, in an eerily deserted Washington, with the Capitol surrounded by thousands of National Guard troops, 222 Democrats and ten Republicans voted to impeach President Donald J. Trump for the second time, charging him in a single article with “incitement of insurrection.” A handful of Republicans in the Senate have let it be known that they might consider, perhaps, voting in support. Today it remains uncertain whether the seventeen Republican senators necessary to convict will dare come forward—even after the president has committed the very definition of a “High Crime.” And in order to ban Trump from holding future political office, which seems the only way to begin to protect the country from him and his supporters, he must first be convicted. In full view of the world, the sovereign committed a grave crime against the state. The Romans would have well understood the threat. The Republicans, fully embracing the nihilism of a nihilistic president, as yet do not.
Our future Suetonius will have work to do, describing these several decades in the life of the “indispensable” nation. The genocides of the 1990s, the “Supreme Court election” of 2000, the attacks of September 11, the war of choice in Iraq, the torture and endless drone assassinations of the “war on terror,” the economic collapse of 2008, the election of Donald Trump, the hundreds of thousands of dead in the Great Pandemic—and, finally, the Stupid Coup. Will Trump seem as striking and unusual to our historian as he does to us? Will he make more sense when viewed against the March on Rome or the Beer Hall Putsch? Or will Trump be seen as the beginning of something and not its ending?
Those thousands gathered in their postapocalyptic costumes certainly see him thus. So do his 74 million voters, few of whom are likely to grow more trusting of American institutions under an “illegitimate” President Biden. Trump has been banned from Twitter, but his family will continue to grift off these events, putting millions in their own pockets. As for the move to impeach him for “incitement of insurrection,” a wholly unrepentant Trump pronounced it “a continuation of the greatest witch-hunt in the history of politics!”
He was speaking outside the White House, six days after he had sent his ragged army marching on the Capitol. Talk of impeaching him “is causing tremendous anger,” he declared. And then: “I think it’s causing tremendous danger to our country.” Hearing Trump utter those dark and threatening words, I thought of the charges of complicity some in Congress had made of their colleagues who had allegedly conducted, the day before the coup, “reconnaissance tours” of the building for some of the rioters. I thought of the representative who refused to go through the newly installed magnetometer, presumably because she insisted on bringing her handgun into the Capitol. And I thought of watching the tumult and the flags and the savage fighting at the wounded Capitol that day and the words that had several times come unbidden into my mind there—that unctuous phrase that has come to describe America and our era: “This is not who we are.” And yet, I thought, it is what we do.