On the morning of January 6, first-time MP Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican best known for her support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, tweeted that the effort to reverse the 2020 election results was a new American revolution.
"Today is 1776," she wrote.
It turned out that it was more fitting to call Wednesday a violent revolution than Boebert had intended. A few hours later, shortly after a presidential speech declaring the 2020 election stolen, a pro-Trump mob pounced on the U.S. Capitol, overwhelmed the Capitol Police and stormed the building. Trump supporters waved the Confederate flags and took control of the Senate Chambers. The police drew their guns. At least four people died as a result of the chaos.
Blaming President Trump for this violence is obvious at this point. He has been inciting his followers for weeks, telling them that the elections have been stolen and that they must stand up to save freedom. If you really believe this – you took what the President said seriously – why wouldn't you take dramatic action?
A crowd of pro-Trump supporters are overtaking police and barriers to gain access to the U.S. Capitol. Jon Cherry / Getty Images
Some Trump supporters scaled the U.S. Capitol while others entered and searched congressional offices. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
But the blame must go beyond Trump and land directly on the Republican Party itself – an institution that for decades pursued a political strategy that laid the seeds for an uprising against the American state.
The driving force behind modern republicanism is this: Democratic Party rule is an existential threat to America and, by definition, illegitimate. It's a belief that explains much of what we've seen of the GOP over the past few decades. The glue that holds Republicans together ranges from fucking posters in the QAnon fever swamp to much of the GOP congressional caucus.
Whether elite Republicans really believe what they say to their grassroots is irrelevant. The fact is that their delegitimizing rhetoric has been the fuel of the conservative movement for many, many years. Trump's presidency and the violence it ends in represent the next logical step for the modern GOP – and where it goes from here will determine our future as a democracy.
The ideological structure of the GOP encourages rebellion against democratic rule
In 2010, during the height of the Tea Party passion, then-Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R-NV) told talk radio host Lars Larson that she believed Americans might need guns against the tyranny of Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress seize:
You know, our founding fathers, they put this second amendment there for good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves from a tyrannical government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it was good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.
I hope we don't go there, but if this Congress goes on as it is, people are really looking at these amendments to the second amendment and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?
Angle's story is illuminating. At first she ran as an insurgent and accused herself of being an alternative to a weak, corrupt republican establishment. The party actually tried to stop her, but she was hugged by the GOP when she won Republican Elementary School in Nevada. The party held a scintillating fundraiser for Angle in Washington a few months after the Second Amendment Remedies comment.
Hardly a relic of the Tea Party era, it is a story that stands for the contemporary GOP. The party leadership has created an institution where people like Angle can win primary elections. Although leaders may at times resist extremists, they ultimately admit them as full members when it becomes clear that the choice in a particular election is either a right-wing radical or a democrat. As a result, there is a one-way street against an increasingly extreme party that has, over time, become convinced that democratic rule is so dangerous that it is preferable to go to bed with anti-democratic radicals.
There are at least three critical features of the GOP as an institution that have made it possible for this process to continue as it is.
First, there is the high-level Republican argument that freedom itself is on the ballot: the democratic agenda is so disastrous that it could mean the end of America as we know it.
This is something Republicans have been saying about democratic politics for decades – including those common in other advanced democracies. In 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that the move from Medicare would mark the end of liberty in America: If federalized insurance for the elderly became law, “you and I will spend our sunset years giving our children and our children off it children tell how it was once in America when men were free. "
Sarah Palin offered a newer variant in 2009, writing in a Facebook post that Obamacare would create “death tablets” that would transform “America I know and love” by “imposing a system on it that is downright evil ".
In 2014, Ted Cruz claimed that Obama's use of executive orders was "an imperial presidency (which threatens the freedom of every citizen"). In 2019, the National Republican Congressional Committee – the official arm of the party responsible for house racing – almost accused the Democrats of being murderous Stalinists:
Exaggeration in politics is of course normal. There are many examples of simple democratic partisans who refer to George W. Bush as "Hitler".
The difference is that the opposing party, as an existential threat, a demonic force aiming to destroy the fabric of a free society, has become an accepted part of conservative rhetoric at the highest levels of the party. Yes, you'll see an example here and there, but it just doesn't compare to the way Democrats talk about Republicans. Polarization in the United States is deeply asymmetrical.
These arguments not only attack democratic politics; You are attacking the very idea that Democrats can be legitimate leaders of the American government. Among some Republicans, they bleed into baroque conspiracy theories about Democrats as individuals, explanations of how people like Obama and Hillary Clinton can support such vile policies. Obama is not just a liberal Democrat. It must be a Kenyan Muslim anti-colonial plant pushing America towards full communism.
In their book How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt speak of “mutual tolerance”: the idea that in a democracy both parties respect the other's right to win elections and hold power. In the United States, Republicans have almost told their supporters that the Democrats, in fact, have no right to rule – that they are fundamentally hostile to the American way of life.
This rhetoric might not be so bad if it weren't for the second point of the problem: the alternative conservative media ecosystem that is spreading these messages.
Since the beginning of the modern conservative movement in the 1950s, a central tenet has been that the mainstream media be irrevocably biased against it – an agent of liberalism that cannot be trusted. The conservative answer was to relentlessly delegitimize the media in their public discourse and to build alternative media institutions so that their base can be consumed.
This created space for extreme voices who, out of sincere belief or rank opportunism, determined to sell dangerous lies. Just think of everything that has been said on Fox and on the radio for the past decade: Glenn Beck argued that AmeriCorps was going to become Obama's SS, Rush Limbaugh claimed Obama and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Benghazi, and of course Donald's spread Trumps claim Obama was not born in America, which 56 percent of Republicans still believe.
In the conservative world of media ecosystems, there are no guard rails, no institutional Republicans willing to force their allies to abide by the truth. Under these conditions, Trump's totally false claims about electoral fraud could become an article of faith among the hardcore right-wing – to the point where storming the Capitol seemed justified and even just.
But it's not just that Republicans have prepared their audiences to hate Democrats and created a media system that promotes the most extreme claims about them: it's that they have tolerated and even cultivated characters in their ranks, who are ready to expressly support violent, individual behavior.
For example, in 2009 Alaskan Rep. Don Young signed a letter claiming, “Should our government continue to tax, restrict, or register firearms, it is our duty, good and faithful people, not to obey them but change it or abolish it and set up a new government. “The letter's author, Alaska-based militia member Schaeffer Cox, was later convicted of conspiracy to kidnap and kill federal agents. Young is still in Congress; In fact, he is currently the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives in GOP history.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) speaks on the floor of the Capitol house on Jan. 3. Bill Clark / CQ appeal via Getty Images
If you're a simple Republican listening to your party's elected officials and friendly media, you've marinated in anti-democratic beliefs for years: Democrats are fundamentally hostile to the American way of life, that people who tell you otherwise are not trustworthy, that you are obliged to fight tyranny themselves.
In a 2020 poll, 51 percent of Republicans agreed that "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so quickly that we may have to use force to save it." Forty-one percent said that "there will come a time when patriotic Americans must take the law into their own hands".
“These are not marginal views. They are the views of roughly half of Republicans. Those views were evident months before the Capitol storm, ”writes John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. "Without a concerted and sustained push back from Republican leaders, these views will persist long after Trump's death."
The response to the Fracas on Wednesday confirms Sides & # 39; pessimism. A quick YouGov poll of Republicans across the country found a majority – 45 percent – in favor of storming the Capitol.
The party's the problem
The day after President Trump instigated a mob to attack the Capitol, he called a winter meeting of the Republican National Committee. The assembled Republicans did not greet the President with horror or anger; Instead, he was received with cheers.
Of course, not every Republican is as corrupt as those who make that call. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted for Trump's impeachment and has followed him the day since the attack on Capitol Hill. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has called for a second impeachment after the mob.
But even the “responsible” leaders were often complicit. Lest we forget, Romney wooed Trump's endorsement during his 2012 presidential election – while Trump was in the middle of his birth crusade against Obama. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), famous for his thumb-down vote on Trump's overturning proposal for Obamacare, is the man who gave birth to Palin by electing her Vice-President in 2008.
The party has stoked the glow of extremism from top to bottom. They have worked to convince their supporters that Democrats are monsters, they have to de-legitimize the mainstream press and replace it with fact-free alternatives, and they have welcomed extremist politicians and commentators who have condoned violence in the name of suppressing the democratic threat. ”
This is not just a question of "This is how we got Trump" (although we actually got Trump). It is that the party leadership knowingly and intentionally created an entire segment of the electorate prone to violent and dangerous conspiratorial thinking.
Speaking at the Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6, President Trump urges supporters to bring their complaints to the Capitol.Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
One person was fatally shot when Trump supporters flooded the Capitol building and disrupted Joe Biden's certification as president. Three more are believed to have died on Wednesday in or near the Capitol. Jon Cherry / Getty Images
In the days since the Capitol uprising, there have been countless calls from lawmakers and commentators to indict Donald Trump or his cabinet to remove him with the powers of the 25th Amendment. It is possible for this to happen. Some reports suggest that the discussions are more serious than in the past.
But we have reason to be skeptical. Removing Trump from office would be an admission of Republican complicity.
They knew who they were empowering. In 2016, Ted Cruz called Trump "absolutely amoral" and a "pathological liar". Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) described him as a "race-baiting xenophobic religious fanatic". And Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) describes him in comments that have been shown to be forward-looking as someone who incited violence among his followers:
I think we also need to look at the rhetoric coming from the front runner in the presidential campaign. This is a man who at rallies told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he will pay their legal fees, someone who encouraged people in the audience to upset anyone who gets up and says something he says dislikes. …
But leaders can't say what they want because words have consequences. They lead to actions that others take. And if the person you're supporting for the president goes around and says things like, "Go ahead and beat them up, I'll pay your legal fees." What do you think will happen next?
The dangers of Trump were evident to these men. But they still chose to empower him after his victory, much like their party embraced Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle and Glenn Beck and all the other extremists who came in handy. The Republican establishment created the conditions for the violence and chaos on Wednesday, and those conditions will remain in place even if Trump is removed prematurely. QAnon supporters now sit in Congress; Newsmax, a lesser-known version of Fox, has only grown in the last few months. Trump was greeted with applause from House Republicans on Thursday morning.
Just hours after her 1776 tweet, Rep. Boebert tweeted fearfully about the attack on Congress. "We were locked in the chambers of the house," she said, as if the chickens weren't coming home to sleep.
The fact that they don't really want a violent riot, however, doesn't mean that their most dedicated supporters feel the same way. Republicans – not just Donald Trump, but the entire political movement – own this mob. If they don't change course, they'll own the next.
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