On Nov. 3, 2016, we answered, affirmatively, the question of whether a modern democratic republic like the United States could actually choose a psychopath as the head of the government, as Germany had in 1933 when it installed Adolf Hitler as chancellor.
On Jan. 6, we answered — negatively, one hopes — the second question, which is whether it would end as the German experiment with sociopathy did, with either a legal or a violent putsch. We must give some credit to Congress, Democrats and many Republicans alike, and to Mike Pence. They, unlike the German Reichstag, would not go along with a coup d’etat, and for their decision found themselves branded traitors and the targets of gunmen and a hangman’s noose.
Now, the big remaining question is whether the real treason that occurred at the national Capitol on Jan. 6 and the days leading up to it was just the magical fusion of all the resentment politics of our times — racial, ethnic, religious, economic, social — into one nearly apocalyptic event that ended like other cult movements have, in tragedy, catharsis or in merely exposing the dark side of humanity. Donald Trump may take his place alongside Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite and other cult icons, although, unlike those men, Trump promised to march with his followers to their destiny but retreated into the White House instead to watch them on television.
Or, by embedding itself like a virus in the nation’s political tissue, is the collection of grievances that were embodied on the national mall Jan. 6 so enduring that it will continue to threaten democratic norms for a generation or beyond? The former, I think, but as this is written, three days before the inauguration, I’m not certain.
Watching the events of Jan. 6 inside and outside the Capitol on television, I thought ruefully about a noontime visit in the summer of 1975 to the Hofbrauhaus, the beer hall in Munich where in 1920 Hitler made his famous maiden speech that blamed Germany’s surrender in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles on a cabal of Jews and laid out his party’s mission to install a Nazi government that would make Germany great again. I was accompanying a delegation of officials studying whether Arkansas should set up an office in Munich or elsewhere in Europe to promote corporate investment in the state.
With a couple of state legislators who went there with me for bratwurst and sauerkraut, I quaffed a beer where Hitler’s raving had excited the throng (and, later, I also purchased two heavy HB mugs for souvenirs from der Führer’s political birthplace). We talked about the oddity that Europe’s most educated populace would fall for a psychopath and help him end democracy. Could it happen in America? Nah, we all agreed.
I would also visit, later, the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, the Buchenwald gas chambers and cemetery where Germans this month were sledding on the mass graves, Albert Speer’s stark Zeppelinfield stadium in Munich (now missing its giant swastika) where Hitler addressed his adoring throngs, and also the more famous beer hall across the river from the Hofbrauhaus, the Burgerbraukeller, where Hitler staged the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, when he directed a mob to overthrow the government but got himself sent to prison instead, delaying his ascendance to power for 10 years. Photos I took at those places are among the thousands that form my computer’s screensaver and have seemed the past week to float with ominous regularity across my vision.
For half a century, allusions to Hitler on the right and Marx on the left have too readily characterized our political debate, to be avoided by journalists and commentators, but the correlation of the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich and the rhetoric and events around Jan. 6 have seemed too compelling to avoid.
Inspired by the Italy Fascist Party’s and Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome a year earlier that installed Mussolini as Italy’s dictator, Hitler plotted the putsch at the Burgerbraukeller, where he and 600 thugs forced the chancellor of Bavaria and others into the kitchen at gunpoint, directed them to surrender the government of Bavaria to him, then announced to the throng in the hall that a revolution had broken out and that they were taking control of the government from “the Berlin Jew government and the November criminals of 1918.” Instead, he was convicted of treason and spent six months in in jail, where he dictated “Mein Kampf.” Ten years later, his party took over the Reichstag by threatening other party delegates and forced President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor and sign the Enabling Act of 1933, which effectively gave Hitler permanent dictatorial powers to make all the laws and enforce them.
Mike Pence, who was a European history major at Hanover College, is not ignorant of that history. The putsch and the aftermath must have occurred to him as Trump directed him repeatedly to duck his constitutional duty to count the electoral votes and officially declare the results on Jan. 6 and, instead, substitute Trump as the winner of the election. It must have occurred to him again as Trump told the mob that day that the weak Pence had betrayed him and the country, and still again minutes later when the Capitol police yanked him off the dais in the Senate and herded him and his family into a locked room where they heard the chants from Trump men outside the door, “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” Videos inside the chamber showed Trump’s marauders at Pence’s desk demanding justice, bellowing prayers and invoking God and Jesus against him and the other traitors in Congress, including, of course, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was supposed to get a bullet in the brain, and Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, who Trump told the crowd needed to be gotten rid of. Her daddy, the former vice president, heard the president’s charge on television and telephoned her on the House floor to get out.
Nearly everyone in public life except Trump himself would soon concede that the marauders in the Capitol and at its doors were criminals, if perhaps only misguided ones, although millions, including many who were in the throng, would claim that the marauders were part of the mythical antifa hordes and liberal saboteurs trying to make Trump people look bad.
So the question that will consume all of us — at least until the future of Donald J. Trump is more or less settled by Congress and the Republican Party — is how representative that throng on the national mall was of the body politic? How much trouble are we in? A sizable part of Congress — including a couple of Arkansas’s own — continue to subscribe to the absurd tenet that brought the marauders to the Capitol: that a giant conspiracy of socialists, communists, child sex-traffickers, anti-fascist radicals and technology geniuses from Cuba, Venezuela, Iran or China stole millions of votes to boot Trump out of the office that God intended him to hold. But what about the country outside the capital?
That Trump would claim election fraud to stay in office was clear long before he ever ran. Psychopaths, literally, cannot lose. After abandoning the Democratic Party, the Reform Party, and liberalism tout court, and announcing for president in 2015, Trump pronounced himself the overwhelming choice of Americans over a band of Republicans he called “losers” or worse. In the very first election, the Iowa Republican caucuses on Feb. 1, 2016, Ted Cruz won the state’s delegates 27.6% to Trump’s 24.3%.
Trump tweeted: “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he illegally stole it. That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated. Bad!” He offered not a clue how Cruz could have stolen it, but he continued for days, insisting that Cruz’s delegates to the Republican nominating convention be thrown out and the delegates given to him. Since Cruz now is virtually alone in the Senate supporting Trump’s election-fraud claims, might we presume that he is acknowledging he stole the Iowa caucuses from Trump in 2016?
On the day of the general election, Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton was stealing the election in New Hampshire from him by sending caravans of buses full of illegals from Massachusetts into New Hampshire to vote for her.
“Recall the election,” he tweeted. “Recall the election. I mean, there, you should be able to recall the election!” He maintained for two years that he actually had won New Hampshire and also the national popular vote by a landslide (Clinton won it by nearly 3 million votes) but that a massive conspiracy took them away from him. The state chairman of the New Hampshire GOP declared that Trump was lying. Trump may well have believed all his fraud charges. The clinical evidence is that a psychopath can do nothing else; he can never lose.
So, it continued again before and after the 2020 election, as polls nearly universally showed him losing and he warned that Democrats were stealing votes everywhere. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge joined the Trump movement early in 2016, cheered him for four years from her government position, and then used the power and purse of her public office to advance his litigation to throw out the election results and commission him for another four years. In the end, Trump enlarged the conspiracy to put him out of office to include his vice president and treasonous Republicans in Congress, Georgia, and other states where Republican officeholders would not help overturn their elections.
For one brief (we hope) moment, the alleged treason united all the major aggrieved groups in American society — nationalists and supremacists alarmed that racial and ethnic minorities were becoming supreme in the economic and social order; millions of evangelical Christians who were led to believe that the vain, carnal, corrupt businessman and showman was God’s imperfect vessel for leading His favorite country back to glory; thousands of good old boys (and the Arkansas attorney general) who were persuaded by radically revised interpretations of the Second Amendment that dark forces headed by Barack Obama planned to destroy the National Rifle Association, take their guns, and enslave them.
Those flocks account for most of the domestic-terrorism slaughters of the past 30 years, from Timothy McVeigh to Dylann Roof and the killers of immigrants at the Texas border and Jews and Sikhs at religious temples. Post-Jan. 6 polls suggest that all the true believers now make up a little less than 30 percent of the electorate. Donald Trump brought them all into the Republican Party.
Governor Hutchinson dealt with some of them — remember Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord — as a federal prosecutor in the 1980s. He seems today, though alone, to be pondering how his party can deal with it.