Eugene Goodman is an American hero. At a pivotal moment on January 6, the veteran United States Capitol Police officer single-handedly prevented untold bloodshed. Staring down an angry, advancing mob, he retreated up a marble staircase, calmly wielding his baton to delay his pursuers while calling out their position to his fellow officers. At the top of the steps, still alone and standing just a few yards from the chamber where senators and Vice President Mike Pence had been certifying the Electoral College’s vote, Goodman strategically lured dozens of the mayhem-minded away from an unguarded door to the Senate floor.
The leader of that flank of the mob, later identified by the FBI as Douglas Jensen, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a red-white-and-blue Q—the insignia of the delusional QAnon conspiracy theory. Its supporters believe that a righteous Donald Trump is leading them in a historic quest to expose the U.S. government’s capture by a global network of cannibalistic pedophiles: not just “deep state” actors in the intelligence community, but Chief Justice John Roberts and a dozen-plus senators, including me. Now Trump’s own vice president is supposedly in on it, too. According to the FBI, Jensen “wanted to have his T-shirt seen on video so that ‘Q’ could ‘get the credit.’”
January 6 is a new red-letter day in U.S. history, not just because it was the first time that the Capitol had been ransacked since the War of 1812, but because a subset of the invaders apparently were attempting to disrupt a constitutionally mandated meeting of Congress, kidnap the vice president, and somehow force him to declare Trump the victor in an election he lost. En route, the mob ultimately injured scores of law-enforcement officers. The attack led to the deaths of two officers and four other Americans. But the toll could have been much worse: Police located pipe bombs at the headquarters of both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Investigators discovered a vehicle fully loaded with weaponry and what prosecutors are calling “homemade napalm bombs.”
The violence that Americans witnessed—and that might recur in the coming days—is not a protest gone awry or the work of “a few bad apples.” It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.
If and when the House sends its article of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, I will be a juror in his trial, and thus what I can say in advance is limited. But no matter what happens in that trial, the Republican Party faces a separate reckoning. Until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon. They can’t. The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.
The newly elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. She once ranted that “there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.” During her campaign, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had a choice: disavow her campaign and potentially lose a Republican seat, or welcome her into his caucus and try to keep a lid on her ludicrous ideas. McCarthy failed the leadership test and sat on the sidelines. Now in Congress, Greene isn’t going to just back McCarthy as leader and stay quiet. She’s already announced plans to try to impeach Joe Biden on his first full day as president. She’ll keep making fools out of herself, her constituents, and the Republican Party.
If the GOP is to have a future outside the fever dreams of internet trolls, we have to call out falsehoods and conspiracy theories unequivocally. We have to repudiate people who peddle those lies.
We also have to show a healthier path forward. The frustrations that caused so many people to turn in desperate directions for a political voice are not going away when Trump leaves the White House for Mar-a-Lago, because deception and demagoguery are the inevitable consequences of a politics that is profoundly, systemically dysfunctional. We must begin by asking how we got to such a discontented place, where we are mired in lies, rage, and now violence. In this essay, I am focusing on the maladies of the right, but Americans across the political spectrum are falling prey to the siren song of conspiracism. Here are three reasons.
America’s junk-food media diet
The way Americans are consuming and producing news—or what passes for it these days—is driving us mad. This has been said many times, but the problem has worsened in the past five years. On the supply side, media outlets have discovered that dialing up the rhetoric increases clicks, eyeballs, and revenue. On the demand side, readers and viewers like to see their opinions affirmed, rather than challenged. When everybody’s outraged, everybody wins—at least in the short term.
This is not a problem only on the right or only on obscure blogs. The underlying economics that drive Fox News and upstarts such as One America News to cultivate and serve ideologically distinct audiences also drive MSNBC, CNN, and The New York Times. More and more fiercely, media outlets rally their audience behind the latest cause du jour, whether it’s battling supposed election fraud or abolishing local police departments.
The conservative swaths of this media landscape were primed for Trump’s “Stop the steal” lie, which lit the fuse for the January 6 riot. For nine weeks, the president consistently lied that he had “won in a landslide.” Despite the fact that his lawyers and allies were laughed out of court more than 60 times, he spread one conspiracy theory after another across television, radio, and the web. For anyone who wanted to hear that Trump won, a machine of grifters was turning clicks into cash by telling their audiences what they wanted to hear. The liars got rich, their marks got angry, and things got out of control.
America’s institutional collapse
Traditional media outlets are only some of the long-standing institutions collapsing as the digital revolution erodes geographic communities in favor of placeless ones. Many people who yell at strangers on Twitter don’t know their own local officials or even their neighbors across the street. The loss of rootedness and institutional authority has created an opening for populists on the right and the left. It’s not a coincidence that in 2016, millions of Republicans threw in their lot behind a man who for almost all of his life had been a Democratic voter and donor, and millions of Democrats wanted as their nominee a senator who staunchly refused to join their party. On both sides, conventional politicians were being told they had lost the thread.
The anger being directed today at major internet platforms—Twitter, Facebook, and Google, especially—is, in part, a consequence of the fading of traditional political authority. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, Americans have outsourced key parts of political life to Silicon Valley behemoths that were not designed to, and are not competent to, execute functions traditionally in the province of the government. The failure of our traditional political institutions and our traditional media to function as spaces for genuine political conversation has created a vacuum now filled by the social-media giants—who are even worse at the job.
Civic authority has ebbed in other ways. Political incompetence and malpractice around the COVID-19 pandemic have only deepened suspicions that some politicians will never let a crisis go to waste. The decisions in California to keep churches closed but to keep open strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries baffle Main Street. Similarly, the jolting juxtaposition of a media-addict mayor breaking up Hasidic funerals while marching in Black Lives Matter protests not only deepens the cynicism of many Americans, but it indisputably undermined institutions of public health that should have been cautiously protecting their standing.
America’s loss of meaning
Our political sickness has a third cause. At least since World War II, sociologists and political scientists have been tracing the erosion of the institutions and habits that joined neighbors together in bonds of friendship and mutual responsibility. Little Leagues were not just pastimes; soup kitchens were not just service organizations; they were also venues in which people found shared purpose. Today, in many places, those bonds have been severed.
In 1922, G. K. Chesterton called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” But according to a recent study of dozens of countries, none has ditched religious belief faster since 2007 than the U.S. Without going into the causes, we can at least acknowledge one cost: For generations, most Americans understood themselves as children of a loving God, and all had a role to play in loving their neighbors. But today, many Americans have no role in any common story.
Conspiracy theories are a substitute. Support Donald Trump and you are not merely participating in a mundane political process—that’s boring. Rather, you are waging war on a global sex-trafficking conspiracy! No one should be surprised that QAnon has found a partner in the empty, hypocritical, made-for-TV deviant strain of evangelicalism that runs on dopey apocalypse-mongering. (I still consider myself an evangelical, even though so many of my nominal co-religionists have emptied the term of all historic and theological meaning.) A conspiracy theory offers its devotees a way of inserting themselves into a cosmic battle pitting good against evil. This sense of vocation that makes it dangerous is also precisely what makes it attractive in our era of isolated, alienated consumerism.
Whatever the Republican Party does, it faces an ugly fight. The fracture that so many politicians on the right have been trying desperately to avoid may soon happen. But if the party has any hope of playing a constructive, rather than destructive, part in America’s future, it must do two things.
First, Republicans must repudiate the nonsense that has set our party on fire. Putting it out will take courage—and I don’t mean merely political courage. This week, after realizing that some Capitol insurrectionists wanted to capture the vice president, several Republican House members said privately that they believed a vote to impeach the president would put their lives, or the lives of their families, at risk. That is not the “constituent engagement” that elected officials are duty-bound to deal with on a daily basis. That is simply tyranny, just from the bottom up, instead of the top down. When arsonists are inside our house, can we just stand by and hope that they’ll depart quietly?
Second, the party has to rebuild itself. It must offer a genuine answer to the frustrations of the past decade. Other than by indulging Trump’s fantasies about building iPhones in America, Republicans have not figured out how to address Americans’ anger about community erosion, massive dislocations in the labor force, or Big Tech’s historically unprecedented role in governing de facto public squares.
Sensing a chance at tribal expansion, some on the left are thrilled by the chaos on the right, and they’re eager to seize the moment to banish from polite society not just those who participated and encouraged violence, but anyone with an R next to his or her name. Already on Twitter, a conservative position as long-standing as opposition to abortion has been recast as “domestic terrorism.” An MSNBC host talked about the “de-Baathification” of the GOP, comparing rank-and-file Republicans to supporters of Saddam Hussein. In an exchange on CNN, a host accused Republican voters of making common cause with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the exploitative overreaction by the left should not allow an underreaction by the right.
The past four years have wounded our country in grievous, long-lasting ways. The mob that rushed the Capitol had been fed a steady diet of lies and conspiracy theories. It is very possible that the QAnon devotee Douglas Jensen believed the junk he’d been sold—that he was a valued foot soldier in Trump’s war against shadowy forces of darkness. So, according to the FBI, he put on his Q T-shirt and acted like a foot soldier. Right up until he ran into Officer Goodman.
In a standoff between the Constitution and madness, both men picked a side. It’s the GOP’s turn to do the same.