What to Do With Trumpists

The proper response to these extremists isn’t counterterrorism. It is mental hygiene.

Shutterstock / The Atlantic

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

At noon tomorrow, our four-year experiment in being governed by the political equivalent of the Insane Clown Posse will finally end. It is ending in Juggalo style (some have called it “Trumpalo”), violently and pointlessly, with a handful of deaths, the smearing of various bodily fluids, and a riot on the way out. After any bacchanal of this magnitude, the sober dawn is almost as disorienting as the hysteria itself—and the most urgent task, after wiping the shit from the Capitol hallways, is to prevent a repeat performance.

First, the Senate must convict Donald Trump. I confess bewilderment that the Senate will have to deliberate at all: Inciting an insurrection that threatens to kidnap and possibly murder members of the Senate (including the vice president of the United States) seems to me the kind of activity the Senate should frown upon. Enemies of Ted Cruz like to point out that Trump called Cruz’s wife a hag and insinuated that his father killed John F. Kennedy, and Cruz cuddled up to Trump anyway. Any senator who excuses his own near lynching by a shirtless, horned shaman will make Cruz’s self-debasement look dignified by comparison.

Second, law enforcement should hunt down and charge all of the insurrectionists, from the flex-cuff guys to the grannies posing for photos. The vigor with which federal prosecutors have been pursuing them proves that the United States has not been corrupted completely. Prisons exist to hold people such as these.

Here ends the easy part. Options for what comes next are harder to imagine, and have left everyone casting into a dark, vacant pool for the right paradigm. The Federalist Papers do not contemplate a Juggalo-in-exile postpresidency, so we search in unlikely places for comparably miserable predicaments to guide us. MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan argues that we should think of Trump’s followers as if they were al-Qaeda members, who move freely among us because they are white, rather than brown and Muslim. The former DHS official Juliette Kayyem agrees that we should treat MAGA as a terrorist movement and Trump as its Osama bin Laden. What do we do with terror movements? “Decapitate” their leadership. In this case, she says the decapitation should be figurative: Isolate Trump; embarrass his followers; make Trump repudiate them.

Whiteness, as Hasan suggests, is one difference between MAGA and al-Qaeda. Another is MAGA’s failure thus far to murder 3,000 people in a single day and promise to keep it up until the survivors surrender. The U.S. did not kill bin Laden because he prayed to Allah instead of Q, and the latter is going to be much harder to neutralize. (Thomas Hegghammer also notes a strange tension in Hasan’s position: If Trumpism is like al-Qaeda—or worse—and the authorities are giving it a free pass, why is the Trumpalo-terrorist body count in the single digits?) Because bin Laden still looms as the villain par excellence in the American imagination, to bin Laden we turn for analogy when trying to impress upon one another the gravity of a threat. But when the analogy guides policy and is wrong—and here it is not even close—it leaves the real threat unbothered, and everyone as defenseless as the Capitol was two weeks ago. The comparison fails even though the mob in the Capitol included at least a few honest-to-goodness, unambiguous terrorists, who came there with the express purpose of violently scaring the hell out of politicians in an effort to change policy. It fails because the category of terrorism is diverse, and so is the category of MAGA.

Even if we agree that Trump is a “terrorist,” consider how unlike other terrorists he is. Trump resembles bin Laden not at all: One was an ascetic who gave up riches to live in dangerous and squalid isolation; the other avoids even mild danger or physical discomfort, and will humiliate himself to add mere pennies to his bank account. One commands the military of the United States, for at least a few more hours, and the other never had more than a few thousand men swinging on monkey bars in Afghanistan to his name. Trump had powers bin Laden only dreamed of (and that if he had, he would have used genocidally). I consider Trump the biggest threat to American democracy since Robert E. Lee—a terrorist who had at his disposal a great army and used it to great effect. Trump’s strategy, by contrast, was to keep and maintain power, by gathering, very loosely, a gang of self-marginalizing anti-Semites, cosplay brownshirts, and flabby gun nuts, plus others who may be high-functioning in normal life but on January 6 were too stupid to refrain from geotagging their crimes on Facebook.

Seventy-four million Americans voted for Trump, and tens of millions believe his lies about a rigged election. These numbers do not suggest that this credulous minority is on to something—but they virtually guarantee that treating the post-Trump problem like a terrorist movement will fail. If you think MAGA is a terror movement, you will trick yourself into thinking that the United States can subdue and destroy it using the tools that have destroyed al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and many terror groups before them. MAGA is far more entrenched, and impossible to eradicate using any means dreamt of by counterterrorism. This problem cannot be decapitated like a terrorist movement, and it will not go away when one man is droned to bits or apprehended and perp-walked in his underpants. Besides, contrary to Kayyem’s suggestion, even terrorist movements do not reliably end with decapitation, and one trait that makes them resilient against decapitation is having extensive popular support. Of course those who murder cops and raid government buildings should enjoy a long, leisurely prison stay, similar to those meted out to terrorists. (Someday they can emerge and tell their grandchildren that they committed sedition because a bat-faced incompetent named Rudolph Giuliani told them to, and he was very persuasive.) But you cannot treat tens of millions this way—and that means we need to lure back many of the 74 million, including some whose brains have been pickled by exposure to QAnon and 8chan.

Start by distinguishing among MAGA subtypes. In the past week, some erstwhile Trump supporters have turned on him. In Congress, most of these disavowed him when doing so became pragmatic—Mitch McConnell, for example, saw his majority slip away because of Trump’s Georgia strategy. To the extent possible, their repentance must be accepted, even with some light denial of their former MAGA fervor. “When this is all over,” David Frum prophesied, “nobody will admit to ever having supported it.” That is the way of many sheepish ex-radicals. Plenty of reformed hippies prefer to remember the free love, doobies, and social justice, without dwelling on the gonorrhea, heroin, and murder. If Trumpists are embarrassed enough to deny what they have done, then fine. When their denials shade into wistfulness, we have pictures and tweets to remind them of what they said and did. (I would rather have gonorrhea than a record of passionate and convinced #MAGA tweeting.)

Opportunistic amnesia is, like terrorism, a manageable problem. Far worse—and, I believe, nearer to the source of the disease—is a mental defect afflicting MAGA extremists as well as normal people: a near-total vulnerability to the hyperstimulation of our political senses. The proper response to these extremists isn’t counterterrorism. It is mental hygiene.

A young, successful politician once told me that at his events, he always deals with shouting protesters in the same way: He sends staff to escort them to the front of the audience, where they can shower him with spittle and fan him with their placards. The fight makes better TV, especially if a protester loses it and says or does something really crazy, such as disrobing. Wild TV clips are a source of endless attention, which is a currency fully convertible into power. Unless the camera is on you, you lose. That is the lesson of Trump, in a sentence.

This annihilating tactic has rendered truth irrelevant, and like some horrible viral variant, it has rapidly come to dominate as a hysterical style in American politics. To see the MAGA insurrection and the dissociative, unhinged words of full-blown QAnon believers is to observe the hysterical style as a way of life. It resists persuasion by ordinary argument, because it persuades instead by domination of attention. When Trump said in his inaugural that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” it turns out his most fervent supporters thought that the best way to resist oblivion is to dominate others’ attention for attention’s own sake—for example, by prancing half-naked wearing body paint and pelts and threatening violence if their attention flags. Nothing matters more than the production of images too bonkers to ignore, and ensuring that everyone is looking at you and not at someone else. Some subset of the population lacks natural immunity to this performance and surrenders entirely.

Our best hope is to hasten a change in culture that reverses this effect. Call it the Bennet Inversion, for Senator Michael Bennet, who campaigned for president promising to govern so boringly that voters would go weeks without thinking about him. He was so successful that no one remembers his campaign at all. Biden accomplished a miniature version of this, by executing a Fabian strategy and defeating Trump without ever facing him directly on the field of meme battle.

I once thought resistance to the hysterical style was hopeless. The struggle is internal, and familiar to all who consume media. We overdose on serotonin, or some equally enchanting neurotransmitter, and experience an addict’s bliss at the hysterical scenes that pass before our eyes, whether they make us happy or furious. The only thing that displeases us is boredom—and that is why boredom is our salvation. Developing an aversion to hysteria is a long process—as hard as for a drunk to learn to hate the bottle—but it is possible. You just have to learn to feel disgust for it, and for those who retweet it. I feel my own blood seroconverting against hysteria—I was once entertained, then riled, then bored, and now I am disgusted by it. And that makes me hopeful that others can undergo the same process.

One sign that herd immunity against this hysterical style is within reach was the election of Biden, a nonhysterical fogey. More tests will come. A representative from Georgia has vowed to introduce articles of impeachment against Biden the day after the inauguration, for reasons too risible to bear repeating. These non-incidents are good practice: Follow the bead of your attention. Where does it go? Does it slavishly follow the antics of incorrigible exhibitionists? Do you wish it did not?

The greatest of all concession statements was issued by the New York Mayor Ed Koch in 1989: “The people have spoken,” he said, “and now they must be punished.” Trump won an election; one generation of political Juggalos was punishment enough. But they have multiplied, and the whole wretched experience will be for nothing unless we derive the right lessons—the hard lessons, and not just the satisfying ones—from it. I am clutching my one-week serotonin sobriety chip.