Trump Sings a Song of Sedition
The January 6 jail anthem was a shocking addition to his repertoire. But our national attention span is so short that we’ve already moved on.
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At his rally in Waco this weekend, Donald Trump stood at attention as a choir of jailed January 6 rioters sang an anthem of sedition, and media outlets barely blinked.
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Almost 30 years after a cult leader caused a disaster in Waco, Trump rallied his own political cult—and the location cannot be a coincidence—in that same Texas city. The Waco tent revival featured the usual Trumpian cast of grifters, carnies, and misfits, including the fan favorites Mike Lindell and Ted Nugent. Most of the former president’s speech was, of course, about himself and his many grievances, and the crowd reportedly began to thin out somewhat early.
And yet, in Waco—the first rally of Trump’s 2024 campaign—Trump proved he is still capable of doing shocking things that once would have been unthinkable. As the Associated Press reported:
With a hand over his heart, Trump stood at attention when his rally opened with a song called “Justice for All” performed by a choir of people imprisoned for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some footage from the insurrection was shown on big screens displayed at the rally site as the choir sang the national anthem and a recording played of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
In other words: A former president, a man once entrusted with the Constitution’s Article II powers as our chief magistrate and the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world, an elected official who held our survival in his hands with the codes to our nuclear arsenal, considered it an honor to be serenaded by a group of violent insurrectionists who are sitting in jail for offenses against the government and people of the United States.
Trump’s voice was not only featured on this song; he actually volunteered to provide a recording for it. I know that many people, after years of this mad-king routine, simply do not want to process anything with the words Donald Trump in it. I don’t blame you. But let’s not look away: In Waco, Trump embraced a creepy mash-up of the national anthem, “USA” chants, and his own voice, and then proceeded for some 90 minutes to make clear that he is now irrevocably all in with the seditionists, the conspiracy theorists, the “Trump or death” fanatics, the Vladimir Putin fanboys—the whole appalling lot of them.
And yet, a day later, the story of Trump standing at attention for the January 6 choir has begun to fade from coverage. How, you might wonder, is this not still on every news site, every broadcast? To be fair, the AP called it “an extraordinary display.” The New York Times called the playing of the song “a new twist.” Perhaps ironically, one of the most candid reactions came from Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, who called Trump’s use of January 6 footage at the rally “insane.” Many media outlets used a picture of Trump with his hand over his heart, as I have done here. None of that is enough.
A thought experiment might help. Imagine if, say, Barack Obama held a rally and stood at attention as a group of anti-constitutional rioters—perhaps people who had called for attacking police officers and lynching top officials of the United States—used his voice as a motif while singing from prison to honor him. You know exactly what would happen: That one moment would dominate the news cycle until the last star in the galaxy burned out. It would define Obama for the rest of his life. (If you doubt this, remember that Obama was caught on a hot mic telling then–Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility to negotiate after the 2012 election—a completely ordinary if somewhat unwise thing to say—and we had to hear about it for years.)
But we are worn out on Trump. We’ve simply packed all of his behavior into a barrel, labeled it as generic toxic waste, and pushed it to the side, hoping that someone will take it away and bury it far from civilization.
There’s another reason, however, we’re not ringing more alarm bells. Too many people are afraid of “amplifying” Trump, including media members who still insist on treating a violent insurrectionist movement as if it’s a normal political party. I have consistently argued for amplifying every traitorous and unhinged thing Trump says, but others have their doubts: Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, cited the disinformation expert Whitney Phillips to caution me that “sunlight disinfects,” but “it can also make things grow.”
I think this was a more pressing concern in 2016, when Trump was the beneficiary of the so-called “earned media” that can result from outrageous statements and stunts. I still think focusing on Trump and holding him accountable for his statements was the right thing to do, but I agree that too often during the 2016 campaign, he got away with being ridiculous, because he was not taken seriously enough as a threat to democracy.
In 2023, however, Trump is no longer a novelty. The man is a former president and a top candidate for his old job. Merely fact-checking him or tut-tutting about his “extraordinary” behavior would, I agree, “normalize” him, so let’s not do that. Instead, both journalists and ordinary citizens should ensure that everyone knows exactly what Trump is doing and saying, in all of its fetid and vile detail.
Moments like the Waco rally should be all over the news, for three reasons.
First, Trump fatigue is real, but the personality cult around Trump avoids it by cherry-picking what Trump says and does. Putting Trump on blast isn’t going to convert new people; if anything, we learned from Trump’s COVID press conferences as president that he does a lot of damage to himself by talking too much. People in his own party tried to get him to stop doing those bizarre performances, and he finally listened to them.
Second, Trump and his minions, especially elected Republicans, are experts at pretending that things didn’t happen the way we saw them. Ask a GOP official about Trump’s offensive statements, and you’ll likely get “I didn’t see that,” “I don’t read his tweets,” “I’ll have to check into that,” and other squirts of verbal helium. Media and citizens alike should hold those elected representatives and other officeholders to account. Ask them point-blank if they support what Trump said and if they will support him as the nominee of their party.
Third, we need to confront the reality that Trump is now on track to win the nomination yet again. In 2016 and 2020, I thought we were facing the most important elections in modern American history, but that was before Trump incited an insurrection and invited every violent kook in the nation to ride to his defense. Fine, I stand corrected: 2024 is epochally important. Trump has left no doubt that he is a violent authoritarian who intends to reject any election that does not restore him to power, that he will pardon scores of criminals, and that he will never willingly leave office. This should be said every day, in every medium.
If we are to walk ourselves back into an authoritarian nightmare, let’s at least do it without any pretenses.
- An armed woman shot and killed three children and three staff members at a Christian school in Nashville.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary were put on hold after widespread protests across the country.
- Humza Yousaf was named the new leader of the Scottish National Party and will almost certainly be chosen as Scotland’s next leader by the Parliament tomorrow.
- Up for Debate: Conor Friedersdorf’s readers reflect on the dilemmas of urban life.
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Sick All the Time
By Elizabeth Bruenig
Winter is over, and what a wretched one it was. There came a point in the season when everyone in our house was sick. I stood at the top of the stairs one cold morning, gazing down blearily at the pile of mail and magazines that had accumulated by the door, knowing there were dishes dumped in the sink to match and laundry heaped in the hampers as well. I thought of Henry Knighton, a medieval cleric who witnessed the Black Death’s scouring of Europe. I once read his firsthand account of the sheep and cattle that went wandering over fields where the harvest had rotted on the vine, crops and livestock returning to wilderness amid the great diminishing of human life. I now reigned over my own plagued realm, having lost this latest confrontation with nature.
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Read. Hua Hsu’s memoir, Stay True.
“I knew exactly what was going to happen (it’s written on the book jacket) and still felt totally unprepared for the emotional force of it,” our senior editor Amy Weiss-Meyer says.
Watch. The Season 4 premiere of Succession.
The episode, which aired last night on HBO, offered familiar beats but also a hint of a new direction. (And keep reading this newsletter for another reason to watch!)
The final season of HBO’s hit series Succession got underway last night. I am a fan of the show, but I am especially interested in how the saga of the Roy family ends, because I’m in it.
Yes, your humble correspondent landed a (very) small part in the series, as a pundit at the Roy family’s fictional ATN network. The episodes I was in had some pretty intense plot developments, but of course, I cannot share with you what happens, not least because I don’t even know myself. My part is a scripted character, but as is often the case on such a show, there’s a lot of security around the plot, and I don’t know what happened before or after I left the set. It was all great fun, and it was an honor to be able to watch some of the main cast at work. (If you think acting is easy, just spend a few days watching professionals do it.) When the season is winding down, I will write more about this fascinating experience; in the meantime, tune in and join me—well, a character sort of like me—at ATN.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.