My first Donald Trump campaign rally was memorable in all the wrong ways. I can’t recall anything Trump said that night in Pennsylvania during the 2016 race, but I won’t forget a tense exchange with one of his supporters. Minutes after I walked in, a man who looked to be in his 20s spotted the press pass pinned to my jacket: “Are you Jewish?” he asked. I bristled and, for the first time covering a political rally, wondered if I’d make it home safely.
That wasn’t paranoia. Nearly every Trump rally invariably has an undercurrent of menace fed by the candidate. Two years ago in El Paso, Texas, a man in a red MAGA hat “violently pushed and shoved” a BBC cameraperson who was covering the rally from the press section. As a protester was led out of his rally in Las Vegas during the ’16 campaign, Trump told the crowd that the guards were too “gentle” and that he would have liked to “punch him in the face.”
How do these things happen? When the MAGA movement leader employs martial rhetoric to describe even the mundane rituals of American politics—warning that he’s the victim of a “coup,” fearmongering about treasonous rivals and disloyal staff and “fake news”—it’s not all that surprising that his aggrieved base seeks vengeance.
For that reason, shocking though it was to see an insurrectionist mob storm the U.S. Capitol this week, it also seemed as if the Trump train had reached its final destination. Previewing the rally that took place before the assault, Trump tweeted that it would be “wild.”
So much for his campaign theme celebrating “law and order.” A rally can be “wild” or it can be lawful and orderly, but it’s tough to see how it can be both. (On Friday night, Twitter took the extraordinary step of permanently suspending his account.)
Speaking to his supporters at the rally Wednesday morning, Trump said: “We’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and -women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
What did he believe might happen once they reached the seat of government? Congress was inside counting the final votes formalizing Joe Biden’s victory—votes that would uphold what Trump has baselessly told them was a fraudulent election. A more combustible situation would be hard to fathom. He could have instead told them to disperse, because what many of them want is something the U.S. political system can’t possibly deliver. They’re not tethered to democratic norms that call for compromise and conciliation. What they’re asking for can’t be accommodated in a lawful government serving one nation.
Outside the Capitol on Wednesday, I watched as a line of police in riot gear marched single file toward the melee. “Traitors get the rope!” one man shouted at them. Another stood near the west front and screamed: “They stole your election, and now they’re going to kill you! So you better stand up! I’m going to get my reinforcements!” A man shouted epithets at a television cameraperson, who patiently tried to explain that he was a reporter covering a story. “We’re the news!” another shouted at him. A 34-year-old who’d come up from Florida told me he had gotten inside the Capitol and spent an hour there before police escorted him out. “Why did you come?” I asked. I figured he’d say he wanted to somehow block Biden from becoming president and usher in a second term for Trump. The demands went well beyond even that antidemocratic outcome. He wanted to see a “peaceful separation of the country.” (Someone else who might want to see the United States splinter: Vladimir Putin.)
I’d been hearing similar fantasies long before the MAGA army overran Capitol Police and flooded inside. In September, two months before the election, I spoke with Trump supporters at a rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. One man parroted a claim that Trump has been making: that he could lose the election to Biden only if it were rigged.
That’s ludicrous, of course. Biden won the election because he got more votes. But if you accept the president’s heads-I-win, tails-you-lose scenario, you might be prone to the delusion that armed rebellion is the only patriotic remedy. That seems to be where we are today.
“People are not going to stand for it,” the man told me. “People aren’t stocking up on ammunition just to fill up their shelves … Patriots are buying weapons for a reason.”
A battle for the MAGA movement in the post-Trump era is now under way. Two ambitious Republican senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, seem bent on inheriting Trump’s core supporters. Both objected to the vote Wednesday certifying Biden as the winner. That may impress Trump’s base, if no one else. Yet in the end, Trump’s base may prove to be his undoing: His actions at the rally are sparking calls for his immediate removal from office. If the base devours its champion, it won’t spare Trump’s imitators.
Until the assault on the Capitol, Trump was poised to be a Republican kingmaker. Even in exile, he figured to be the party’s marquee draw, dispensing endorsements and campaign money from his home at Mar-a-Lago. Now he’s forever linked to one of the darkest episodes in U.S. history, one with a clear through line from his rhetoric to the hostility it ignites. Trump faces postpresidency with a diminished megaphone, while the party he left in tatters casts about for an identity. He seems to understand the depths of his isolation. Reading from a teleprompter, he gave a statement Thursday calling for “healing and reconciliation,” scripted sentiments at odds with every instinct he’s shown.
“He doesn’t care what you did for him yesterday; he cares what you do for him right now,” Brendan Buck, a former aide to the Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, told me. “That’s something that every Republican who is building a political brand around this one person should keep in mind. He’s completely unreliable. You can’t count on him to be there for you, so why should you be there for him?”