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Jan. 6 was supposed to be the end of Trumpism. But what if it was just the beginning?

President Donald Trump arrives at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump arrives at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Like most Americans, I failed to grasp the significance of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building in real-time. I assumed it was a Trump-inspired tantrum, staged by QAnon loonies and cosplay white supremacists to ward off a humiliating truth: their dear leader had lost.

The rioters’ savagery — beating police officers with flagpoles, chanting “hang Mike Pence,” etc. — appeared to have broken the fever of Trumpism, compelling even his most shameless sycophants to turn on him. There was even talk of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

But a year later, the death throes of Trumpism look more like the birth pangs of something much darker: a political party that has regressed into an organized mob bent on the institutional evisceration of democracy.

Before we get to that part of the nightmare, some basic context.

The election of 2020 was essentially a moratorium on Donald Trump. Some 81 million Americans cast ballots to turn him out of office, electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by a margin of seven million votes.

Like most of you, I hoped the 2020 election would spell an end to the exhausting psychodrama of Trumpism. Instead, his pathologies have gone viral.

Rather than accept defeat, Trump constructed an alternate world in which he had lost because of massive voter fraud.

But there was no massive voter fraud. The federal agency in charge of election security deemed the 2020 race the most secure in American history, as did state election officials. Trump pressured his slavish Attorney General, William Barr, to cast doubt on the election. He implored Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him enough votes to undo his loss. Both men refused. Trump’s campaign filed 62 lawsuits, all but one of which were dismissed, usually for lack of evidence and often by judges Trump himself appointed.

At this point, Trump’s thinking became more like a deranged dictator than an American President. With the help of a dubious lawyer named John Eastman, he hatched a plan to cling to power by having his vice president refuse to certify the electoral votes in the states he’d lost. Pence wouldn’t go along.

Thus, Trump went to the dictator playbook: a coordinated attack on Congress on January 6, the day electoral votes were certified. Trump directed his fanatical supporters to march on the capitol and convince Pence and congressional Republicans to carry out his plan.

“We're going to have to fight much harder,” he explained. “When you catch somebody in a fraud, you're allowed to go by very different rules… We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.”

Trump even floated the possibility that he would join the mob. Instead, he spent the afternoon engaged in the activity that had marked his presidency: watching in delight as the chaos he sowed unfolded on basic cable. He ignored frantic requests from aides and allies to call off the mob, and delivered a half-hearted appeal only after it became clear the public was horrified by what he’d wrought.

In the weeks after the insurrection, it seemed inevitable that the Republican Party would repudiate Trump, if not out of conscience than necessity. He had lost, as an incumbent, and his lowly approval ratings had cost the GOP control of the Senate — even before he orchestrated a coup. His base, aggrieved white people, was a shrinking demographic.

But the GOP, and the right-wing demagogues that had spent five years dishing up pro-Trump propaganda, had nowhere else to go. Thanks to its own tireless gerrymandering, the GOP had taken a hard-right turn. It was now led by gun-toting extremists such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. The business-friendly, small government Republicans of old, represented by folks like Mitt Romney, were essentially irrelevant.

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Crowds arrive for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Crowds arrive for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Thus, the party establishment and its media enablers (whose personal texts to the president expressed abject panic as the attack was unfolding), doubled down on Trumpism, spewing misinformation and further radicalizing the rank and file. As a result, more than two-thirds of Republicans — and 82 percent of Fox News viewers — now believe Trump’s Big Lie.

The GOP no longer functions in any traditional political sense. There is no platform, no policy agenda. Its sole purpose is to seize power by subverting our free and fair elections, which is to say: democracy.

The anarchic spectacle of January 6 has evolved into a sinister and largely invisible institutional campaign. Republican state legislatures have passed dozens of bills aimed at making it harder to vote, especially for people of color and the poor.

Republicans also have sought to purge election officials at the state, county, and local level, and to replace them with Trump loyalists. In the battleground state of Michigan, Republicans are stacking obscure local boards with fanatics who will wield the power to block the approval of future elections.

It’s not hard to see where all this is headed: toward a future in which Republicans simply refuse to concede any election they lose, and instead find ways to sabotage the will of the voters by any means necessary.

Writing half a century ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter described, with chilling precision, the mindset that animates Trump, and that has overtaken the Party of Lincoln and driven its measured sedition:

“The paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

Citizens of good faith, this is what you’re up against: a deranged and militant minority party that can no longer win by the traditional rules of democracy.

Unless we mobilize and turn out in overwhelming numbers, the 2020 election may be the last free and fair election of our lifetimes.

Like most of you, I hoped the 2020 election would spell an end to the exhausting psychodrama of Trumpism. Instead, his pathologies have gone viral.

Our best bet, at the moment, is to lobby lawmakers to pass some version of the For the People Act, while Democrats still hold majorities in both houses of Congress. The bill would act as a bulwark against many of the tactics Republicans are using to attack democracy, by protecting voting rights and election security.

But if Democrats fail to act, it will be up to us, the voters. Unless we mobilize and turn out in overwhelming numbers, the 2020 election may be the last free and fair election of our lifetimes.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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