Throngs of self-styled conservatives and Republicans have now reached the thunderous realization that Donald Trump is not just a harmless clown. Former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged to Chuck Todd that Trump's rhetoric was incendiary, but insisted that this kind of incitement was par for the course in politics, and he was shocked that people took Trump literally.
It seems we have an entire party stocked with Captain Renaults.
While it's good to see some lines being drawn at long last, it may be too late. As with the response to the coronavirus, timing is everything. Republicans had many, many chances to curtail the spread and isolate the superspreader, but they kept saying there was nothing to Trumpism, or it would simply go away, or it was all a hoax perpetrated by the left to install socialism.
I like a conversion as much as the next person, but sorry, there was always a whiff of fascism about Trump. Don't tell us you're just discovering it now. His fascination with strength instead of values, his promises to commit war crimes, his twisted admiration of strong men, his avalanche of lies, his ignorance of and contempt for law, his targeting of minority groups, his stoking of grievance and victimhood. It was all there. Yes, it was interspersed with humor and entertainment. Think that means it can't be dangerous? Have you ever seen a Hugo Chavez or Rodrigo Duterte speech?
Didn't Republicans see him encouraging violence among his followers at rallies in 2016? Don't they remember the thuggish threats his people issued during the 2016 campaign?
In April 2016, Trump and Ted Cruz were still battling for delegates. Trump's recently pardoned consigliere, Roger Stone, alleged (falsely) at the time that he had proof Cruz's victories were all based on "massive voter fraud." Threatening "days of rage" in Cleveland, Stone continued: "We're going to have protests, demonstrations. We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal."
Stone didn't even bother to clothe his threats of physical violence in humor.
Trump was always clear about his attraction to political violence. Speaking of Clinton, he warned that if elected, she could curtail gun rights. "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks." The crowd booed. He then added: "Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don't know."
That became a tick. He would invoke the Second Amendment as a code for encouraging his supporters to resort to violence. "LIBERATE VIRGINIA," he tweeted in 2020, "and save your great 2nd amendment. It's under siege." "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" Trump screamed from his keyboard. Heavily armed protesters showed up at the Michigan Statehouse.
Even after some members of that mob were arrested for plotting to kidnap and possibly assassinate the governor and blow up the capital, Trump continued his incitement against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Appearing at a rally in Michigan, he joked about the attempt on her life.
Let that sink in. The FBI had arrested a group of domestic terrorists who were planning an attack on a sitting governor, and the president of the United States made light of it: "I'm the one, it was our people that helped her out with her problem. I mean, we'll have to see if it's a problem. Right? People are entitled to say maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn't."
Did Mick Mulvaney & Co. miss that? Did they not notice when Trump loyalists cheered on vigilantism? When rioting broke out after the George Floyd killing, Trump lapdog Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted, "Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?"
Perhaps today's "aware" Republicans were otherwise engaged when Trump and his gang made Kyle Rittenhouse a hero, and offered a Republican Convention speaking slot to the gun-brandishing lawyers from St. Louis? What did they make of Trump's tweet, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts"?
Even his famous boast about the loyalty of his followers was revealing. He said he could "shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any followers." As we now see, he might gain some.
Since Republicans said hardly a word, one must conclude that they were not alarmed when Trump phoned the Georgia secretary of state and instructed him to "find" 11,780 votes — in other words to steal the election he was accusing his opponents of stealing. As historian Timothy Snyder put it, "Post truth is pre-fascist."
Republicans who are drawing a line now and saying that they never imagined Trump's personal militias would smash cops' heads with fire extinguishers and defecate in the halls of the Capitol must also answer this question: What else do you expect when you falsely allege a stolen election? Faith in elections is the sine qua non of a functioning democracy. If elections are not free and fair, what alternative is there to violence?
Now Mulvaney and Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell and many others are finding a line they think is too far. Inciting a mob to invade the Capitol in order to stop the certification of the election is the one thing, the only thing, that got their attention. Good for them. But while they and nearly the entire Republican Party and its opinion-shaping satellites were averting their eyes, cooperating and enabling, the Trump virus spread. It's now an epidemic, and there is no vaccine on the horizon.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the "Beg to Differ" podcast. Her most recent book is "Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense." To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Image courtesy of Tyler Merbler