Home/Rod Dreher/The Road Out Of Nowhere

The Road Out Of Nowhere

Cultists pray outside the US Capitol on January 6 (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Some things I thought about today, relating to last week’s attack on the US Capitol.

1. Trump has to be impeached. We need a clean break with him and what he represents. No more excuses. What happened last week at the Capitol, and the president’s role in it, must be firmly repudiated by Congress, even if Trump is out of office by the time the House sends the impeachment to the Senate for trial. It is possible that it might be unconstitutional to try a president who is no longer in office, but we should get a ruling from the Supreme Court on that. There should be no ambiguity going forward about Donald Trump’s conduct leading up to this appalling event, and how intolerable it was, and is, and always will be in this country. And Congress should make it impossible for him ever again to run for president.

2. Along those lines, I owe the Never Trumpers an apology. They were right all along. I was not a pro-Trumper, but I believed — and still believe — that the Republican Party needed to be shaken up badly because of its many failures in the past — the Iraq War most of all — and because of its failure to attend to serious structural problems with the economy, and within our culture. I did not vote for Trump, but I was pleased to see conservative populism rising within the party, and was grateful for the federal judges Trump gave us. The president was frequently embarrassing and foolish, but I figured that if the only choices were Trump, the old-line GOP, or the increasingly extreme Democratic Party, then we could tolerate his boobery. The system was strong enough to contain him, I figured. Besides, he was far too indisciplined and narcissistic to become the dictator that the Left feared.

I was right about a lot of that. The system did, in the end, hold. Trump was too weak and scatterbrained to become any real threat to the status quo. But what I did not recognize until last Wednesday was how crazy Trump and Trumpism had made a lot of people in this country. Bellingcat has a fascinating piece detailing the radicalization of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot by Capitol Police as she vaulted through the smashed glass of a door leading into an anteroom of the House chamber. She went from being an Obama voter to throwing her life away in a quixotic MAGA crusade. How did that happen?

The Wall Street Journal has a profile of a 58-year-old man who was arrested inside the Capitol last week. He became radicalized during the Trump years, such that his own grown children grieve over his fanaticism. From the piece:

He professes a series of beliefs about the powerful manipulating the world in ways visible only to those able to see through the deception. He knows he is one of them.

“There are so many people walking around half asleep,” he says. “They don’t know what’s going on.”

In Mr. Sweet’s world of false conspiracies, financier George Soros is both a Nazi and a Communist who pays leftist activists to burn and loot American cities. QAnon, a conspiracy-theory group that believes Mr. Trump is under assault by devil worshipers, speaks the truth. A Washington pizza parlor serves pies made of children’s blood to Satanists who know to order off-menu. The U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to seize control of the heroin trade. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Pelosi drink children’s blood in a quest for eternal youth.

“I’m not going to go open a court case saying [Ms. Clinton] eats children,” Mr. Sweet says. “But I can believe that she might eat children.”

How in the hell does a 58-year-old man come to believe insane things like that? More:

A friend drove Mr. Sweet back to Virginia, where he returned to splitting wood and pondering the conspiracies around him. He says that on reflection, he’s quite sure that it was antifa, the radical left, who broke into the Capitol and started the violence to make Trump supporters look bad.

Law-enforcement officials have found no indication of such a left-wing provocation, a federal prosecutor said Friday.

Mr. Sweet remains unconvinced. “They weren’t acting like characteristic American patriots in there,” he says.

The cognitive dissonance! This cat was arrested with a mob that broke inside the Capitol, but he has convinced himself that it was really Antifa’s fault! It’s not just him, though. Over the weekend, I got into an argument with a Trump diehard who believes the exact same thing. Said this person, “I just feel like that’s what happened.”

One last thing from the Journal piece:

He says he and Ms. Fitchett walked up stairs on the Mall side of the Capitol, where he found the doors open.

He says he hesitated. He says he felt the need to go inside to share his views with Congress but wanted to consult God first. He prayed aloud: “Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward.

“I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’”

Ah. God didn’t tell him not to go in, so he went in. You will remember my long piece criticizing the Jericho March from December, in which I pointed out how wrong it was for all these Christians to keep saying that God told them this or that. Here’s that passage; “Eric” is Eric Metaxas, the emcee of the event, with whom I’ve been friends since 1998:

Eric told the crowd that a particular man had a vision of the Jericho March a few days ago, and that we would be meeting that man onstage soon. “When God gives you a vision, you don’t need to know anything else,” said Eric, who then asked people to use the price code ERIC when they buy a MyPillow.com product. The company’s founder, Mike Lindell, would soon be speaking too.

That line — “When God gives you a vision, you don’t need to know anything else” — turns out to be the main key to understanding all of this. Over two decades ago, when I was getting to know Eric, we had a friendly argument over something theological, as we walked around Manhattan. When I challenged something Eric said, he replied that God had told him it was the thing to do. “How do you know that?” I asked. Because he did. The argument went nowhere. I remember it so clearly because that was the first time I had ever had a conversation with someone who asserted that something was true not because God said it — all Christians must believe that, or throw out Scripture — but because God had said it to them personally. 

I had been a practicing Christian for only five or six years at that point, and I was a Catholic. I had been intrigued by Catholics claiming to have had visions, but knew very well that the Catholic Church warns its people not to accept anything like that without testing them against authoritative teachings of the Church, at least. I had never spoken to a Christian who believed without questioning it that God spoke to them. When I got home, I mentioned that to my wife, who had been Southern Baptist for most of her life.

“You didn’t grow up in the Evangelical subculture,” she said. “That is totally normal.”

It’s one thing to claim that God told you to change churches, or something like that. It’s another thing to claim, especially if you have a national microphone, that God told you that the election was stolen, and that people need to prepare themselves to fight to the last drop of blood — an actual quote — to keep the libs from taking the presidency away from Trump. Watching the Jericho March, I saw that what I encountered for the first time in conversation with my friend over two decades ago is actually pretty common. Most of the Jericho March speakers, in one way or another, asserted their certainty about the election’s theft. The fact that courts keep throwing these Trump lawsuits out only proves how deep the corruption goes.

See how that works? They are willing to tear down the country for a belief that they cannot prove, but that they will not believe is disprovable.

Next came the MyPillow king, Mike Lindell. He spoke about all the prophetic visions and dreams he had about Donald Trump. Never “I believe I had a vision” — there’s never the slightest doubt with these people. I say that as a Christian who believes God really does speak to people directly at times, that he really does send visions sometimes. But we have to be extremely careful about these claimed private revelations. Back in the 1990s, a Catholic priest I knew told me that his parish was deeply divided over claims of a member that she was having private visions. I remember him telling me how frustrated it was that so many people in his congregation had little interest in ordinary Catholic discipleship. They were suckers for spiritual fireworks, and often looked down on fellow Catholics who were skeptical, thinking them to be lacking in faith.

Anyway, Lindell told the crowd that one day, God arranged for him to meet Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Isn’t God amazing? said Lindell. Here was another theme that was constant throughout the day: that God was directing every little thing. Trump is God’s instrument. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of them that God’s purposes are not man’s purposes. The Old Testament tells us that God allowed his people, Israel, to fall into captivity as punishment for their sins. How do we know that God isn’t allowing something like that to happen now? How can we be certain that Trump is God’s favored?

We can’t. But don’t try telling these folks that.

I began to think that all of this is the right-wing Christian version of Critical Race Theory, and various doctrines held by the woke Left. For example, if you look at the evidence, and you find the claim of endemic white supremacy to be lacking, well, that just goes to show how deep the corruption within you goes. If a woman claims to be a man, then you must believe her, and to fail to do so only shows your bigotry. And so forth. I don’t need to go into detail on that here. I have spent the past few years documenting this destructive insanity, and make it one of the foci of my new book. This ideology has conquered so many institutions in this society, and few on the Left dare to stand against it. All the passion on the Left belongs to the irrational zealots of critical theory, and their minions.

I wish I could add a new chapter about how we conservatives are allowing ourselves to be conquered by the same kind of unreality. We can’t look away from it, or fall back on whataboutism.

I did not appreciate how much pro-Trump radicalism corrupted people’s minds. I thought it was just a fringe. I was wrong. By the way, despite the fact that actual blood has been shed because of Trump’s mania, Eric, who one month ago said, about the Stop The Steal cause, “We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it, tweeted today:

What I did not foresee is that Trump would normalize cult thinking on the Right. Donald Trump did not make people lose their minds. Nobody held a gun to people’s head and force them to espouse crazy things on Trump’s behalf. But a lot of people did go that far. I regret not taking the Never Trump folks more seriously back in the day. I am not saying that the Republican Party should return to the status quo — it couldn’t if it wanted to, but it shouldn’t want to — but I am saying that the things that the Never Trumpers said about not making a deal with this devil were true, or at the very least more truthful than I gave them credit for at the time. And for that, I am sorry.

3. So many people today have no ability to grasp that multiple things can be true simultaneously. It can be true that the Trump side has become extremist in crazy, destructive ways, and also be true that the Left has done the same thing. In fact, it is true. In this space I have documented a lot of what the Left has done, and is doing. None of that suddenly became sane or just because the Trump mob invaded the Capitol any more than the Trump mob’s insurrection is somehow justified or lessened in gravity by what the Left has done and is doing within institutions. Principled conservatives should not stop objecting to these things, should not stop fighting them, should not allow themselves to be intimidated into living by lies.

What we are now seeing, and will continue to see, is the emergence of a Narrative about what happened on Capitol Hill, to suit left-wing goals. NPR was at it this afternoon on All Things Considered, with a story about how students of color see what happened through racialized lenses. A high school student says in the piece:

This is the system upon which America was built — for white people, especially the white man, to be the only one to wield the power of the democratic republic. And once that is upsetted [sic], all hell breaks loose.

Visit the NPR site and you’ll see at least three stories in that vein (as of this writing). I’ve seen this in other mainstream media too: the racialization of the narrative. The pro-Trump crowd was predominantly white, therefore this must have been a white supremacy event (the logic goes). But did you know that before the Trump protests, the (black, female, Democratic) mayor of DC sent formal notification to the Pentagon and the Justice Department saying that the city would not be requesting federal assistance to handle the planned Trump protests. You can read the letter she sent in this story from January 5. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser said she would not be requesting the federal officers because of concerns she had about federal law enforcement’s activities during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in DC. Look:

What happened at the Capitol was clearly a massive security failure; the NYT has a detailed story about how the DC police, the Capitol Police, and other agencies screwed it up. But our media cannot help themselves: they have to make this racial, and further inflame racial tensions in this country. I give it till midweek before we start to see stories about how the Trump insurrection was somehow an attack on LGBT Americans. Anything to fit the Narrative.

Live not by lies, even if the consequences of the lies of the MAGA mob makes that a million times harder to do.

4. And those MAGA mob lies do. The Left wouldn’t have anything to work with, though, had there not been an actual insurrection by a fanatical mob of Trump supporters. Think about where we would be today had Donald Trump conceded the election like a grown-up, and not carried on this hysterical campaign to convince people that the election was stolen, even after his legal team lost hearing after hearing, even in front of Republican-appointed judges. Think where we would be had he not disparaged Georgia Republican officials for not doing his bidding, and had not discouraged Georgia Republican voters from turning out for the Senate race. The prospects for conservatism will be dim for some time because of the shame, the fear, and the loathing that Trump and his mob brought forth. We really did see Republican senators and Republican House members who no doubt knew that the election was not fraudulent, carry on with this charade, encouraging people to believe that somehow the result could be changed. These are facts. No matter how much the Left overreacts in an attempt to punish the Right — and they will! — we on the Right cannot deny that it happened.

I remember in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, Muslim voices amplified by the media denied that the terrorist attacks had anything to do with Islam. “Islam means ‘peace,'” they would say. It wasn’t true. They said it because it was a noble lie intended to short-circuit bigoted attacks on innocent Muslims. Looking back, it was probably the right thing to say in the days immediately following 9/11, but this refusal to be honest about the reason for the attacks of that day stayed with us, especially in the media. I’m reading now a good book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary. I’m learning a lot from it. One thing Ansary, who is a Muslim, writes is that well-meaning liberal Western discourse about Islam (including from liberal Muslims) is misleading at best. For example, he says, the claim that “jihad” is really about inner struggle ignores sacred writings and Islamic history.

I believe that on the Right, we are going to have to struggle against the eagerness to be defensive against bigoted and unjust attacks on us by Leftists seeking advantage. What we cannot do is slip into denial about what happened. There are already plenty of people on the Right eager to live by self-exonerating lies. If this Trump experience has taught us anything, it’s the danger of living by right-wing lies. We can and we must fight the lies that the Left is telling, and will tell, about us in an effort to smear all conservatives, but we can’t lie to ourselves about what happened, and why it happened, and who made it happen.

5. Whether you are on the Left, the Right, or somewhere in the middle, I urge you to remember what it felt like after 9/11. I recall the terror and the rage in the face of those acts. Of course what happened on 9/11 was incomparably worse than what happened last week, but the sense of shock over the assault on the Capitol is like nothing I recall since that time. Back then, it was very easy to give in to those who said that we needed to do this or that thing to punish the evildoers and make the homeland safer. I hardly need to recite from the historical record here.

But I’ll tell you readers what this afternoon I told my son, who was a toddler when all that happened: fight hard to keep your head. There will be angry people — people who have a right to be angry! — who are going to appeal to anger to justify new laws, repressive policies, and identifying people to hate because they are associated, however tangentially, with the Enemy. You will be tempted to think that strong action must be taken now, and that those who stand up to say wait a minute, is this really necessary and right? are weaklings who don’t see the clear and present danger in front of us. Don’t fall for it! It got us into a war last time, and further empowered the national security state. This time, it could draw us close to some sort of civil war, and is already starting to empower Big Tech and corporations as political agents.

Yes, government authorities and many others ought to have taken Islamic radicalism more seriously before 9/11. Yes, government authorities and many others ought to have taken the dangers of right-wing radicalism more seriously before the Capitol insurrection. But the overcorrection can be incredibly destructive of things we ought to be defending. 

It was hard to be antiwar after 9/11. This magazine, The American Conservative, was founded by members of the small and hated minority of antiwar conservatives. It is going to be hard to stand up for free speech for conservatives (or, by the time they get through with us, for anything conservative) now and in the time to come. But it’s important to do so. Not every American of the Right stormed the Capitol. For that matter, only a small number of people at the big Trump rally stormed the Capitol. I think the people who demonstrated for Trump at that rally were wrong. But unless they broke into the Capitol, they were my fellow Americans who were peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to be wrong. If we treat everyone who voted for Trump as if he or she were the same as the thugs who invaded the Capitol, we are only going to radicalize them. And if we seize this opportunity to trample over common sense and civil liberties for the sake of punishing the wicked and making America into one big Safe Space, we are going to do terrible damage to this country — as we did the last time radical violence goaded us into overreacting.

UPDATE: Just saw this on Twitter. So if you are a small business owner who is on the ropes because of Covid, and you happen to be a white man, gosh, sucks to be you under this new administration:

If the GOP can get free of Trump, there will be lots of people still willing to vote Republican, because of racist liberal garbage like this from Biden.

UPDATE.2: I see that some of you commenters accuse me of surrendering to defeat, of not wanting to fight. What does “fighting” look like, General Patton? Invading the White House next time? This moronic idea that to “fight” means to carry out some gesture that looks combative but actually does nothing — or even, as in the case of the MAGA mob raid, sets our side back incalculably — that’s a Trumpist idea, and a stupid one.

Look, the Democrats are about to control the legislative and executive branches. Plus, on the information battlefield, conservatives, who were at a disadvantage before last Wednesday, have now been routed. Of course we have to oppose the things that our opponents are going to throw at us, but we have to have the common sense to realize that the power differential is vast, and that we are going to lose, and lose, and lose again, at least in the near term. We have to prepare for a long term struggle. Any more “winning” like we’ve seen from the president’s term, and like we saw by the conquest of the Capitol by the MAGA mob, and conservatives will be out of power for a hundred years.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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