One of the more fantastical rumors circulating in the Pro-Trump crowd as they ransacked the Capitol on January 6 was that Vice President Mike Pence had been cloned. Surely, the real Mike Pence would not be presiding over the certification of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. Mike Pence, the consummate loyalist and Trumpuppet, could not conceivably be in the act of betraying the Boss. The real Mike Pence was not capable of such unpatriotic deceit, was he? That man with the gavel, that white-haired, backstabbing Judas presiding over the joint session of Congress had to be a replicant.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, when the extent of the damage became known, when the pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails had been discovered, when one Capitol Police officer had been beaten to death with a fire extinguisher and others injured, when the rioters learned that they were being vilified throughout the country and around the world—then the rumor started that Antifa was actually responsible for the carnage, a convenient piece of misdirection that several Republican legislators (and President Trump) were happy to endorse. Antifa, that shadowy leftwing boogeyman the Far Right conjures whenever they need to blame anyone but themselves for their own misdeeds.
Another delusion: that members of the mob were the true patriots and anyone who opposed them was the enemy. They wrapped themselves in American flags to convince themselves that they were the True Americans and everyone else was a traitor—or worse, a liberal Democrat.
But red, white, and blue cannot conceal a sincere but deluded heart or a face filled with misplaced rage. It cannot conceal the ignorance behind self-delusion. And it cannot exculpate the mob for its profoundly unAmerican actions. They can wrap themselves in American flags and paint their faces red, white, and blue, but that does not legitimize their attempts to overthrow the government and destroy our democracy. No matter what their grievances, when they take up arms to destroy the rule of law and overthrow the government of the United States of America, they are the traitors, not the duly elected legislators they were attacking nor the police who opposed them.
But it is hard to think rationally when your mind is clogged with delusions, when your brain filters out anything that disconfirms zealously guarded mistruths or the pundits at Fox News who have filled your ears with lies. It is hard to breathe when your lungs are bursting with righteous indignation. It is easier to close your mind to every condemnation of your behavior and believe to the core of your being that you are righting a horrible wrong, that your actions are justified in the name of Trump—the man who egged you on and promised to be with you during your ransacking of the Capitol. “I’ll be with you,” he promised—before retreating to the safety of the Oval Office, where he watched gleefully as his impassioned followers committed what most Americans recognized as a heinous crime.
Of course, the BIG LIE, the most fantastical faux belief, is that Biden and the Democrats stole the election from Donald Trump. Millions of Trump’s diehard supporters have bought into this fiction and poured their hearts and dollars (more than $200 million) into his campaign to “Stop the Steal.” Never mind that more than sixty lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign failed or that the Supreme Court rejected his lawsuits twice. Never mind that Republican judges and the Secretary of State in Georgia rebuffed Trump’s claims of voter fraud, voting machine tampering, and whole cemeteries of dead people voting. There has not been a shred of evidence that widespread voting irregularities tipped the election in Joe Biden’s favor. Yet the fantasy persists among those drowning in delusions that Trump won in a landslide and the election was stolen, delusions promoted foremost by Trump himself, aided and abetted by his children, Rudy Giuliani, and congressional Republicans like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, and Matt Gaetz. No matter how loud they shout “fraud,” or how much handwringing they do, the truth remains that Joe Biden won fair and square.
But the truth could never persuade the rioters who stormed and desecrated the Capitol on January 6, the ones who trashed offices and defecated on the floors. They wore their MAGA hats and waved their flags and screamed, “Death to Pence.” They vandalized our Capitol, attacked the police, and killed Officer Brian Sicknick. As I write this, more than a hundred of them have now been arrested and hundreds more identified and under investigation. Some have been fired from their jobs and others forced to resign. They will suffer the repercussions of this assault for years—and it will all have been based on a BIG LIE. This whole voter fraud nonsense was perpetrated to salvage Donald Trump’s ego because, as he said at a rally, he could not imagine losing to someone like Joe Biden. That is the core of the falsehood that led thousands of Trumpians to disgrace themselves on national television. Donald Trump cannot tolerate being seen as a loser, and he does not want to give up the power he so clearly relishes. So he and his most ardent followers had to manufacture the lie that the election was stolen. That is the salve he applies to his wounded ego.
Voltaire said that the more often a stupidity is repeated, the more it gets the appearance of wisdom. So Trump, ever the expert propagandist, has said over and over that the election was fraudulent, and his base, unwilling to believe that the majority of Americans voted against them, swallowed the BIG LIE, and it enraged them. Voltaire also said that it is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere, and that is the case here.
Of course, the BIG LIE is not the only fantastical belief many of the conspirators espouse. As the Covid-19 pandemic grew, some of them posted online that Dr. Anthony Fauci created the virus. Others argued that the Covid virus was a Jewish plot to force mass vaccinations and sterilizations. Still others claimed that Covid is related to the 5G phone networks, that the pandemic is a cover for a global plot to install 5G mobile phone masts and track the world’s population through vaccines and then destroy human society as we know it. And before I received my first Covid-19 vaccine shot, which I did recently, I was told by an anti-vaxer that the Covid vaccine would alter my DNA. Great, I thought. Maybe I will develop the good singing voice I have always wanted.
The magical thinking that has infected many of our fellow Americans would be comical if it were not so dangerous. Too many of Trump’s base has taken him seriously enough to arm themselves, join underground militias, many based on white supremacy, and organize for a new civil war. Scores of them invaded the Capitol on January 6 wearing tactical gear and carrying weapons and zip-tie restraints. They intended not only to stage a coup d’état and overthrow a legitimate election, but they also meant to kidnap or harm some of our elected leaders. Had they succeeded and enabled Donald Trump to remain in office, they would not have stopped there. Why should they? Why stage another presidential election in 2024 if the outcome, brought about by force, would be a continuation of Trump’s reign? Or a continuation of the Trumpian cult by naming Donald Jr. or Ivanka president? America would no longer be a democracy if an armed mob could impose its will on the country and perpetuate the Trump cult. Elections would be unnecessary.
And if they could do that, what would prevent them from disarming and silencing anyone who opposed them? Imprisoning or executing opponents without due process (Lock her up! Lock her up!)? Forcing nonbelievers into education or forced labor camps? Imposing discriminatory taxes on anyone disloyal? Banning news media that criticized them? Using secret police to ferret out and punish dissent? These methods may seem absurdly extreme in our America, but they have been used by many other oppressive regimes throughout history. Our salvation and strength as a democratic nation is that we have, thus far, adhered to the Constitution and the rule of law. The January 6 insurrectionists failed and Trump is out. Thank God.
But we are not out of danger. The FBI is warning that Far Right extremists are planning further attacks, if not on the national Capitol then on state capitols or institutions. We may see assassinations of politicians or members of law enforcement—not by the Far Left, as Trumpians assert, but by Far Right extremists who consider themselves the True Patriots. I am going to quote Voltaire again, because he was very prescient about times like these. He said that those who can be made to believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities.
Many of the Germans who committed murder during the Holocaust were people who had bought into another big lie. A few of these murderers were psychopaths, but most were ordinary men.
I do not doubt that most of the people in Trump’s base are, at heart, decent people. I know some of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, and they love their country as much as I do, although according to a recent poll, the majority of Republican voters believes—despite all the evidence to the contrary—that Joe Biden did not win the election legitimately. Really?
Do they also believe that the Earth is flat? That the moon landing was staged by NASA in collusion with Hollywood? That the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centers was a CIA plot?
Magical thinking is apparently widespread. Still, the Republican voters I know would be unlikely to ransack Nancy Pelosi’s office, or attack police officers with fire extinguishers, or attempt to kidnap and murder public officials. Those criminal behaviors are left to the lunatic fringe of Trump supporters who are prone to violence and have bought into the delusion of the BIG LIE. Their susceptibility to magical thinking leads them to believe that Anthony Fauci created Covid-19 and Mike Pence has been cloned. Their willing suspension of critical thinking whipped them into a fascist frenzy, fueled by years of Trump’s lies. They have been hoodwinked by the Far Right Republicans who lost sight of their party’s roots as well as their own oaths, and media outlets like Fox News where propaganda in the pursuit of ratings has supplanted honest journalism and truth.
Prejudices are what fools use for reason, Voltaire said. When the fervent desire to believe that your opponents are evil overwhelms your reason, then people start believing, as QAnon does, that Satan-worshipping elites in Hollywood and Washington run child sex rings, that Donald Trump is the Second Coming, and that the Covid vaccine alters your DNA. I can assure them that these fantasies are nonsense, but how many people would admit that a conspiratorial belief they have held dear is untrue, especially when their friends and the people they follow online and the news outlet they watch and the president they revere all claim that these fantastical beliefs constitute the Real Truth and everything else is fake news?
When people are drowning in delusions, they reject the truth because drowning is preferable to altering a comforting worldview. It is easier to believe that anyone who disagrees with you is evil and that dark conspiracies abound. It is easy to be blinded by confirmation bias, rejecting all evidence that your beliefs are false and your violent urges based on lies.
I have heard through the conspiracy networks that Donald Trump will release the truth about UFOs when he leaves office. That is welcome news for those of us who wondered as children about UFOs. We will soon know whether Area 51 really does have dead aliens in cold storage.
I have also heard that there is a secret underground city beneath Denver International Airport and that it will become the seat of government for the New World Order once the United Nations invades us. I understand that if you sit on the escalator in the hub of the B Concourse at 2:23 pm every day except Sunday you can feel the rumbling of the Hogwarts Express as it pulls into the station in the underground city and that if you press your ear to the floor at six pm on the first and third Thursdays of every month you can hear Elvis performing in an amphitheater far below.
You are what you choose to believe.
Photo credits: Armed militia (b&w) (ID 161314793 © Adrienne Wallace | Dreamstime.com); rioters at Capitol (ID 206955127 © Julian Leshay| Dreamstime.com); Stop the Steal (ID 206877851 © Julian Leshay | Dreamstime.com); flags at the Capitol (ID 206877870 © Julian Leshay| Dreamstime.com); Hogwarts Express (ID 99849085 © Anastasia Yakovleva| Dreamstime.com)