Though events are still unfolding, this much we know: earlier today, an angry mob animated by Donald Trump’s spurious claims about election fraud violently stormed and occupied parts of the US Capitol Building, breaking up a session of Congress just as it was set to certify the results of November’s presidential vote. At time of writing, two possible explosive devices had been identified (and disarmed), and at least one person is reportedly dead from a gunshot wound.
The immediate inspiration for these events is, of course, Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and his sustained effort to brand November’s election as stolen. But what happened today was not the result of Trump’s words and actions alone. For the past several weeks, a section of Republican elites has proven all too happy to indulge and inflame the conspiracy theories being fed to their base — with plenty of GOP House members and no less than a dozen Republican senators saying they planned to vote against certification of the Electoral College.
The chorus has included high-profile members like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — who, fresh from issuing a completely erroneous complaint about protestors threatening his family, could be seen waving to Trump supporters just before they stormed the Capitol building.
It’s obvious enough to anyone paying attention that neither Cruz nor Hawley has ever seriously believed they’ll succeed in overturning the election results and are instead pandering in the hope of improving their own political fortunes down the road. Opportunism or not, the result is that Trump’s claims of election fraud have been given added legitimacy within a broader right-wing ecosystem that thrives on incitement and misinformation.
Establishment figures like Mitch McConnell, who issued an eleventh-hour condemnation of election fraud conspiracy theories, also deserve plenty of blame for having worked so dutifully alongside the president as long as it remained convenient.
The immediate catalysts for today’s events notwithstanding, something like them has been decades in the making, and the entirety of the conservative apparatus has helped to bring them about. The Trump phenomenon, despite what some commentators have tried to insist, didn’t emerge from a vacuum or as something apart from the structures of mainstream conservatism.
Long before the former reality TV star ever ran for president, conservative elites and their plutocratic paymasters had built a vast and terrifying apparatus powered by fear, lies, and racial resentment — its core message being that a coalition of miscreants and undesirables is poised to destroy the American way of life at any moment. From Sarah Palin’s elevation as the Republican vice presidential nominee to birther conspiracies given airtime on Fox News, the supposedly respectable mainstream of the GOP has been all too willing to milk that project and its sinister message for its own political advantage.
The extent to which this dalliance has been one of convenience, shared belief, or some combination of the two is beside the point. Plenty of conservatives who immediately condemned Trump’s efforts to overturn the election — not to mention plenty more who campaigned against him four years ago to general applause from liberal audiences — have proven they’re fine with hard-right demagogy as long as it employs the appropriate code words and keeps its loudest prejudices at an appropriately low decibel.
As the cliché goes, Trump started saying the quiet part out loud. The message may have metastasized in his hands, but its fundamentals were in place long before he bulldozed a series of establishment automatons en route to the GOP presidential nomination.
Today’s events have an obvious and immediate cause. But they have also been decades in the making — and make no mistake, they are the Republican elite’s disgrace to wear.