“Jan. 6, 2021, is not over, but it already lives in infamy. A sitting president of the United States, having lost re-election, incited a mob to storm the Capitol as the Congress sat in joint session to certify the Electoral College vote. This act was without precedent. It was based on a lie, fed by myth, and culminated in violence, in vandalism, and in the desecration of the people’s house. The lawbreakers cannot go unpunished. Nor can the person ultimately responsible. His name is Donald Trump.”
Thus in the pages of National Review wrote Bill Kristol’s son-in-law, Matthew Continetti, who wasted no time after the occupation of the Capitol to call for a second impeachment of the president. According to Continetti, Trump deserves to be even further shamed because he “incited a mob to storm the Capitol.”
Unfortunately for Continetti, who repeated this charge on Fox News as an “All-Star” panelist, there is no evidence the president did what Continetti attributes to him. Trump’s advice to the crowd that he addressed on the mall on Jan. 6 “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” hardly sounds like incitement to riot. Moreover, the assault on the Capitol was carried out by groups that seem to have planned this break-in long in advance. Indeed, they began their task well before Trump finished addressing his fans at the Ellipse.
I’m also not sure this “desecration” was without precedent. In 1967, Black Panthers broke into the Senate to stage a demonstration, and more recently, during the hearing for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, screaming maenads organized by the Democratic Party invaded the Senate and harassed Republican Senators. These acts were not considered desecrations but were treated lightly by the media, which obviously sympathized with these earlier desecrators. Unless I’m mistaken, those now sitting in judgment over Trump, for example, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, not only incited mobs in the Black Lives Matter riots last summer, but also encouraged attacks on Trump and his staff. And then there’s the bizarrely hypocritical behavior of another California congressman, Eric Swalwell, who lately has been comparing Trump to the terrorist Osama bin Laden. This is the same fellow who now heads the House Intelligence Committee after spending years sleeping with a Chinese Communist spy and taking Chicom money to run congressional campaigns.
If Trump haters, including the mainstream media, never let up, Trump’s worshippers can be just as persistent but perhaps more amusing. Chronicles Executive Editor Edward Welsch recently wrote a blog piece that went viral online about British conspiracy theorist Simon Parkes, who predicted that on Inauguration Day Trump supporters both inside and outside the government would sweep to victory after subduing America’s corrupt ruling class. Among the alleged vices of this political elite is a massive underground trade in pornography and underage sexual slaves, which was supposed to end after the mysterious Q behind the QAnon conspiracy theory helped The Donald consolidate his power. The extravagant claims of Parkes’ online videos and website attracted millions of visitors.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that many of these visitors yearned for a happy ending to a political and existential trial. Similar stories have come from elsewhere in the alternative media food chain, popularizing the QAnon theories predicting that their hero is about to triumph over cannibalistic pedophiles in government.
Trump-haters and Trump-worshippers both inhabit a “Second Reality,” a concept introduced by the Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer in his sprawling novel Die Dämonen and later used to describe the beliefs of political ideologues by the philosopher of history Eric Voegelin.
The Second Reality is a world of illusion in which the participants try to make facts conform to what they would like to believe is true. They also take action to bring reality into line with their fantasy. In one extreme form, this second reality expresses itself in the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, who has extravagantly compared Trump to the tyrant who killed millions of European Jews. Even more insanely, Lipstadt has approved of comparisons between those who bring up irregularities in the recent presidential election and those who deny Hitler’s murders. The present political confrontation for Lipstadt and for others who share her views is a reenactment of the struggle against Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
For those on the opposite side, the story is rather different. For them Trump is a hero sans pareil, battling the combined forces of evil. Allow me to admit this second exaggeration seems much less obnoxious and certainly less destructive than the first. People like Lipstadt have outrageously trivialized the sufferings of European Jewry by associating it with whatever the Left is opposing at a given moment.
Although certainly not as distasteful as Lipstadt’s fantasies, those who imagined we were witnessing at this stage of Trump’s career something out of The Lord of the Rings were also fooling themselves. There will be no miraculous end to their struggle in the next few days or months; no orange-haired Gandalf will ride to their rescue against the modern equivalents of Tolkien’s orcs. Trump loyalists are stuck in what James Burnham called a “protracted conflict,” but not with an enemy that is as uncomplicated and external as the Soviet Union. The fear aroused by Communist subversion in the 1950s applies far more to the present than it did to what existed back then. Our present enemy is primarily moral and cultural, even if it is also political; and it needs to be fought on multiple levels.
Inauguration day came and went, with the Capitol protected by tens of thousands of soldiers against what we were told was the specter of a discontented Right. The Left does not constitute a similar danger to the establishment, which has merged politically, economically and for the most part culturally with these onetime radicals. The question then is what kind of resistance is still possible. Whatever that may be, it should not be confused with descending into a Second Realty.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.