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Trumpism lives on in Congress and the streets of Washington

Trump's efforts to steal the election extend from the Capitol to far-right's rallies.
Photo collage of the "Proud Boys" protesting, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene wearing a mask that reads, "Trump Won" and a back of a protestor wearing a cape with the QAnon sign.
Trump lost. His supporters aren't going anywhere.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

On Wednesday, a legion of far-right marchers plans to descend on the nation's capital. This isn't their first foray into Washington — in November and December, prior sorties saw white nationalists, Proud Boys, militia members and hard-core Trumpists stab bystanders, burn Black Lives Matter banners and sound ram's horns in support of the increasingly dim hope that Donald Trump will retain the presidency. But Jan. 6 is no incidental date; it's the day Congress counts the Electoral College's votes in the 2020 presidential election — a usually ceremonial endeavor that this year aligns with the overwhelming popular will of U.S. voters, who supported President-elect Joe Biden by a margin of 7 million votes.

2021 already promises more of what 2020 delivered: a shattering of the fragile ceremonies of democracy, exposing the abyssal, violent white power populism roiling below. Wednesday morning will herald a dual defense against any repudiation of Trumpism's corrosion — one in the halls of Congress, the other in the streets, where a chaotic mass of conflicting Trumpist rallies are being planned. The challenge 140 Republican members of the House and 12 GOP senators plan to mount against the results of a legitimate election is bolstering the mood — and the conspiracy-laden cause — of the far-right marchers.

The day's proceedings in the hushed, carpeted halls of the legislature, taking the form of a chorus of "nays," will yield to bear Mace and knives after dark in the open air of the capital after the Trumpist rallies officially end. The parallel events represent a fundamental shift in the order of operations of the U.S. political sphere. And no matter how much a scandal-fatigued populace might wish to pretend otherwise, the era of Trumpism will not end on Jan. 20.

2021 already promises more of what 2020 delivered: a shattering of the fragile ceremonies of democracy, exposing the abyssal, violent white power populism roiling below.

The "how did we get here" element of the Jan. 6 march and its congressional parallel is long and winding, filled with perfervid conspiracy theories, stochastic incitement to violence and a creeping undermining of the democratic process. Trump's phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over the weekend, in which the president explicitly instructed Raffensperger to doctor vote totals to overturn the presidential election result in the state, is just the latest manifestation of an open war against a presidential transition that most elite pundits view, in blasé fashion, as inevitable.

That war has taken place in the courts — in a sea of spurious lawsuits, including many that baffled and aggrieved even Trump-appointed judges — and in the streets, as state capitals around the country have faced ragged, maskless crowds chanting to "Stop the Steal." It's also been accompanied by an efflorescence of online misinformation and conspiracy that has capitalized on the insular infosphere that right-wing media has created, rife with rumors of sedition and treason, which continues to feed the flames of the dying Trumpist enterprise — or perhaps to create, out of falsehood and dark intimations, an incipient Lost Cause to rally around for years to come.

There's little rhyme or reason to the vast majority of the conspiracies spawned since Election Day. They've claimed that dead people have voted in great numbers, as in a nightmarish Gogol play. That dead people voted twice or three times. That living people did the same. Thousands of Americans are now convinced that voting machines and software created by the companies Dominion and Smartmatic were hijacked by Venezuelans, led by the ghost of Hugo Chávez, to change vote totals in favor of Joe Biden. (Newsmax and OANN, two rabidly pro-Trump, right-of-Fox News television channels, were forced to issue corrections under threat of an unusually robust defamation lawsuit after they aired countless conspiracy theories about the two companies.)

The apotheosis of this conspiracy-frenzy is perhaps best embodied in Trump's lawyer L. Lin Wood, an erstwhile member of the "Elite Strike Force" legal team that thrust scads of lawsuits in the wake of the election. Over the past week, Wood — who has long been a public sympathizer with the QAnon movement —– has moved into full-throated embrace of the theory's wildest tenets. In a string of astonishing tweets, Wood posited that the actor Isaac Kappy, a QAnon acolyte who died by suicide in 2019, had held the key to a global conspiracy in which prominent figures, including Chief Justice John Roberts, were being blackmailed in a scheme involving child rape and murder, coordinated by a worldwide intelligence service cabal known as the Lizard Squad. Earlier that week, Wood — who has met with the president repeatedly — tweeted that Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should be executed for treason for not overturning the election results.

While Wood hasn't signaled his plans to attend Wednesday's march, the apocalyptic tone of his tweets — with their naked desire for vengeance against a Republican establishment that has not wholeheartedly sought a coup d'etat — has percolated outward, toward a broader public, some of whom are assuredly planning to take up spots on the National Mall this week. Trump himself has branded those members of the GOP not joining the effort to overturn the Electoral College results as the "Surrender Caucus" — setting a new standard by which acknowledging electoral loss and allowing for the peaceful transfer of power are viewed as intolerable weakness by an increasingly rabid base.

This situation is one fed by apocalyptic rhetoric that strings the zealous from one conspiracy theory to another until the whole sulfur-and-saltpeter scenario threatens to explode.

White nationalists like Nicholas Fuentes, a prominent presence at the last "Stop the Steal" march in Washington, plan to attend Wednesday's march, flanked by members of "militias" from around the country. On encrypted chat apps and online fora, potential marchers have traded tips about how to smuggle guns into the capital, flouting strict gun-control laws. (Mayor Muriel Bowser has activated the D.C. National Guard to help quell any incitement.) The Proud Boys, an armed, far-right gang known for inflicting violence against political opponents across the country, have made bellicose statements about annihilating any opposition they encounter on the streets of the city. In December, absent mass opposition in the streets, they turned on Black churches, pulling down and burning Black Lives Matter banners in what one pastor said was "reminiscent of cross burnings," prompting a lawsuit from Metropolitan AME Church and civil rights lawyers and then the arrest of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio on Monday.

This situation is one fed by apocalyptic rhetoric that strings the zealous from one conspiracy theory to another until the whole sulfur-and-saltpeter scenario threatens to explode. For those who caution lying low until Thursday, or who hope against all logic that a fever this high and destructive will simply break on its own and cool to temperate moderation, a rude awakening is in store in the aftermath of a plague-time inauguration. A street-fighting far-right movement, its ranks swelled to bursting by the outright encouragement of elements of the political establishment and the tacit capitulation of others, is unlikely to simply dissipate with a change of administration.

Still less likely to vanish is the conspiratorial information sphere that continues to feed the rage of the movement. Without forceful opposition in the form of a legal repudiation of the previous administration, without being outnumbered in the streets, sued in the courts and hounded into pariahdom, the far right will continue its Trump-era metastasis, with the aid of a new, potent Lost Cause narrative that, like its forebears in the U.S. South and interwar Germany, has the potential to inspire violence for generations.