For a nation that’s awakened every morning for nearly two years to a Groundhog Day of pandemic and paranoia, the scenes from Donald Trump’s latest comeback rally on Saturday at a fairground in the East Texas flatlands of Conroe could certainly numb the American mind with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
The mile-long line of Trump fanatics, braving the January prairie chill to see the twice-impeached ex-president and passing rows of vendors, including the occasional Confederate flag. Then the viral clips of the true believers — the woman in her Trump 2024 hat expounding that the “Joe Biden” currently in the White House is fake and that the real one was assassinated at Gitmo in March 2019, another woman peddling a book containing all of Trump’s tweets before he was banned from Twitter, and the guy peddling doses of the quack COVID-19 cure ivermectin while lashing out at anyone wearing a mask for trying to “save Grandma.”
As darkness fell and the crowd swelled to the thousands, the sound system blared the late Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” the same tune that had electrified Trump’s most diehard followers at the D.C. Ellipse on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021. Over at the zealously pro-Trump One America News Network, or OANN, analysts awaited the 45th president as their antidote to what they called “the divisiveness” of President Biden’s first year, insisting in the words of Liz Harrington that “Trump will unite us.” But more mainstream outlets like CNN were busy obsessing on the possible retirement of football’s Tom Brady, having decided — wisely — after Jan. 6 not to cover Trump’s words live, but to only revisit his rallies if he actually makes any news.
Hey, guys ... Trump made some news! Unfortunately.
In fact, the man who’d occupied the White House little more than one year ago delivered one of the most incendiary and most dangerous speeches in America’s 246-year history. It included an appeal for all-out mayhem in the streets to thwart the U.S. justice system and prevent Trump from going to jail, as the vise tightens from overlapping criminal probes in multiple jurisdictions. And it also featured a stunning campaign promise — that Trump would look to abuse the power of the presidency to pardon those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
It’s impossible for me to understate or downplay the importance of this moment, and I hope that my colleagues in the media — who too often over the last year have craved or even pretended about a return to the politics of “normal,” when we are nowhere near normal — will wake up and see this. Of course, Biden’s presidency deserves our full scrutiny, with praise for what’s gone right (an economic boom) and criticism for what’s gone wrong (broken promises on climate and student debt). But while Biden is seeking to restore democratic norms, a shadow ex-president — unpunished so far for his role in an attempted coup on Jan. 6 — is rebuilding a cult-like movement in the heartland of America, with all the personal grievance and appeals to Brownshirts-style violence that marked the lowest moments of the 20th century. On the 89th anniversary of the date (Jan. 30, 1933) that Adolf Hitler — rehabilitated after his attempted coup — assumed power in Germany, are we repeating the past’s mistakes of complacency and underestimation?
Amid the predictable reiterations of the Big Lie that Biden’s legitimate 2020 election was stolen and his other narcissistic blather, Trump’s lengthy speech in Conroe contained three elements that marked a dangerous escalation of his post-presidential, post-Jan. 6 rhetoric. Let’s digest and analyze each of them:
— For the first time, Trump — if somehow elected again in 2024 and upon returning to the White House in January 2025 — dangled pardons before people convicted of crimes in the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. “If I run and I win, we will treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly,” he told the rally, adding: “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly.” The statement raises as many questions as it answers — for example, was he including many or all of the more than 700 mostly low-level insurrectionists, or sending a message to his higher-up friends like Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows, and others who could be subject to criminal probes?
But two things are clear. The first is that Trump — facing probes over Jan. 6 in Georgia and possibly from the U.S. Justice Department — is committing a form of obstruction of justice in full public view, since the future possibility of a pardon offers an incentive to stay on the ex-president’s good side and not testify against him. The other is that abusing the constitutional power of a presidential pardon — intended by the framers for grace and true clemency — to clear the jails of his political allies is banana republic-type stuff, the ultimate rock bottom made inevitable when Trump was allowed to abuse his pardon powers while in office 2017-2021.
— In a sign that Trump is increasingly worried about the overlapping probes — the remarkable evidence uncovered by the House Jan. 6 committee that will likely be referred to the Justice Department, the Fulton County grand jury investigation into Georgia election tampering, and the unrelated probe into dodgy Trump family finances in New York, he explicitly called for mob action if charges are lodged in any of these jurisdictions. Said Trump: “If these radical, vicious racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had ... in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta, and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt.”
Of course, the last time that Trump used his megaphone to summon a large crowd (“Will be wild!” he famously tweeted) was last Jan. 6, and we all remember how that “protest” turned out. Experts call Trump’s practices here “stochastic terrorism” — broad statements in the media that are meant to stoke spontaneous acts of violence, in this case, to intimidate the prosecutors or even the grand jurors who are weighing charges against Trump. While his Jan. 6 exhortations were the prelude to an attempted coup, Trump’s incendiary remarks in Conroe sound like a call for a new civil war — naming both the locales and the casus belli.
— But let’s take a step back and drill down on arguably the most important and alarming word in Trump’s statement: racist. At first blush, it seems to come out of left field, in the sense of what could be racist about looking into a white man’s role in an attempted coup or his cooked financial books? Except that it happens that three of the key prosecutors investigating Trump — the Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and new Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg — as well as the chair of the House committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, are all Black.
Thus, it’s both alarming and yet utterly predictable that Trump would toss the gasoline of racial allegations onto his flaming pile of grievances, knowing how that will play with the Confederate flag aficionados within the ex-president’s cult. In tying skin color into his call for mobs in Atlanta or New York, Trump is seeking to start a race war — no different, really, from Dylann Roof. Roof used a .45-caliber Glock handgun, while Trump uses a podium and the services of fawning right-wing cable-TV networks. Sadly, the latter method could prove more effective.
What happened in Conroe, Texas, on Saturday night was not politics. A politician seeking to regain the White House might craft a narrative around Biden’s struggles with inflation or with COVID-19 and make a case — no matter how absurd, given Trump’s failings on the pandemic and elsewhere — that he could do better for the voters. But increasingly, Trump is less a politician and more the leader of a politics-adjacent cult. He does not want to make America great again so much as he wants to keep Donald Trump out of prison, and the most narcissistic POTUS of all time is willing to rip the United States in two to make this happen.
Trump’s chief weapons are fear and intimidation. To save American democracy, the people tasked with getting to the bottom of a former president’s high crimes and misdemeanors — on Capitol Hill and in those key courthouses — must be ready for the violence that Trump is inciting, and must summon the courage to finish their job. My fear is that Trump’s speech in Conroe will live in infamy — but the only reason it happened at all is because we have not held Trump to account for attempting to wreck American democracy on Jan. 6 ... not yet. Now, Trump has told us in no uncertain terms how he plans to break the nation this time. We can act forcefully to stop his new insurrection and punish his past crimes — or we can sit back and let the comet of autocracy strike.
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