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Voting as an Act of Faith and Civic Ritual/How Trump's emotional retraining of Americans prepared Jan. 6 and our current climate
Today I took a break from writing and went to vote. My work on authoritarianism focuses on places where the right to vote has been taken away, where people who try and get it back die or go to prison.
In America, we are on the other end of things. We have the right to vote but we risk descending into the 21st century version of dictatorship: Electoral autocracy, where elections are held but they are not free or fair. The scope and scale of current Republican attempts to subvert the US election system is sobering, and it made me very conscious of the privilege of filling out that ballot.
How fitting that my early voting place was the basement of a church. Voting is a civic ritual as well as the foundation of democracy --a democracy that began only with the advent of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts that allowed Black people to vote.
Voting is also an act of faith. In the past many of us have trusted the election system to "work," or never really thought much about what happens after we cast our ballots. That's no longer the case, given widespread practices of election subversion and the threats to election workers, who I identified in a July 2021 Washington Post op-ed as a future targeted category.
Whether you vote early or on Nov. 8, be sure to cast your ballot, and reach out to those you know who might not show up and remind them how lucky they are to have the right to express themselves at the ballot box.
With the attack on Paul Pelosi, meant for the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, on my mind, and the elevated threat of political violence around the midterms and beyond, I wanted to make this Lucid essay an act of memory politics—and a followup to the warning I issued in The Atlantic one day after Trump’s inauguration. “Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable,” I wrote.
In that spirit, let us remember that Donald Trump, dismissed by so many as a blustering clown, instead embarked from the start of his 2016 campaign on a disciplined and intensive effort to get Americans to see violence differently — as a civic duty and a righteous course of action when the nation is threatened. This re-education helped to make Jan. 6 and today’s climate of hostility possible.
Trump capitalized on the strength of existing racist feelings in America to focus hatred on non-whites, and the new wave of extremism continues and expands the long history of popular and institutionalized violence against indigenous peoples, Blacks, and immigrants.
Yet Trump also embarked on a more general emotional retraining of Americans, using his rallies to present violence against protesters, political opponents, and journalists of any race as justified.
At numerous rallies in early 2016, Trump endorsed physical violence as a method of dealing with protesters. “Here's a guy throwing punches, nasty as hell, screaming at everything else when we're talking…I'd like to punch him in the face,” Trump said of a protester at a rally in Las Vegas in Feb. 2016. “We're not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do guys like that in a place like this? They would be carried out in a stretcher, folks. True.”
In New Hampshire the next month, he repeated the message, praising one of his followers who beat up a protester. He “took him out…It was really amazing to watch.”
Trump also encouraged violence by offering to pay his supporters’ legal fees in case they were sued for their aggressive acts. "So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously," Trump said at a Feb. 2016 rally in Cedar Rapids, IA. “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise. They won't be so much because the courts agree with us, too."
Add to this the normalization of extremist rhetoric against his opponent Hillary Clinton, which widened the horizon of possibility for future acts of physical violence. GOP representative Al Baldasaro (R-NH), and others called for Clinton to be executed by firing squad and Trump suggested that "Second Amendment People" could act against her. The tacit or open approval of violence against Pelosi, another Democratic female, continues this tradition.
Six years of this emotional retraining, combined with fanatical loyalty to him produced by his personality cult, likely made it easier for Republicans --members of a law-and-order party-- to smash the heads of members of law enforcement, as happened on Jan. 6, and to erect a noose meant for the Republican Vice President Mike Pence, who disobeyed Trump’s instructions to refuse to certify the results of the 2020 election.
"Part of the problem...is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore," Trump said at a March 2016 rally when security treated protesters too politely for his tastes. Trump and associates versed in psychological warfare tactics (Roger Stone and Steve Bannon among them) drew on this education to violence to incite taboo-breaking acts against lawmakers of both parties.
Trump's emotional retraining of his followers also lives on in Republicans who now see their neighbors and compatriots who vote Democrat as political enemies. The GOP’s statement that the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol constitutes "legitimate political discourse," and the wave of threats against politicians and election officials, suggest that Republicans have now accepted violence as a means of exercising power.
The aim of the savvy strongman is to get the nation to “accept his coming crackdowns and extralegal actions––and remember them as necessary and justified,” I wrote in Jan. 2017. Your vote tells the world that you remember that democracy matters, freedom matters, respect for others matters. Cast it with all the solemnity and sanctity that it deserves.
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