Barbarians at the Capitol Fence

Capitol Building behind a fence

When retiring Army General Mark Milley referred to Donald Trump as a “Wannabe dictator” in response to the former president suggesting he might deserve execution for treason, The Wall Street Journal called it a “sad reminder that Mr. Trump often provokes others into breaking their own institutional norms.” Yeah, it’s sad alright!

Trump and his MAGA supporters are the barbarians attacking the castle gate, or rather, the insurgents attacking the Capitol fence, the barrier that protects the symbol and core of American democracy.  One might assume those inside the castle have the advantage, but that’s not necessarily the case.  The barbarians—whether defined by storming the U.S. Capitol or threatening their political opponents and government officials with violence—don’t have to worry about what they destroy, whether it be democracy, the rule of law, or the government itself.  Their primary objective has always been to attack and destroy the status quo, something conveniently branded as “draining the swamp.”

That’s not to say that much of the status quo isn’t long overdue for an overhaul (a little more social and economic equality would be nice!), but if you’re going to tear down everything in sight, you’d better have something to replace it with or you’re left with nothing, except maybe chaos and the end of America as we know it.  Since MAGAs don’t want government, don’t understand what it does, why it’s needed, or how it helped build modern America (programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that many of them rely on to survive), it’s not surprising that their representatives in Congress have neither the desire nor the ability to govern.  Why would they care about shutting down the government if their objective is to destroy it?

There is finally some consensus that Trump can’t be treated like a traditional politician, that we mustn’t pretend the MAGA movement is politics as usual.  As Trump correctly observed during his 2016 campaign, he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose any supporters.  As baffling as that seemed at the time, it turns out that the more people he shoots, or threatens to shoot, the more passionately devoted his supporters become.  Sadly, it’s clear that a significant segment of the American population has become so alienated from the mainstream that they just want to burn it all down and shoot everyone in sight.

How do You Shoot Someone in the Middle of 5th Avenue While Simultaneously Upholding the Rule of Law?

Trump’s 91 criminal indictments, not to mention his civil trial in N.Y., which finally revealed that his business empire was a fraud, demonstrate he respects neither American democracy nor the rule of law.  But in order to destroy Trump, the castle/Capitol defenders (back in the 1960s they were called “the establishment”) have to follow the law and use the court system, a slow and arduous process. This gets to the double standard that protects Trump.  Not only do the defenders have to respect the rule of law and preserve their own institutional norms, but as demonstrated by the events of January 6, they have to keep the country running at the same time they do battle with the insurgents. 

By necessity, President Biden’s recent speech attacking MAGAs conformed to the language and decorum considered appropriate for an American president; he stopped short of “breaking his own institutional norms” (he didn’t even mention Trump by name).  As a result, he was constrained from telling the outright truth—that the supreme MAGA leader is a fraud, a conman, a criminal, a hateful racist, and the worst sort of raping misogynist—in short, a veritable modern American monster pandering to the worst devils of his followers’ nature.  

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