There has been no shortage of writing about last month’s sad raid on the U.S. Capitol Building, some of it excellent. In accordance with the post-9/11 American intellectual tradition, however, most American writers and pundits have struggled to interpret both the event’s causes and its meaning. Never to be outdone in their eagerness to misunderstand, the New York Times op-ed team published an early reaction to the riot by Yale historian and pundit Timothy Snyder:
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.
Much of the initial speculation about the nature of the insurrection feels more premature with each new revelation about the event, but the facile assumptions underpinning Snyder’s argument were immediately apparent.
If the United States is living in a post-truth era, then there was, by implication, a time in America when our politics, culture, economy, and society valued and reflected truth rather than ideology, narrative, superstition, and denial. There is little evidence for that assumption, and mounds of evidence against it. Indeed, it is by no means apparent that a political body can ever act and think in accordance with a worldview that is objectively true. Whether or not people can comprehend truth is a profound and difficult question, and even a thoughtful person who believes that “the fundamental truth about reality” is knowable would have difficulty extracting from that belief a case for the possibility of a democratic state whose collective narratives are objectively true. This is to say nothing of the extent to which facts, examined carelessly or manipulated disingenuously, can obscure our picture of the truth.
It is possible that Snyder is really bemoaning the end of political consensus in America, but a return to the pre-Recession free-market consensus will not un-ring the bell of Trumpism. Even when it existed, the Clinton-Bush era D.C. consensus (i.e., on criminal justice, foreign policy, labor, corporate deregulation, etc.) was not enough to satisfy the Republican party, which was shrill, outraged, and power hungry throughout the Clinton presidency. That conservative appetite for power has surely done more to create Trumpism and the fascist propaganda system that supports it than some decline of “institutions that produce facts” (although the Times’ eagerness to publish inane explanations of complicated events is but one indicator that it may be a fact-producing institution in decline).
Professor Snyder has the order of events reversed. Indifference to verifiable facts does not lead to a desire for authoritarian power any more than rain begets clouds. The right information or facts will not cause Trumpists to abandon their faction and renounce white power. Given access to irrefutable evidence of certain events (namely, that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate), a handful of Trumpists might change their minds about those specific events. For the majority of Trumpists, however, exposure to facts that contradict their misconceptions will not cause them to break with “America’s first white president.”
A more plausible theory of the relationship between Trumpism, ideology, and reality is that many, if not most, Trumpists have not thought very carefully at all about who won the presidential election. Instead, the Trumpists at the Capitol construct their worldview on an ideological foundation that rejects the validity of democracy altogether. Regardless of the vote count, Donald Trump cannot have lost the election because he is the modern guardian of white supremacy, and his downfall cannot be legitimate because he represents the only legitimate ideology. One rioter may have had this narrative in mind when she exclaimed to the press that law enforcement is “supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”
It is a dubious claim that sedition is ever entirely the product of deficient information or pure disregard for the right facts. Sedition, fascism, wars of aggression, and societal collapse are almost always buttressed by factual errors but rarely (if ever) exclusively caused by them. These phenomena have more to do with collective narratives that recharacterize collapse as progress or justice (at least for the proponents and agents of that collapse). Regardless of cause, the agents of societal collapse do not act only because they are simply stupid or because they lack facts. To believe that the ideals of Trumpism stem primarily from a lack of knowledge is to believe that Trumpists can be easily rehabilitated. Both notions are false, and will enable the continued impunity of the neo-Confederate and American fascist movements (insofar as those can even be considered distinct entities).
The neo-Confederate aspirations of the pro-Trump faction cannot be countered with mere facts. To a Trumpist, the Biden presidency is an attack on the neo-Confederate project in America. They believe that their white caste alone is entitled to rule this country. Joe Biden is a white man who, as vice president, agreed to subordinate himself to a Black man. Trumpists simply do not accept the legitimacy of that arrangement. The only true political order is a theocracy of whiteness. Donald Trump cannot lose because democracy does not deserve to exist.