Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Assault on US Capitol showed Trump where his market is

If Trump is not impeached and prosecuted for subversion he still has good chance of winning

There’s an American cliché: Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. It emerged from the advertising industry in the Mad Men era. It’s what you do with an idea that’s a bit outlandish but that just might work; test it out in a promising market.

Last week the Confederate flag that is the emblem of white supremacy, and the Trump 2020 flag that symbolises the overthrow of electoral democracy, replaced the Stars and Stripes in the Capitol building in Washington.

Other standards raised by the invaders include those with the big Q for the Q-Anon conspiracist cult, the black Jesus Is My Savior Trump Is My President flag, the Stop the Steal banner, the Three Percenter and Thin Blue Line fascist variants on the Stars and Stripes, the Trump-as-Rambo streamer with the president about to machine-gun his enemies, and a lion emblem inspired by Trump's tweeting in 2016 of a quote from Benito Mussolini.

Run it up the flagpole: racism, fascism, crazed conspiracy theories, idolatrous cults, murderous violence. Who salutes? In a poll taken by YouGov straight after the storming of the Capitol, 45 per cent of Republicans said they supported it. Some 68 per cent of Republicans said the attack was not a threat to democracy.


The very outrageousness of the attempted coup is – like putting babies in cages on the Mexican border – a very useful probing of where the boundaries lie

So if you think about the assault on the Capitol as an exercise in test marketing, the results are actually quite encouraging. Forty five per cent of those who voted for Trump in November is 33 million people. That's a lot of respectful salutes to the imagery and icons of fascism. If you were Don Draper, you'd be thinking: hmm, we can work with this.

It is impossible to understand last week’s events and what they mean for democracy in the US without keeping two things in mind. First, the nature of disaster is not, for Trump, what it is for the rest of us. Second, in test marketing, going too far is not a mere mistake – it’s the way you get a feel for how far you can go.

There is no doubt the mayhem was a tactical blunder for Trump. The great political handicap of his narcissism is that he is incapable of thinking about how other people will feel about things. He was not ready for the effects of the mob on the self-regard of his more outwardly respectable enablers.

So, yes, it was a disaster. But disaster is where Trump lives. Disaster capitalism is his life’s work. This is a man who, 30 years ago, had unpayable debts of $9.2 billion. He described this as “an amazing experience”.

Disaster for Trump is what winners walk away from – only the losers get hurt. It is, indeed, precisely this immunity from the consequences of the havoc you have unleashed that makes you special and superior. Trump will not long feel abashed by this latest catastrophe.

And the very outrageousness of the attempted coup is – like putting babies in cages on the Mexican border – a very useful probing of where the boundaries lie.

The limits that matter for Trump are not those of society in general or of established institutional and legal norms. They are the boundaries of his own base and of the media that create and maintain the cognitive bubble within which it exists.

There is, for the US, an existential struggle for control of the definitions of patriotism and treason

You could see this probing at work on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News last week. Let’s try a really far-out proposition: those vandals and thugs in the Capitol were not actually Trump supporters at all. It was an antifa black propaganda operation.

Could this work? Some of Murdoch's stars ran it up the flagpole: Laura Ingraham, Brit Hume, Tucker Carlson. Unfortunately, it wouldn't fly because the neo-Nazis were too open and identifiable.

Big Lie

But that’s okay. Sound a tactical retreat and move on to another proposition: it was all the fault of the Democrats anyway because who knows how they got all those votes? This does fly: 52 per cent of Republicans say that the person most to blame for the storming of the Capitol is – Joe Biden. That’s the Big Lie packaging that you can sell right now, so flog it for all it’s worth.

This is why it is delusional to think of last week’s events as a point of no return for American fascism. Fiascos are not necessarily terminal. They can be turned into heroic failures – the brave patriots were defeated this time but their sacrifice kept the flame of freedom lit.

This is also why Trump has to be hammered into the ground. There is, for the US, an existential struggle for control of the definitions of patriotism and treason. If Trump is not impeached and prosecuted for subversion, he still has good chance of winning that battle.

Last week’s testing of the market suggests that he has a hard core of tens of millions of followers now fully committed to the destruction of American democracy. They have to be shown that democracy will fight back.

In his incendiary speech before the attack on the Capitol, Trump said “You will never take back our country with weakness”. The man who has never knowingly told the truth, accidentally did it this time. Weakness in the face of fascism is suicidal.