The last week has been a particularly deranged one for our young republic. On January 6th, the day Joe Biden’s victory was supposed to be certified in Congress, a mob incited by Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building. For the millions of Americans following the events live, the news arrived in fragments: Twitter video and fresh rumor and accounts called in from the chaos. Five would die, including an officer trying to defend the grounds. As a culminating spectacle of the Trump years, it was apropos—violent, absurd, and simultaneously deeply damaging and impotent. The vote, delayed some hours, was still certified. Biden will become president. Trump will become an ex-president, not another Putin or Xi or Erdogan or fuhrer or pharaoh. If this is incipient fascism in America, it is spectacle over substance, the bloody yowl of the conspiracy-mongerers, white nationalists, and the brain-poisoned sliver of those with little to occupy their time but fantasies of violence.
Trump was the accelerant, though not the source. Rage, distrust, and paranoia have long been features of the American scene. There has always been a grim comfort to a good conspiracy. Men in dimly-lit rooms determine events and systems and the right sort of thrust—the white knight hero, gallant and truth-aware—can undo them all, saving millions from tyranny. Catastrophe cannot be random. Existence cannot merely be chaos: it must be predetermined, rigged, the dark outcome only produced because the powerful made it that way. Americans of all political persuasions can be attracted to conspiracy. Oswald didn’t act alone. Elvis didn’t really die. September 11th was an inside job.
Of late, these forces have drawn in the disaffected right, the people drowning in social media at all hours of the day and night. Their very worst fears are reflected back upon them, twisted and amplified. Their native suspicion and confusion is broadened to the realm of the epic—they feel they are at war, always, and the battle, no matter how hopeless, must be fought now. It is the narrative-mind, the image-mind, a Manichean struggle of dark and light, fallen and saved. Divine intervention, like a vice president overturning the election results for the Dear Leader, can be possible. Their arc of their moral universe is not long at all, but it does bend toward their inverted justice. They believe Donald J. Trump will not leave them.
Now what? Many on the left believe 1/6 can be a new 9/11, as if cataclysms must always be sized up and relived for the benefit of new generations. The Nazi putsches have been invoked too. Trump will be impeached and there could be Senate Republicans who vote to convict this time. Trump, a sociopathic president, appears to have finally woken the most venal professional Republicans out of their slumber. Days until the end of his presidency, they’ve got religion—or at least understand they’ve got no use for him anymore. Banished by every social media company of consequence, Trump cannot tweet them into submission. It is hard to bet against his long-term hold on the Republican Party, even now, but he is undeniably weaker than he has ever been, unable to cow the right-wing elite. His lunatic fantasy of a stolen election probably cost Mitch McConnell his Senate majority. In these next weeks, as Biden governs with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, it’s all the Kentuckian will think about.
Undoubtedly those who participated in the riot deserve to be punished. So too do the Republicans who enabled it, who rushed to Trump’s defense after each new bit of savagery and now, like children who kept lighting fireworks until they blew a few fingers off, are left to contend with what they helped create. Unlike the last impeachment, this one is easy to understand and cuts far deeper to the heart of Trump’s presidency. Getting barred from seeking federal office again should be the first of many recriminations for a man who has led a life believing accountability is for losers and suckers. Let us savor what is to come.
Still, I am left with some trepidation. I am a young enough, but I remember the 2000s, and my sense is there is a large cohort on the left that either has no memory of that time or chooses to expel it from their minds. Human beings, particularly those entrapped by their hypermodern devices, are loathe to learn new lessons. We can be both creatures of extraordinary insight and short-range thinking, the type fed by impulse and an instinct for survival. The fascists are at the gate, democracy is at peril, and we must act to defeat the hordes who threaten to wreck it all. Many on the left cheered Trump’s banishment from social media and the quick move by Amazon to dump Parler, the right-wing Twitter-like app, from its cloud computing services. Greg Bensinger, a member of the New York Times editorial board, praised the decisions from Facebook and Twitter, calling for “more direct, human moderation of high-profile accounts; more prominent warning labels; software that can delay posts so that they can be reviewed before going out to the masses, especially during moments of high tension; and a far greater willingness to suspend or even completely block dangerous accounts like Mr. Trump’s.”
This was general consensus. The problem wasn’t that the ban had come—it was that it had come so late. Trump, of course, had four years to incite violence and hatred from his Twitter account. Imagine what would have happened if the tech elites in Silicon Valley decided to neuter him back in 2017. Imagine the weakness of that presidency. I do believe, as president of the United States, Trump could have managed to appoint his hard right justices, pass the tax cut for the rich, and gut the Environmental Protection Agency without social media, but he would have lost a crucial channel to his fanbase. It’s understandable Democratic partisans want Trump and his followers blocked on social media by any means necessary; in politics, if you aren’t winning, you’re losing, and politicians and activists don’t have time for this sort of nuance. Trump is obviously losing right now. Republicans are turning on him. For the liberal-left, the resistance that elevated Trump to the dark pantheon of genocidal dictators, January 6th was a culmination, a day of supporting evidence for a popular, if still specious, thesis.
The journalists, academics, and intellectuals who cheer on social media do have some more thinking to do. For many decades, large corporate and journalistic institutions generally controlled the public square. Television stations—ABC, NBC, CBS—and large newspapers governed what was acceptable and what wasn’t, with cranks limited to their paper newsletters, small circulation periodicals, and street corner soapboxes. Of course, radical fringe ideas could reach the mainstream through certain political elites. Joe McCarthy, who believed the American government and Hollywood were one vast communist conspiracy, enjoyed remarkable support for many years, and employed a young Robert F. Kennedy as his counsel. Segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond enjoyed very long political careers. The difference between now and then, though, was how the public square was defined. In those days, the large newspapers, TV, and radio stations could silence certain voices, but smaller alternatives always existed. The New York Times might shut you out, but there was the National Review or the Partisan Review. Thousands of smaller newspapers existed throughout America. Go back to midcentury, and one could find as many as a dozen daily newspapers in New York City. There were many magazines too, national periodicals and locals with cult followings. If the major news institutions collectively chose to lock you out, there was somewhere else to go.
Facebook, which is far more influential than Twitter, has been a home for conspiracy theories, misinformation, and the sort of lies that, abroad at least, can fuel genocide. Facebook also has no competitor. There are no other social media networks with billions of users. There is no “other” Facebook. When a rival network popularized the idea of sharing photos and commenting on them, Facebook just bought it. When a text-messaging service gained traction worldwide, Facebook bought it too. There is no way to compete with Facebook and its subsidiaries, Instagram and WhatsApp. It is like asking a troop of Boy Scouts to compete with the United States military. When journalists and academics invoke the past to describe the decisions made by Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Jack Dorsey, they are reaching for parallels that do not exist. There are no other social networks with the size and reach of Facebook and Twitter. Parler, the conservative alternative, is a fringe echo chamber, and now is banished from using Amazon Web Services. If, in the analog times, a few very powerful newspaper editors could huddle together and decide which ideas were unfit for public consumption, they could only do so much to banish them entirely.
Now, the public square is, quite literally, held in the hands of a few billionaires with no background in news. They have all the power to silence the ideas and voices they do not like. Today, there is cheering because the target of their titanic clout is Trump and his mass of fools. Who’s next? Already, Google and Facebook have been quietly suppressing news on the socialist and hard left. Facebook and Twitter teamed up to slash traffic to a New York Post report on Hunter Biden with dubious sourcing, though it was later revealed the son of the future president was, indeed, under federal investigation. There is nothing illegal about this, no violation of the First Amendment. These are private companies evicting tenants from their turf. The trouble is the turf does not just extend to their property line; it is more like one or three landlords own every apartment on Earth, and they’ve collectively decided to evict you. Before social media, matters of speech were debated in open court, with appellate review. Speakers could argue why their speech should remain protected, courts had to follow precedents, and the rules were largely created by the public, by elected officials or by appointed or elected judges.
None of that is present here. Facebook and Twitter and Google and Amazon do not deliberate in public. The courts have no say. The standards do not reside in case law or precedent. The answer to this state of affairs is to crush tech monopolies through existing anti-trust law and the creation of new, regulated business models, a worthy long-term project that is far more useful for the future of democracy than begging Zuckerberg and Bezos to play hall monitor in perpetuity. They are not fit for any editorial task; they are businessmen out to safeguard their own interests.
What is dispiriting about this moment is how little the left is interested in dismantling the tools of tangible federal authoritarianism. For all his ability to trigger disorder, Trump largely left the death machinery of America intact. The Pentagon budget was increased. Military bases remained opened. Drone strikes were launched, civilians were killed, troops patrolled foreign lands. The permanent war did not cease. And the architecture dreamed up by the right-hands of George W. Bush—the vast surveillance state, the endless war on terror, the abuse of Muslims—remained, surviving two subsequent presidents with very different approaches to governing. Today, few Democrats want to end the war on terror—merely, they want to reappropriate it, to expand it for new ends. Facial recognition technology is a grave threat to civil liberties until it is used to catch the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol. Kafkaesque no fly lists bar law-abiding Americans—with no due process or any feasible opportunity for recourse—from boarding airplanes, but now they can be expanded and even celebrated because Trump supporters will land on them too. After a summer of decrying the militarization of every day life, we can cheer the mass deployment of U.S. troops to a public building.
It’s not that we don’t need troops for January 20th—with Trump’s hordes hungry for an encore, it’s a reasonable enough reaction. But the Biden years, when they arrive and run their course, will clarify for many on the left what a world without Trump looks like. The nation’s numerous ills could be explained away as a consequence of electing an unhinged reality TV star as president. If only the blue wave crested high enough, all would be what it was, whatever it had been, the gauzy beforetime when upper middle class professionals did not feel any particular need to check Twitter every day. In the days after Trump’s defeat, these liberals cried out that they were thankful, at last, to be rid of politics as a daily distraction. With Biden in the White House, there would no longer be any need for outrage. Less exhaustion, less frenetic Facebook arguments, a return to the enclosure of wealth that Trump did not disturb in any form.
A pandemic continues killing. A military, stronger than ever, aims its weapons everywhere at once. Twenty years on, the legacy of 9/11 cannot leave us—not with no fly lists, domestic spying, and the gleeful usage of the word “terror.” Instead of chasing it from our lexicon—it means everything and nothing—it will merely be enlarged instead, to take in even more enemies. This is the future we are walking into. The last question is only whether we understand it at all.