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The Violent Crescendo of the MAGA Conspiracies

Trump’s cultists truly believed the 2020 election would be overturned. With those hopes dashed, the putsch is on.

Joseph Prezioso/Getty Images

“For one day, on January 6th, you, Vice President Pence, will be the most powerful man on earth.… On that day, you and you alone will have the power to set not just America, but all of humanity freeor you will have the power to sentence us all to slavery.”

Thus wrote the anonymous blogger Neon Revolt back in late December. The post, making an oblique reference to the fantastic notion that the vice president was vested with the Constitutional authority to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was swiftly disseminated by far-right news outlet the Gateway Pundit, garnering hundreds of thousands of views on social media.

The bloggerand author of the 484-page book Revolution Q: The Story of QAnon and the 2nd American Revolutionwas laying forth the latest of a slew of conspiracy theories that have unfolded in the simmering, fallow period since Election Day. As the weeks have unfurled, a motley array of far-right insurgents and MAGA stalwarts have seized on theory after theory about how to overturn the November 2020 presidential election. Each one has been hyped as the moment Joe Biden’s slavering horde of radical leftists would slink offstage in humiliated defeat. Yet each milestone has passed without change, giving way to another.

The certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, which President Trump and his legions of allies had hoped Pence would somehow undo, is the latestand possibly the lastof these desperate ploys, each infused with undue certainty, to pass into the long winter of electoral defeat. As legions of far-right Trumpists descended on the U.S. Capitol, successfully breaching the normally tenacious security checkpoints to run riot through the halls of power, those long-stoked fires of conspiracy finally collided with a sharp, cold January shock. What happens to a conspiracy deferred? Tonight, with Capitol Hill in the throes of an attempted putsch, an answer has arrived.

This moment has been months in the making. In the immediate aftermath of the election, a cascade of fatuous allegations of voter fraud were superheated in conservative media, from allegations about perniciously distributed Sharpies to pro-Trump ballots being burned en masse. These gave way to a slew of rejected lawsuits by Trump’s “Elite Strike Force” legal team, most often offered on spurious constitutional grounds that left judges nationwide inclined to dismiss with prejudice and no small measure of aggravation. The most famous of these, engineered by conspiracist and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell was a shambolic, 200-page trove of discredited documents alleging, among other things, a vast plot engineered by the ghost of Hugo Chavez to switch out the results of voting machines in key states. For the most fervent Trump supporters and their perennially inflammable infosphere, Powell’s lawsuit was the key to overturning the election, and they dubbed it, in a catchphrase taken from the 2010 Greek-mythsploitation action film Clash of the Titans, “The Kraken.”

It’s difficult to overstate the mood of insurrectionism, and the apocalyptic tone of the rhetoric that has undergirded each molten paving stone on the path of conspiracy. On militia forums and right-wing websites, QAnon Twitter accounts, and far-right social-media platforms like Parler and Spreely, the far right has cast this moment as an apocalyptic struggle between slavery and freedom, continually reaching back to the rhetoric of the American Revolution. For QAnon acolytes, including Trump attorney Lin Wood, the struggle was metaphysical in nature: between the forces of good and evil, in the forms of a cabal of pedophiliac murderers known as the Lizard Squad, which held the entirety of America’s political elite save the president in its thrall, and those citizens who had “woken up” to the truth of stark evil.

For others, the specter of electoral defeat meant the delegitimization of the democratic order completely, lost in a red mist of treachery. In a militia channel on the walkie-talkie app Zello, which I infiltrated shortly before the election, members freely talked about the incipient revolution, preparing their bug-out bags and gun caches as they stayed glued to Newsmax and OANN’s latest spin about the blows against Donald Trump, whom they viewed as a kind of messiah, the only bulwark against the forces of godless Communism. The password to the protected channel which I obtained was “1775.”

As Amarnath Amarasingam noted in Slate last month, these conspiracies—coupled with Trump’s tendency to golf and channel-surf in the face of all adversity, despite his bilious public statements—may have deferred a wave of post-election violence, at least until this week. The QAnon-influenced habit of seeking out cryptic clues and hidden salvation as the subtext to public events has induced a state of passivity, seething until the next development.

Nonetheless, Sidney Powell’s “Kraken” was released to little fanfare and left to drift in a sea of other inconsequential legal flotsam and jetsam. Recounts in key states found unchanged tallies. In December, Republican plans to field alternate slates of Electoral College electors to confirm Trump to the presidency came to naught. Last week, a hail-mary call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger by a president who has drunk avidly from the conspiracy-theory firehose of which he is both subject and consumer was leaked in The Washington Post. Trump alleged that a voting machine company had taken “the inner parts of the machines and replaced them with other parts” and asked the secretary to “find” enough votes to win the state. Raffensperger could not and did not. Days later, control of the Senate passed from Republican hands in that state’s dual runoff election. At midday on Wednesday, Pence released a statement stating that he would not contest the electoral results, and the last domino fell.

Shortly before Pence opted out of whatever role those who’d drunk deeply from the fountain of conspiracy had imagined he might play, President Donald Trump gave a speech to a massing crowd of thousands gathered to hear him give one last encomium to himself. In his signature peevish, Borscht-belt-inflected brand of fascist insurrectionism, Trump decried the “explosions of bullshit” that had unfolded during the counting of the 2020 vote, urging Pence to thwart the Electoral College vote. “I don’t want to wait until 2024. I want to go back eight weeks,” he said, gesticulating with black-gloved hands. He urged his masses to march to the Capitol and attempt a coup as he departed in a limousine to the White House. And they did.

They stormed the doors, shattering glass. Office buildings near the Capitol were evacuated; the Senate was put on lockdown, as an unduly indulgent Capitol police force were unable to stop those conditioned for a coup from the top from streaming in to the august, hushed halls of legislature. Congress was disputing the results of the Electoral College certification for the third time in 120 years; facetious speeches in favor of nebulous theories of voter fraud were halted, the session adjourned, and senators donned gas masks. The months of waiting had simmered over and the end of the story had arrived. So, there you have it: When a conspiracy is deferred, it explodes.