I will be honest and say that I don’t know exactly how to interpret the surreal events that unfolded this past week in Washington, D.C., when a mob inflamed by online memes and presidential fantasies rampaged through the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
Throughout the Donald Trump era there has been a debate among his critics about whether to regard this presidency as a mortal threat to the Republic or a degrading interlude in its decline, a revival of 1930s fascism or 1870s white supremacy or as something more purely virtual, performative and astonishingly weak.
The riot at the capital occupies a liminal, unstable space between these two interpretations. Cock your head one way and it looks like the fulfillment of every Resistance warning: The head of the executive branch incites a mob to take over the seat of the legislative branch and prevent power from being passed to his successor. Cock your head another and it looks like the culmination of the Trump Show: A politically impotent, conspiracy-addled president whips up a rabble of costumed selfie-snappers and then goes home to the White House with no plan except to watch them get rowdy on TV.
All I will say for certain, cocking my own head back and forth, is that when I predicted three months ago that there would be no Trump coup, I should have showed more imagination.
This was not a coup by any traditional definition of the term (as authors of books on coups quickly took to Twitter to explain), nor was it the kind of Bill Barr-abetted, Supreme Court-stamped use of constitutional trickery that liberals feared. But it was still something more than just a riot. And not merely because of where and with what encouragement it happened, but because it extended from an immersive narrative that made many of its participants fervently believe that they were actors in a world-historical drama, saviors or re-founders of the American Republic.
Since some of them, along with a Capitol Police officer, died because of this belief — and if the worst of them had encountered Vice President Mike Pence, even he might have conceivably died for this belief — we can describe this definitively as a moment when the virtual dreamscape, the online backdrop to our sclerotic real-world politics, tore down the curtain and capered in Viking furs in the world outside our screens.
But more than that, we can say that Trump, like a fool dabbling with occult forces, was the one who let the veil be torn. For over three years QAnon and its attendant conspiracies made use of his presidency for their narratives, their vast exercise in creating secondary worlds. If, following his electoral defeat, he had just whined about fraud and prepared to run for president again, they probably would have continued the world-building, spinning his exile as the latest phase in “the plan,” with a pre-orchestrated second act forthcoming in 2024.
But he wanted more, he wanted a way to actually stay in office, and since no Republican with real power would actually do a coup for him, he turned fully to the fantasy world — which gladly supplied him with storylines, narratives, first the Kraken and then the fixation on Pence as a deus ex machina.
And because Trump is, however incompetently, actually the president and not just a character in an online role-playing game, by turning to the dream world he made himself a conduit for the dream to enter into reality, making the dreamers believe in the plausibility of direct action, giving us the riot and its dead.
Meanwhile, the politicians who went along with him partway — Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Kevin McCarthy above all — were like cynical characters in a horror movie who thought they could siphon a little power from an occult dimension, never imagining that the veil would actually be torn.
And now? Having touched the real world and seen its brief occupation of the Capitol shrivel, I suspect the dreamscape will require time to regain the faith of its less radical adherents, to reshape its narratives to encompass Trump’s defeat. Under a Democratic administration, there will be attempts to deploy law enforcement like ghostbusters crossed with pre-crime units, trying to prevent the very-online from impinging on the real.
On the right, the inevitable excesses of those efforts will be opposed, but more weakly and ineffectually because of what just happened, what conservatism’s relationship to fantasy just wrought.
What happens to the Republican Party under these conditions? A deeper burrowing into unreality, a partial restoration of realism (depending on liberalism’s own ongoing experiments with fantasy politics) and a permanent fracture are all possible.
But we can say this much, at least, about Trump himself. By allowing his presidency to be possessed by the occult online, he sealed his legacy to the populist causes he sometimes pretended to serve: Their fate, for the time being, can be counted with the bodies of his own supporters, the pitiful, deluded dead.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.