From Election Day to Jan 6: Inside the MAGA Mind
Exploring the mindset of Trump's most hardened supporters in the weeks before the January 6 attack
For the next few weeks I’ll be writing about the storming of the Capitol on January 6. This post is on the MAGA mindset in the months leading up to the attack.
The human brain is a pattern-finding machine. Most of the time that’s a good thing.
But sometimes it finds ‘patterns’ that aren’t there, like when we see scary faces and human shapes in dark rooms that turn out to be just shadows. Or when people think they’ve discovered a massive conspiracy that’s really just a series of coincidences.
Hanlon’s Razor says “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. Of course, Hanlon’s Razor isn’t always true. Some things actually are conspiracies. But it’s a good heuristic, a shortcut to thinking about the world. Most people aren’t as clever as they look. Most organisations aren’t as efficient as you think. Most things are mistakes, screwups, coincidences or split-second decisions, not carefully-laid plans.
Hanlon’s Razor is a hard rule to follow. In reality, faced with two explanations, most people are conditioned to feel more satisfied by the conspiracy theory than the screw-up theory. We see patterns. We impute motives and motivations. Our brains are built to think that there must be more than meets the eye; there must be a plan.
The Problem of Trump
Which leads to the Problem of Trump. The Problem of Trump goes something like this:
It’s 2017. Donald Trump looks like a moron with an inferiority complex, malignant narcissism and poor impulse control. But he’s the President of the United States and a billionaire, too. So clearly something else must be going on.
Some of Trump’s political opponents solved the Problem of Trump by deciding he must be a tool, a catspaw of some other evil. Russia helped get Trump elected though hacking and influence operations, and Trump was obsequious to Vladimir Putin, so perhaps Putin was in charge of everything. Or perhaps Trump was a frontman for the Mafia. Or big business. That would make more sense than how things seemed, right?
Among Trump’s supporters, another theory was more popular: Trump is actually a genius. His impulsive outbursts were really cold and calculated, and he’s always several steps ahead of his opponents. Trump is “playing 4D chess” while the rest of us are stuck playing tic-tac-toe. It can’t be as dumb as it looks, so it isn’t as dumb as it looks. He looked dumb throughout the 2016 campaign but he won, right? He said the polls were wrong and they were?
So when Trump accidentally hit Send Tweet after mistyping the word “Coverage”, his most ardent supporters insisted that it was actually a secret message in Arabic.
When he met with the top military brass at the White House in October 2017, his ominous remark about the meeting being “the calm before the storm” led to further speculation that something big must be afoot.
The intense (and insane) speculation around that phrase helped build a febrile atmosphere on alt-right forums. That same month, a self-described Government insider started posting cryptic messages to 4chan about a military operation, rhetorically asking “Why does Potus surround himself w/ generals?” and a few days later outright referencing the calm before the storm. The posts suggested that Trump and the generals would very soon be arresting Hillary Clinton and exposing the Satanists in the government.
The poster became known as Q and the movement that built up around the posts is, of course, QAnon.
When Russian Intelligence hacked and published Clinton campaign manager John Podesta in 2016, they contained nothing of interest. But dull emails about ordering fast food were spun by Trump supporters into evidence of ritual abuse and murder of children linked to a DC pizza parlour. Pizzagate found new life in QAnon, as did increasingly wild theories about underground military bases, weather control, mass arrests, body doubles, secret child-smuggling tunnels and eventually aliens, time travel and more.
The one thing that united the intersectional conspiracism of QAnon, though, was that the Storm was Coming, and coming soon. Trust the Plan. You Are Watching A Movie🍿. Patriots In Control. There’s no need to do anything, because Trump has already won and defeated the cabal. You just need Sit Back and Enjoy the Show.
This confident complacency wasn’t unique to QAnon; it infected the whole MAGA base. Of course Trump would win the 2018 midterms — and, despite losing the House by a large swing, Trump promptly declared victory. And of course he would win the 2020 election by a landslide.
Elections, Emotional Investment and Losing
Being invested in the outcome of a vote is frustrating, nerve-wracking, even scary. However much you want or need the result to go your way, once the voting starts you just have to wait. It’s even worse if you’re a campaigner. I’ve worked on referendums and elections, votes in trade unions and civil society bodies, votes in Parliament. It feels OK to win. But it feels terrible to lose, and the fear of losing is a constant companion through a campaign.
I don’t think I knew a single Democrat voter in 2020 who was complacent about the election. Stung by the 2016 upset (which wasn’t really all that much of an upset compared to the polls), Biden supporters were constantly worrying that Trump might do it again. With some polls showing a whopping 17% lead in some swing states, the panic remained: what if it all goes wrong again?
Trump supporters, though, had the opposite mindset. Of course Trump would win. He said he would win and he’s always right. He’s too smart to lose. The polls are all fake and when Trump is re-elected, it’s going to be AWESOME.
Every piece of news just confirmed their belief. A poll showing the gap is narrowing? Great news for Trump! A bad day in the press? Keeps him in the news! A poll showing Trump losing by a lot? That will just make it even sweeter when he wins and the Libs cry!
To be a Trump supporter in 2020 was to never have to face up to the possibility that your candidate might lose. Even as Trump himself complained about mail-in ballots and rigged elections in October, he didn’t really mean it; that was just evidence that he was going to catch the election riggers in the act!
Then it was Election Day.
After the Election
As election results started to come in on the night of November 3, the “told you so”s had already begun. Biden’s 17 point poll lead in Wisconsin had completely evaporated. Florida was going red. Ohio went heavily Trump against expectations of a tight race. Georgia looked iffy. The polls were very wrong again.
But by the end of the night (and after Fox News’s stunning call in Arizona), Biden was pretty safe. Trump had a tiny, narrow route to victory, enough that networks didn’t formally call the election until a couple of days later, but it didn’t matter.
Trump, of course, didn’t accept he had lost. The Republican party backed him up, saying that the election isn’t over until the states certify the results…and then, later, when the Electoral College votes… and then, later still, when the certified votes are opened and counted by a Joint Session of Congress. They refused to call Biden the President-Elect. Trump’s GSA blocked formal designation of Biden for weeks, delaying the transition process.
Meanwhile, Trump kept insisting that he had won the election and would shortly be confirmed as winner after all. Recounts, audits, increasingly harebrained lawsuits, press conferences at the Four Seasons (Total Landscaping), announcements with weirdo lawyer Sidney Powell who the Trump Campaign disowned just a few days later, appeals to state legislatures, more lawsuits, ‘decertification’ attempts… anything and everything that might stick.
If you were a Trump supporter who believed and trusted him, you would have thought throughout November and December that any day now Trump would be announced as the REAL election winner by the Supreme Court or the Michigan legislature or whoever.
The last possible day that anyone could keep believing that Trump might still win would be the day that the US Congress meets in Joint Session to open the Electoral College votes, count them and declare Joe Biden the winner. That was going to be the day that reality eventually caught up with delusion.
Deep in MAGA World
Over on the Trumpist forums, most notably on The_Donald, everyone believed that Trump had won the election and, more importantly, that he had a plan that would see him acknowledged the winner and keep him in the White House for another four years.
Posts suggesting that it looked a bit bad for Trump were attacked as Black-pilled “Doomers” and often removed by moderators. There was no need to worry because Trump must have had a genius plan.
Betting markets reflected this feeling; in the six weeks after the 2020 election, more than a billion pounds worth of bets were placed in the “Next President” market. People were still betting on Trump winning the popular vote!
Crazy ideas of fraud and how Trump could ‘still win’ bubbled up in these forums. People replied with their own speculation. Someone would write a blog that constructed the new speculation into a developed theory. That blog would get circulated back to the forum, and then on to bigger MAGA and QAnon video and Twitter channels. Eventually it’d be seen by someone in Trump’s orbit like Sidney Powell, Rudi Giuliani or Patrick Byrne. These people would promote the theory or even get Trump to talk about it himself. The forum people would see their heroes discussing the theory and say “See! It was true. Trump and his allies have confirmed it.” This cycle happened multiple times in those few weeks between election day and January 6.
Some examples of these theories included:
The military secretly marked all ‘real’ Presidential ballots with a watermark or infrared sign so Trump could expose fraud.
Chris Krebs, then Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, had put all the ballots on a “QFS Blockchain”. Trump would later fire Krebs for refusing to say the election was hacked, and this theory quietly died.
The CIA hacked the election to make Biden win using a server in Germany, but Trump sent the military to capture the server, killing CIA director Gina Haspell. Trump lawyer Sidney Powell believed this one!
Venezuela and Cuba hacked the election via their supposed control of Dominion voting machines, but Trump had the evidence.
Italy (yup, Italy) hacked the election to make Biden win using satellites. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows asked the Justice Department to investigate this one.
China hacked the election, massed 50,000 troops in Canada and invaded Maine, only to be heroically stopped by Trump bombing their underground bunkers
What all these theories had in common, though, was that Trump was onto ‘them’. He knew. Everything was going according to plan.
Every time Trump and his allies lost an election case in court (and they lost a LOT), the MAGA forums would celebrate because “by losing, we get closer to the Supreme Court!”
And there were other theories too. Perhaps Trump wasn’t planning to win through courts, legislatures and genteel votes. Perhaps he was going to cross the Rubicon.
Crossing the Rubicon
Why bother with elections at all when Trump’s obviously the best leader ever? Why keep the corrupt Congress, George Soros-controlled courts and fake news media? Surely he could wash away these decadent and degenerate structures and establish a perfected society, Making America Great Again?
On November 18 Alexander Macris, one of the figures behind the alt-Right Gamergate movement, wrote a long article called “Trump at the Rubicon”. Explicitly drawing upon Julius Caesar’s decision to ignore the Senate and bring his troops into Rome, triggering a civil war that ended with Julius becoming “Dictator for Life”, Macris urged Trump to use the powers of the Presidency to overthrow the US Constitution:
Like Caesar, Trump now must fight for victory or lose everything. Come January 2021, will Donald Trump decide to cast the die and cross the Rubicon? He might.
The same people who warned us that Trump is worse than Hitler will now scoff: "Donald Trump is no Caesar!" That's true. Trump is in a much better position than Caesar was.
Unlike Caesar, Trump can cross the Rubicon legally. He need violate no sacred law. He has all of the legal power he needs to act and win. Congress has given it to him. All he needs to do is invoke the Insurrection Act….
In blunt terms, Congress has given the power to President Trump to proclaim:
"I, President Trump, have determined that a conspiracy has deprived 70 million Americans of their right to vote and that the other authorities are refusing to protect this right. I therefore order the suppression of this conspiracy by any means necessary."
Macris claimed that if and when Trump took this step, the military would obey but that, vitally, MAGA supporters would have a role to play too. Most of the article is devoted to this idea: if and when Trump leads a coup, you will be his troops in the civil war ahead.
The President can call on every able-bodied male age 17 to 45 to take any means he deems necessary to suppress the conspiracy to deny Americans their voting rights….
If Trump calls on the unorganized militia to save the Republic from voter fraud, a militia will come.
He even indicated who he thought might be at the forefront of the fight:
Since the United States has now been at war for 20 years, there are millions of combat veterans, and the vast majority of those who fought as infantry are likely to be on Trump’s side. Likewise, the vast majority of LEO veterans seem likely to fight on Trump’s side, if they chose a side.
The Oathkeepers, a hundred-thousand-strong organization made up of military and law enforcement veterans and personnel, has already stated that it will refuse to recognize a Biden presidency. “We’ll be very much like the founding fathers. We’ll end up nullifying and resisting,” said founder Stewart Rhodes.
The founding fathers resisted, of course, with guns.
I have archived the full article here because I think it’s important. In the weeks leading up to January 6, Trump at the Rubicon was regularly posted on The_Donald, usually as a reply to people questioning how the Insurrection Act would work. It wasn’t the first to suggest that Trump might carry out a coup, but it crystallised the idea that, if it happened, the MAGA base would get to be a part of it. Macris himself claims that after the Rubicon article he “was being re-tweeted by the president’s lawyer, invited to advise state senators”.
By mid-December, the idea of Trump using the Insurrection Act to carry out a coup was becoming popular. Local GOP officials were openly urging martial law to ‘fix the election’ and talking about the Rubicon. In a heated meeting in the Oval Office, Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell and Patrick Byrne pressed Trump to send in troops to seize voting machines, appoint Powell Special Counsel and invoke special national security authority. The meeting went on all evening and all night, ending in a screaming match. It finished after midnight with no final decisions made.
A few minutes later, Donald Trump tweeted for the first time about a big rally on January 6. “Be there, will be wild!”
Collision course with reality
They thought they were coming to watch his victory.
January 6 was going to be the day Donald Trump proved to the Liberals, Antifa, Democrats, RINOs, woke corporations, the lying media and the Communists that he was smarter than they were.
The libs would go insane, of course. There would be riots when Pence threw out all the Biden votes and Trump won. So perhaps that’s why he wanted his people in DC, to protect the city from “Antifa and BLM rioters”.
Or perhaps they were supposed to be Macris’s militia, there to help the military arrest the traitors in Congress and fire the first shots of the Second American Civil War.
Either way, he must be calling them to DC for a reason. Something important. A job. Of course he’d want them to be armed because it’d probably involve fighting. It might be dangerous, though, too. Battles are never bloodless.
A few days before Jan 6, a post on TheDonald, where much of the planning for January 6 took place, summed up one member’s feelings:
Today I had the very difficult conversation with my children, that daddy might not come home from D.C. As a Veteran this is always something you are prepared to discuss, but it never comes easy.
Today I booked my flight to the east coast. On January 6th I will stand up with my fellow Americans and demand justice. When I joined the Army I swore to defend my country from all enemies, both Foreign & Domestic. Today we face a multitude of enemies that would have us bow down, and surrender our rights. Not today! Not EVER! For those of you watching all of this unfold from the sidelines, know that I harbor no ill feelings, but it is best you pay attention.
From Coronavirus lockdowns, to mask mandates, to voting irregularities and blatant fraud. From "woke" ideologies like critical race theory, and progressive Marxism. We face an attack on all fronts. No longer will Americans stand by and watch our country systematically dismantled. I hope beyond all hope that this movement remains a peaceful one, that we might achieve Justice for our citizen voters. And I hope that the threats from Antifa and BLM do not get carried out against patriots. Know, that as an American Veteran, I love you all. No matter your race, sex, creed, religion, skin color, or political preference. But we must protect our liberties, today, and always.
Hug your friends and families. Tell them you love them. What comes the 6th remains to be seen, but you must be prepared. I am not particularly religious, but may those of you that are, find solace in your god, and pray for a safe return to your families. We do this not for ourselves, but for all Americans. Remember that on the 6th.
In their tens of thousands, they arrived, some driving for days so they could bring their guns, ammunition and combat gear. They booked time off of work and hotel stays. They were ready. They were excited. Today was the day they were going to see Donald Trump defeat his enemies and be acclaimed President. Trump would tell them what to do. Trump always has a plan. Trump always wins.
They were ready to be a part of history.
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