The Associated Press has released details of the “Capitol assault,” arguing that it was a “more sinister attack than first appeared.” It included details about bloodied police officers, pipe bombs, a noose prepared for the Vice President, and calls by Trump earlier in the day to “fight like hell.” Rudy Giuliani told Trump supporters, “Let’s have trial by combat.”
The AP also shared details about a “plan” referenced by MAGA supporters online:
“Far-right social media users had openly hinted for weeks that chaos would erupt at the Capitol when Congress convened to certify the election results. As the attack unfolded, they urged followers to ‘trust the plan’ and ‘hold the line.’ Just what the plan might have been is central to the investigation.”
There Was No Plan
Here’s one theory: there was no “plan.” Those inciting violence didn’t need one, and they knew it. They only needed to suggest there was a plan, because the imaginations of Trump’s followers (who have been hyped up by conspiracy theories for four years) would provide whatever was necessary to pursue their misguided ends at any cost. Trump supporters have been psychologically conditioned by far-right media, the President, and Christian leaders to believe that the world is run by evil conspiracies, on one side, and by an uprising to end evil, on the other. They needed only to place themselves on the proper side, and they would then be rewarded for pursuing the side’s goals by any means necessary.
Trump’s followers also didn’t need real facts in order to perform. The “facts” would appear as necessary for them to do whatever they imagined was necessary to destroy the evil Democrat conspiracy and maintain the power of their God-placed leader Trump. Those “facts” would be supplied either by social media, or by their own imaginations. The “facts” might be a tweet saying Ellen Degeneres is a child trafficker or a photo of the man with horns also at a BLM rally, conveniently cropped so that you can’t see he’s holding a sign that says “Q sent me.”
This, again, is why it didn’t work when someone claimed in front of the Capitol that Trump wanted the mob to go home. Some dismissed it as “fake news,” part of a conspiracy meant to silence them, something to be expected from the “liberal media” or censorious social media corporations.
The mob also worked to “read between the lines” when Trump asked them to “go home” through his Twitter account. One Trump supporter said in a live stream while in the Capitol, “He said to go home; this is our home.” Protestors outside the Capitol chanted, “This is our home!” The only thing that the Capitol mob really knew was that there was a Great Plan to “take back America,” in which they needed to take a part as Christians and Patriots. Some were shocked when police pepper sprayed them. One woman rioter was caught on camera after being maced by law enforcement trying to hold off the crowd. She seems surprised that, when she tried to break into the Capitol, “They pushed me outside, and they maced me.” She said she wanted to go in because, “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!” These are the words of someone who has been psychologically conditioned by a malicious manipulator.
Trump and alt-right media are not the only ones to blame. The mob present at the Capitol does not solely bear responsibility. Others contributed as well. Christians who did not riot at the Capitol continue to contribute to this conditioning when they use phrases like “fake news,” rather than digging in to fact check themselves. They allege that the crimes were committed by “Antifa,” and then demand others produce evidence to disprove a false claim. For them, Antifa is guilty until proven innocent, and it’s not enough to share that the FBI itself has found no connections.
These Christians playing Trump apologists and anti-BLM antagonists place the burden upon others to verify what those others saw for themselves, and then they refuse to accept the verification when provided. I’ve seen Christians argue that particular demonstrators were members of Antifa, followed by fact-checks providing concrete evidence that those demonstrators were, in fact, not members of Antifa and were Trump supporters, and those Christians closing out by saying, “You just don’t really know.” These Christians rely upon an obscure website or Youtube video telling them not to just “blindly” accept the “liberal media.” (Ironically, they give the exact opposite advice of Jesus Christ, telling Americans to not be “sheep.”) At the same time, the only news sources they trust are websites subject to less accountability, less professional management, and lower journalistic standards than the longstanding news institutions that they dismiss altogether.
I won’t here argue that the mainstream media isn’t biased. The mainstream media is biased. But reporting with bias and a socio-political perspective is not the same as lying. Biased news is not actually fake news. Giving a “spin” is not the same as giving false facts. And while mainstream liberal media should be criticized for the former, conservative media should also be criticized for consistently committing itself to the latter. To put bluntly (if unfairly to many on the left and the right who have tried to report with integrity): the secular left has spun facts into unfair stories, while the Christian right has flat out borne false witness.
In bearing and spreading false witness, American Christians have contributed to the psychological conditioning which ends in violence. Religious cults and secular revolutions bear a similar history: create an alternative reality for your followers, insist that outside critical influencers are just evil conspirators against the “true believers,” and frame antagonism as “self defense” against those who will inevitably come for you and your family.
American Christians have contributed to what has happened at the Capitol in various ways. In important ways, Christian communities have primed themselves to be places where this sort of violence can be erupt, and then be justified or explained away. Not every Christian community has overtly primed its members to do this, but most traditional Christian communities have subtly (perhaps unintentionally) done this.
Consider whether this sounds like religious communities you know or have been a part of: The religious leader builds a following loyal to him, one which says that those who disagree with him and his perspectives are actually followers of “the evil one.” He mixes this conditioning with claims about how he will support men, women, children, and families in finding true happiness in the community.
Members all have a role to play. Women participate and contribute by sitting quietly, listening, doing free labor in the community, and repeating the lessons of the religious leader to the family. They give explanations which put the community and its leader in the best light. When adversity or critique comes, the women smile and hush their children, reminding them of how wonderful the community and its leader are. They divert away from certain conversations. Men participate by exercising strength and perseverance when the community, its teachings, or its leader face adversity. The men are tasked with combat against enemies, whether the combat be intellectual, emotional, or physical. When adversity or critique comes, they give explanations which put perceived threats in the worst light. These roles are both essential: the men attack enemies aggressively, and the women create positive stories that justify, dismiss, or downplay the men’s aggression. Catholics are particularly skilled at these tactics, as they have been used by and against the laity to protect abusers in their communities.
The leader provides “facts” for the explanations of the men and women. He gives a narrative for what it means for his followers to live a good life, one which reinforces obedience to him, sometimes even over his own religious superiors. His followers take the leader’s facts for granted, even when they seems to conflict with what is right in front of them. And they fill in the gaps with their own facts and narratives to support the leader and the plan which he has assured he and his god have for them all. When the leader is accused of being wrong in ways that can be demonstrated, he says he was misunderstood. He never explicitly says he was wrong.
For many years, Christian communities have been working with the same power structures and deferential dynamics which are emblematic of cults. They have primed their members to be taken in by a dynamic leader with an oversimplified spiritualized battle with mysterious (and mysteriously organized) evil forces. One might frame the narrative by saying that these communities have been “waiting” for Trump. This is certainly the narrative given by more apocalyptic Evangelical communities. And by identifying with the power of Trump, Christian leaders have been able to extend, politicize, and further dramatize their own narratives of power. These Christian leaders have seen their authority both expanded and further legitimized by Trump. This is especially thrilling for religious leaders who have framed the narratives of their religious authority and significance in terms of victimhood, whether they be victims to the “liberal media,” to “secular culture,” or to members who have brought forward concerns about community dynamics or instances of abuse.
What these leaders don’t often take into account (and Trump and his previous followers may be realizing) is that the truth refuses to stay quiet forever, even when have worked to hide it from ourselves. The truth comes up. Sometimes it arises when a young girl reveals later in life she was abused. Sometimes it shows itself when the community realizes what its leaders have been hiding. Sometimes it shows itself when the Vice President is evacuated from the United States Capitol.
When these things come up, everyone has to choose: double down, or accept reality. If you double down, eventually you or your children must go to war.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.