January 6, in DC: Who cheered Trump on?

It was the week before Election Day when Trump was surging. It worryingly looked like he would overtake Biden and continue to despoil America. A (non-Trumper) confidante spoke to me almost triumphantly — saying, “I told you so!” Basically, “without Obama there would have been no Trump.” I was inwardly appalled. It seemed borderline racist: Only because of a Black president could Trump flourish, and become president? So blame the Black guy!

But rethinking it, it was probably true. It was a belief on the part of many whites in 2016 that voted in droves for the overtly obnoxious Trump who preached racial divide. Paraphrasing his campaign theme, “They (the Black and brown peoples) have taken over the country that we whites need to retake.” The browning of America!  This even though, in the view of many (but not all) people of color, Obama was disappointing. Meaning, he had dishearteningly tacked too far toward the center as president rather than stand resolutely for the previously-underrepresented among the electorate that had swept him into office hearing his promise of a New Day.

But white America, those who voted Trump into office, didn’t see it that way. Obama was the Black man’s president, and Trump was their president. Trump saw that better than any of the many Republican candidates he had fended off in the primaries. So he capitalized on it through bold, unfiltered and, troublingly, undisguised campaign rhetoric. And everything he did as president was aimed at it.

The majority of Trump voters in November 2020 saw what Trump had done for them and wanted it to continue: our America. They weren’t necessarily racist or even racially-motivated. They simply liked what he was doing. They didn’t intend physical harm to the Capitol or those inside it. They just wanted “their” man to remain in place.

Yes, Trump, aided by Fox and the right-wing media, tried to make Biden look weak, and scared people with the thought of a return to the Obama era. Still, despite the “Sleepy Joe” anthem and the claim that he had aged too much, no one had anything really bad to say about Biden individually. No. They reserved their sincere displeasure, antipathy, maybe even hatred for Kamala Harris, and you heard it all the time from Trump (“She’s a nasty woman”). Why? Simple — Biden would only be president for one term, if that. But then, another Black, one multi-racial and dressed in woman’s clothing no less, would take his place. One needn’t be a member of the Proud Boys or Boogaloo Bois or Aryan Nation to see the world through that lens.

The people who came from nearly everywhere to descend on D.C. on January 6 certainly weren’t all intent on rebellion, violence or even conflict. The confrontational (and worse) among them probably represented a relatively small segment of the overall group that led to the frenzy. Nonetheless, virtually all were undoubtedly there, at Trump’s urging, to try to “bring us back” to where they were before Obama — before the country had been lost to “another culture.” And if they were cajoled by Trump into believing that the election had been “stolen” in order to justify that outpouring, so be it.

I don’t believe that Trump actually intended to stoke physical violence against congresspersons, the police or anyone that horrible day  — although, admittedly, he certainly seemed to relish it when he saw the rioting occurring. Rather, he knew he could fan the flames of discord among his followers by claiming that his election had been “stolen.” These were people who would follow him to the ends of the earth to undo the election result — whether it was merit-based or not.

But who, at the bottom, are those people? The great Colombian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famously said that “all humans have three lives: a public life; a private life; and a secret life.” Probably not true for Donald Trump — likely the most transparent man in history. He says aloud exactly what exists in the deepest recesses of his mind. Indeed, he tells you uncompromisingly his unbridled, racist thinking. He did so with Charlottesville. He did so when he denied knowing who David Duke really is. And he did so when he told you that Obama wasn’t born in America.

The rioters are worse, no question. But even as to the vast majority of those individuals on the mall cheering Trump on January 6, Marquez was uncannily right. Many of them would have told you, if you asked, that they applaud what Trump has done for the economy, or political correctness, or Warp Speed, or the Muslim ban, or even Israel.  And privately, they would have told their intimates that they were greatly displeased with Obama’s liberal politics. But “secretly” — if you somehow managed to pierce through to their innermost thoughts — they would say precisely why Obama disturbed them, and why Biden (but more so, Harris) was in their crosshairs. That is, “We Need To Take The Country Back From Those People Who Stole The Election.” Those People!

I wouldn’t compare what happened on January 6 to what happened in Hitler Germany. Or compare Trump to any particular authoritarian leader. And I don’t. But just like such leaders, Trump instinctively knew how to invade those “secret” lives and deep-seated, suppressed, maybe unconscious, thoughts of his followers. Using that ability, he managed to invade the already marinating thoughts of those willing to accept — or simply spout — the Trump orthodoxy that the election had indeed been stolen. When nothing is true, the authoritarian leader posits, everything is possible.

Put otherwise they were thoughts of the attendant individuals that Trump managed to bring to the surface. As if, given the secret or even not-so-secret lives of those attendees who dropped everything to be there, it was actually necessary for him to have done so. We talk incessantly today about the pandemic. But what motivated the masses in DC on January 6 was, sadly, endemic.

Today, incidentally, is the day we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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