On Wednesday, Jan. 6, a line was drawn in the sand. Before that date, critics had unfairly slammed Trump supporters for being violent, resentment-fueled lunatics for four years, but they couldn’t point to any major proof of it.
Yes, the 2017 march on Charlottesville was deadly and shocking, but the protesters involved in that event were white supremacists objecting to the removal of Confederate statues. They weren’t there to support President Trump.
Then, on Jan. 6, the critics were proved right, as thousands of Trump fans — goaded by the president during a rally — encircled the US Capitol and stormed it while Congress tried to certify the election.
The riot that followed embarrassed our nation. The scenes were chaotic and horrifying, with protestors breaking windows and whacking down doors, waving Confederate flags through congressional hallways, using leadership offices as selfie platforms. When it was all over, dozens of officers were injured and five people were dead.
The president did nothing to stop the carnage other than to say inaccurately in a Twitter video that the election was stolen and that his people should go home.
Trump and the mob have given his critics the proof they had always wanted. From this point forward, the rioters will forever be synonymous with Trumpism. His populist platform, which had given voice and hope to marginalized, working-class people across the country, will now be discredited.
Jamie Roe, a Trump voter from Sterling Heights, Mich., said any remaining goodwill toward the president evaporated on Wednesday.
“So did any chance he had to run again,” Roe said, about speculation Trump might campaign for president in 2024. “His brand is ruined. Ruined. He took everything he accomplished and threw it all away. He had an opportunity to use his final weeks in office to push the distribution of the vaccine and give people a chance to miss what he had accomplished. Instead, he used it as a month’s long temper tantrum.
“What he did was a betrayal.”
I have covered Trump’s conservative populist coalition for more than five years, ever since he rode down the golden escalator in Trump Tower in August 2015 and announced his candidacy.
While the press that day focused on his unorthodox entrance and sharp words on illegal immigrants, people outside elite circles heard an entirely different message about restoring the dignity of work and bringing back their communities from despair.
Although Trump continued to make crass comments about minorities, Gold Star families, a disabled reporter and Megyn Kelly, his appeal grew with working-class Democrats, independents, Evangelical voters and reluctant suburban Republicans. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said in 2016, before he beat Hillary Clinton in an upset that shocked the media, but not his supporters. Even after the Capitol Hill siege, some voters still say they back him: A YouGov poll found that 45 percent of Republicans actively support the actions of the mob, while 43 percent are opposed. And while a handful of Trump’s fans told me they’re still behind him because they have no one else to fight for them in DC, none of them will go on the record.
The majority of Trump supporters I’ve met and interviewed over the years feel like Mike Martin of Erie County. “When he dies he will probably not even have a president’s funeral. Will we even have a Trump presidential library? Probably not,” said Martin, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Martin said none of his friends who voted for Trump support him now — something he thought would never happen.
“All of those years reporters would want to write the story of what Trump would do to lose their vote … well, they finally got their story,” he said. “And he has no one to blame but himself.”
While the actions of a few should never tarnish the good intentions of the many, that’s exactly what will happen now.
“The vast majority of people were there just to hear the president speak,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist from western Pennsylvania. “The president just went up there and incited them.”
Trump’s “been stoking this for weeks and anybody with a brain could have seen this coming,” Mikus added. “When you play with people’s emotions for a long time, in particular if they are vulnerable, you are playing with fire.”
For Roe, a Republican strategist, this moment is personal: “I’ve had tears running down my face. It’s heartbreaking as an American. I voted for this guy. I voted for him in the primary in 2016. I voted for him in the general election twice.
“If you voted for him, there will be people who will put this one on you.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s four years of good policies — peace agreements in the Middle East, getting tough on trade with China, tax cuts, conservative Supreme Court appointments — will now forever be tainted.
Roe has one word for what Trump did to his legacy and the reasonable, law-abiding Americans who believed in him: “Unconscionable. Yes, it’s unconscionable.”
Salena Zito is the co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” (Crown Forum), out now.