Friday morning, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc was arrested in connection with an ongoing mass assassination attempt that has targeted a major newsroom, members of Congress, a movie star, the families of two ex-presidents, and others. The attacks began Monday, when famed philanthropist George Soros received the first suspicious package, which was later determined to be an explosive device. The momentum of the attacks continued throughout the week as the Clintons, the Obamas, Rep. Maxine Waters, actor Robert De Niro and, on Friday, Sen. Corey Booker, were also targeted. It is worth noting that in a different time, a national emergency might have been declared. Two weeks before the midterm elections, amid Trump’s hate rallies and bigoted policy attacks, bombs were dispatched in the mail, in an effort to blow some of the president’s most frequently cited enemies out of existence, and absolutely nothing came to a standstill.
The president made a general, perfunctory statement condemning the attacks before blaming the media the following day. On Friday morning, the president tweeted, “Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”
Prior to the suspect’s arrest, a number of high-profile Republicans, and many of their followers, had smugly dismissed the attempted bombings as fraudulent — just as Trump’s early political fandom lapped up his baseless claims that Obama was not an American citizen. The arrest of Sayoc is unlikely to derail the conspiracy theories of Trump fans, just as facts have never interfered with past right-wing conspiracy theories. Sayoc’s own Twitter feed is littered with far-right conspiracy theories, as well as threats against various leftists and Democrats, including targets of this week’s attacks.
Some Trump supporters have already latched onto claims that Sayoc is Native American as evidence that Trumpism was not a factor in the bombings, despite the fact that Sayoc’s vehicle was covered with MAGA messaging. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, the nation Sayoc has reportedly claimed an affiliation with, has publicly stated that they “can find no evidence” that Sayoc is a member. According to Ron Lowy, Sayoc’s former attorney, Sayoc’s parents were Italian and Filipino, respectively. Whatever his background, the notion that a non-white person cannot perpetrate the violence of white supremacy is absurd and ahistorical.
Reality isn’t a stumbling block for the right in Trump’s America, and this spectacle of assassination attempts is some of the strongest evidence we’ve seen of how voluntarily detached from reality Trump’s disciples really are. The Republican dismissal of these events as having been orchestrated by Democrats, or being the fault of the press, is not a departure from popular Republican values. However, public indifference to attacks of this scale is indicative of a cultural escalation. It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans in Washington would have felt the need to feign great concern and outrage over a mass assassination attempt aimed at their rivals. Now, the right has done away with such pretense.
The Dystopian Film We’re Living In
The electoral equivalent of Trump’s reality TV producers who ran Trump’s campaign understood he was riding a cultural wave. Trump ran on what everyday Republicans despised, with racist promises both spoken and unspoken, and he has been delivering. In Bob Woodward’s Fear, Bannon characterized himself as the showrunner of Trump’s presidential campaign. “I realized … I’m the director, he’s the actor,” Bannon said.
Long before he was Trump’s kingmaker, Bannon was a producer of films that showcased his apocalyptic, right-wing, dystopian fantasies. Bannon’s colleagues at Breitbart News would later describe Bannon’s foray into film as an effort to become “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea-Party movement” — referring to the famed Nazi filmmaker who directed “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia.” Bannon’s efforts at theatrical propaganda depicted hordes of foreign criminals laying siege to American towns, and white people forced to defend themselves against the onslaught. That vision was clearly reflected in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, depicting Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals who would overrun the United States, if allowed to do so. It is also a vision that has been reflected in Trump’s policy, and in the urgency Trump has continued to spin around the unreality his fandom occupies. Bannon’s theatrical vision can also be seen today in Trump’s depiction of the “migrant caravan,” a depiction that refashions thousands of tired, desperate refugees seeking asylum into an invading army on the march.
While Bannon may no longer be a producer of the reality TV project that currently rules the United States, his apocalyptic fantasies still drive the mythology of the Trump presidency. At a Pennsylvania rally, Trump told his supporters that what’s happened since his election “has been the greatest revolution ever to take place in our country” — or perhaps in the whole world. As Susan B. Glasser wrote in the New Yorker, it’s not Trump’s bragging that sets him apart from past presidents, but “the cult of personality he has built around himself and which he insists upon at his rallies.” That cult of personality is essential to Trump’s starring role in the current fascist narrative, and for the sake of drama, potential villains must likewise be invented or exaggerated. Given Trump’s fact-checking-be-damned approach to political rhetoric, gross exaggeration is fair game. Spewing an average of eight false or misleading statements per day as president, Trump has begun to lie at even more impressive pace as the midterms approach.
In Trump’s national knockoff of a Steve Bannon film, mass despair, born of US policy, becomes apocalyptic aggression, and US troops have been dispatched accordingly.
The Fascist Fandom Bubble
Trump loves the attention and adoration of his fandom. He stokes the political worship of his followers by reinforcing the social and practical value of their identity and their own sense of superiority, and by offering them a champion for their grievances. The material promises Trump makes are of far less consequence, as his supporters are generally unmoved by his material abandonment and betrayals. From Trump’s empty promise to bring back manufacturing jobs to his forgotten vow to withdraw from foreign wars, Trump supporters are not concerned with accountability. Trumpism has created a fascist circus to keep all material concerns secondary to the battles of a phantom war that no one is actually waging against the right. With Trump’s alarmist rhetoric about “armies” of refugees marching toward the Mexican border and his invention of riots over “sanctuary cities” in California, Trumpism offers white Americans an unreality in which their racist contempt and paranoia make sense — a form of validation that fans of famed misogynist Jordan Peterson have described as being told things they “already knew.”
By telling white Americans that there are armies of immigrants storming our borders, and spinning stories that Californians are rioting over immigration policies Trump disagrees with, Trump is sending his base a clear message that the race war white nationalists long for is already underway — and he is fighting in their name. They are under attack, Trump’s rhetoric tells them. Repressive measures are justified. Their violent impulses are fair, and perhaps even appropriate. The morning after the attempted bombing of CNN, Trump tweeted that the media had “gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description” — and needed to clean up its act “FAST!” By blaming the press, the president of the United States normalized an ongoing mass assassination attempt of former Democratic presidents and other current and former Democratic elected officials.
Meanwhile, fresh hells are continually unleashed on the targets of Trumpian hatred. Trans people are now faced with the threat of greater state-sanctioned dehumanization. Native people face a wave of voter disenfranchisement so brazen that it should be unthinkable. In Georgia, there has been little effort to disguise Republican efforts to suppress the Black vote in an election year that features a highly contested gubernatorial race, with a Black Democratic challenger. Even without Bannon by his side, Trump has no shortage of policy ghouls eager to dole out suffering and discord.
So Now What?
Upon reconciling that we are living in the apocalyptic dreamscape of a scabby white nationalist, it is, of course, not enough to say, “this is not normal.” The moment calls for painstaking analysis and thoughtful strategy. Simply ordering people to “get out the vote” fails to capture the totality of what the left is up against.
The Republicans have done much more than get out the vote. They have seized power en masse at every level of government, but they have also made cultural gains that have pushed fascist ideas into the mainstream. They have spun a historic mass assassination attempt of their political rivals into a hoax, and then, into a mere distraction from their own political momentum. To do the work of countering their advance, to beat back fascism with anti-racism, we must acknowledge that fascism has made its way into the mainstream and normalized a horrifying landscape. It is imperative that the Republicans lose seats on November 6, but elections are not what redefines cultural norms.
Facts are the ultimate enemy of the Trumpian unreality, as evidenced by Trump’s avoidance of stenographers and hatred of the press. Now, he has doubled down on the sentiments that likely inspired the attack on CNN. He has cautioned the media to stop provoking such attacks and even suggested that the attacks themselves aren’t real, which recalls his previous, Orwellian words of caution to his followers: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Trump is determined to maintain the racist, nationalist bubble that allows his fandom’s Trumpian savior complex to thrive. Whether we are fighting it or not, we are in a battle over the relevance of reality, and our enemies gained a great deal of ground this week.
One thing is certain: The ground lost to fascism will not be won back with polite tolerance, as the Joe Bidens and Jeff Flakes of the world have suggested. As our opponents have demonstrated, we are far past the point of polite disagreement. We are living in a dream world, and the dream is not ours.
UPDATE: At least 8 people were killed Saturday morning in an attack on a Pittsburgh Synagogue. The Synagogue was reportedly full of people attending a Saturday service. Police say they received several calls from people barricaded inside and exchanged fire with the gunmen. The shooter reportedly entered and fired indiscriminately while shouting “All Jews must die!” The gunman has reportedly been arrested.