Disarray has been spreading among Republican Party leaders. Right-wing opposition to Donald Trump is no longer confined to Reagan-era fogeys and nostalgic neo-cons. Since the Capitol riot of 6 January, toadies of long standing like Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, disappointed to learn that Trump enthusiasts hoped to make America great again by lynching them, are acting as though the president they propped up for four years is someone else’s problem. Among the rank and file, confusion is even more acute. A poll taken just before Trump left office found that Republican-leaning voters disapproved of his presidency more than ever before (though that still left 60 per cent crediting him with doing a good job).
One set of Trump supporters is especially troubled. The 45th president may consider himself a ‘very stable genius’ but a significant minority of his admirers went further, seeing him as a prophet or miracle-worker. After his apparent defeat in November’s election, they spent ten weeks assuring one another that it was a prelude to victory. Every failed legal challenge to the vote was discounted, and their hopes intensified until the moment President Biden was sworn in. Some thought Trump would blindside the Deep State by invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to remain president indefinitely. The most imaginative among them – those collectively known as QAnon – went even further. Convinced that Joe Biden is a corrupt paedophile under Beijing’s control, theoreticians posting on sites like The Great Awakening anticipated ‘the Storm’: dragnets, deportations to Guantanamo Bay and public executions. Only ‘Doomers’ doubted Trump’s resolve; self-respecting Anons knew to Trust the Plan.
So what now? An influential work of social psychology published in 1956 suggests that harmony may still be some way off. When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger et al. describes the way members of a UFO cult in Illinois responded to shocking events during the night of 21 December 1954 – when, contrary to their expectations, the United States wasn’t engulfed by floodwaters and flying saucers didn’t come to the rescue. As dawn approached, with acolytes wondering aloud what the glitch might be (Festinger later coined the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe such experiences), their leader offered an explanation: ‘The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had spared the Earth from destruction.’ Cultists who kept the faith were soon telling more people than ever before about the merciful aliens they’d met and the apocalypse they’d averted. If people who are committed to disproved events buoy each other up, the authors observed, ‘the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to persuade non-members that the belief is correct.’
In other words, Biden’s inauguration could yet galvanise those who had hoped instead for an orgy of destruction. Happily, however, the precondition identified in When Prophecy Fails – unity in adversity – is scarce. Any GOP leader who acknowledges that Biden is president now risks being labelled a cuckservative, a Republican In Name Only or a Nazi, while diehard Anons are at the centre of a storm all their own: though they’re still urging people to Trust the Plan, many of the conservatives, RINOs and neo-Nazis once on their side have become contemptuous of the ‘Qtards’. An influential Trump-supporting forum, TheDonald.win, has meanwhile changed its name to Patriots.win, and the site’s moderators don’t sound very loyal at all. ‘If Trump moves forward with the rumoured Patriots Party,’ they write, ‘then we’re perfectly positioned to fully support him in that endeavour.’
Whatever happens to that fantasy (and even The Donald probably isn’t enough of a gambler to stake the political fortunes of his family on permanent opposition to the Republicans) the coalition that bore him to power is deeply fractured, and Silicon Valley executives look set to disrupt its communications for a while longer. Gratifying though that feels, it bodes ill. Americans across the political spectrum are topping up their arsenals at record rates. Right-wing radio hosts still rail against the phantom election fraud that White House lawyers failed to prove more than sixty times, and entrenched talking heads of the alt-right like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are reshaping televisual memories of 6 January: instead of an insurrection, they’re casting it as a reminder that the 74 million votes cast against Joe Biden were very deeply felt. Corporate thunderbolts to regulate online speech are as inadequate a response as they are unprincipled. Only a carefully crafted bipartisan statute might have the credibility to survive First Amendment scrutiny in the Supreme Court, though, and the chance of Congressional consensus here is precisely zero.
Trump’s own fate is imponderable. But if demonstrably deluded political movements can be compared to the saucerologists of 1950s Illinois, his cult is in grave jeopardy. Though he once thanked QAnon supporters for liking him, that was a sign of narcissism, not trust in the Plan. Silenced by Twitter, burdened by billowing debts, and sunk in the shadows of impeachment, his once bright future as a power broker or media mogul has been eclipsed. The promise he made as he left the White House – to come back ‘in some form’ – was suitably ethereal. Like a would-be messiah, Trump wants the worship to continue. But, like drones without a queen, the people he once led know only that they’re angry.