They flooded into the Capitol fresh off a Trump rally, Elton John still ringing in their ears. They poured in with Trump flags and Confederate flags. Some sported sweatshirts with “Civil War” printed on them. They scaled the walls and broke through the windows and left graffiti on the doors. They sat at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk and pretended to talk on her phone. One man roved the floor of the Senate shirtless, his hateful tattoos plainly visible, wearing red, white and blue face paint and a pelt with horns.
Like most things in the age of Trump, this had all the visible markings of a cruel parody but was the thing itself. They stalked while Congress halted what should have been a routine affirmation of the electoral college vote (it wasn’t; Josh Hawley and his fellow objectors had made certain of that), and the representatives and people who worked in the Capitol hunkered down in fear. By day’s end, four people were dead.
And President Donald Trump had stern words for the mob: “We love you. You’re very special. Go home.”
But you must understand: They were upset.
How couldn’t they be? Trump’s long-ago boast that “when you’re a star, they let you do it” has dangled over everything that followed. His presidency has been a harrowing survey of the things that are possible if nobody stops you. The norms he eroded, from his unreleased tax returns to his insults to his firings by tweet, his phone calls, his impeachable offenses — it is amazing, after all, what you can do, if no one bothers to get in your way. And now, here was democracy, standing athwart the will of Trump and his people.
So when Trump urged these disciples to march on Congress, they did.
This story is not unrelated to the American dream: a story about who deserves things simply by virtue of who they are, and who doesn’t; who is instantly presumed to be a true countryman, who will be told to go back to a place they never came from. It is a story about who gets to go where, who gets to exist safely in public, and who is only there on sufferance. It is a story about who gets to be real.
It is not a surprise that Trump has thrilled white nationalists and white supremacists, Proud Boys and xenophobes and misogynists, those to whom being more real than others is so important. It is not a surprise that after Charlottesville, Trump was keen to see “very fine people” on both sides. He has always known whom he was addressing. “You’re strong, you’re smarter … you’re the real people,” he told his crowd Wednesday. “You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down this nation.”
He has been dividing the country into us and them for as long as he has been in public. For them, a full-page ad calling for the death penalty. For us — go ahead and grab them by the p----. His pitch has always been that some things belong to you not because you have earned them but because you did not have to earn them. They are your birthright, and to be denied them is an affront: Supreme Court seats, the presumption of innocence, deference from police officers, the presidency itself.
“We’re gonna walk down, and I’ll be there with you,” Trump told his rally-goers (seriously but not literally; he boarded his motorcade and returned to the White House). “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
And when you’re real, they let you do it. You can be a grown, bearded man, brandishing bear spray, and a place ordinarily bristling with metal detectors and guards simply opens to you. A senator raises his fist in support. “We’ve just got to let them do their thing now,” one officer told The New York Times.
But if you are not lucky enough to be the real one in the story, then what you see is different. The Trump era is also the story of being menaced with guns and told you weren’t actually being menaced with guns — you were seeing people exercising freedom; you were watching a cheery band of patriots come to see their government at work. They were domestic, in the most vibrant militia tradition of the Founding Fathers, nothing like terrorists. This was their right, if a little rowdy. Everyone calling it a coup, or a mob, or an insurrection was hysterical. Proud Boys will be boys, after all.
It is the story of a president seeing all this and turning to the people who wreaked this havoc and telling them, “We love you. You’re very special.”
The message echoes down the frescoed corridors: Never forget, for a second, what we can do to you, if no one stops us.
Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.