The morning after his inauguration in 2017, Donald Trump phoned the National Park Service, miffed about photos of the event that were already circulating online. The aerial shots of The National Mall depicted the patchy crowd that had turned out for Trump’s swearing-in, an audience that appeared particularly slim when juxtaposed with the unprecedented mass that had assembled for Barack Obama in 2009. Trump reportedly demanded that the agency release better photos, ones that captured what the administration would repeatedly claim was a “record-setting” assemblage, a “massive crowd of people,” as Trump would later say, that stretched all the way to the Washington Monument.
Eventually, after some nudging from then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the Park Service released another round of photos cropping out the thinning crowds. Estimates suggest that Trump’s event hosted just a third of the 1.8 million that turned out for Obama’s inauguration, and Spicer’s repeated insistence that there was actually a colossal crowd became an odd, dark joke. Though Trump’s followers had been plentiful enough to vote him into office—so plentiful, in fact, that they filled stadiums for the rallies that fueled Trump’s campaign the previous year—perhaps the paltry turnout was a better representation of his influence. Trump might get votes, but he couldn’t turn out more than a scattering of losers in MAGA hats. The movement, though visible on the ground, didn’t look like much from on high.
Almost exactly four years later, Trump returned to the Mall to tell a small but ready audience exactly what to do. “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said. He called out: “We are going to the Capitol,” and they went. Using the language of law enforcement, they planned not to attack but to “occupy Congress,” allegedly intending to “arrest” offending members of Congress. On social media and message boards they planned the event in plain sight, organizing zip-ties, handcuffs, and weapons. (Reports to the FBI went unheeded.) “No matter how this plays out this is only the beginning,” one wrote on TheDonald, the infamous, racist pro-Trump message board.
If the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 didn’t behave like interlopers, perhaps that’s because they had no reason to believe that anything would stop them. They’d been urged to the Capitol by the president, a man who has spent his time in office telling a story of crisis, of power slipping from the hands of its rightful owners, and of illegitimate democracy overtaken by Socialists, Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, Antifa. White supremacy is nothing new, but for four years Trump has nurtured the most extreme fringe, normalized and radicalized their ideas, and welcomed them into the very center of government.
“Lock her up,” Trump said, again and again in 2016, telling a rich tale of Hillary Clinton’s imagined crimes. A few years later, a handful of men heeded his call, allegedly attempting to form a militia to capture Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, calling her a tyrant, a dictator, intending to put her on trial. “Lock them all up,” Trump shouted at a Michigan rally a few weeks later. “Lock her up, lock her up,” the crowd replied.
From the ground, it could often be hard to understand the parameters of Trump’s presidency because its accessories were extremely goofy. Trump was an endless procession of the ‘Man Bites Dog’ stories journalists are told to chase. A stoic politician fed through a funhouse mirror, his regime supplied an infinite array of exceptional anecdotes, of rabid humans feasting on pets. Here’s Trump, posing with a possibly stolen baby, summitting with a dog, throwing around comically large stacks of paper to prove his studiousness, disputing basic facts, identifying Barack Obama as the founder of ISIS, mocking an overweight protester, a disabled reporter, a sexual assault survivor, Mike Bloomberg’s height.
Trump’s vileness was as terrifying as it was transfixing, and for four years it was impossible to turn away. In the daily parade of hysterical buffoonery—the lies, the stupidity, the hate—Trump was singularly proficient at destabilizing a party, already veering towards violence to achieve its ends. He transformed lies into alternate facts, his own enemies into enemies of the state. Trump leaves a split democracy where half the country lives in a universe of Trump’s design, where election results are faked and insurrection a form of “justice.” Most dangerously, Trump leaves a playbook for his successors on how to win, not through compromise, but rhetoric and performance. He leaves a legacy not in policy, but in people, and it’s one we will be dealing with for generations.
Jezebel’s series, “Four Years to Infinity,” marks the formal end of the Trump era and was originally intended to capture the energy of the throngs that flooded the streets when the election was finally called for Joe Biden last November, thrilled to bid farewell to Trump and his brethren. We planned to take each member of the Trump administration and bid them farewell by imagining a suitable punishment for the harm they enacted during Trump’s tenure. It’s a fun thought exercise and it’s particularly easy to imagine a suitable one for Trump: scratch his name from the record books, place him somewhere remote without an internet connection, and force him to watch the world progress without him.
But truth is more important than pleasure and catharsis, so we choose to bid farewell to the Trump administration by stating the reality plainly: These individuals may disappear from our daily vision, but the terror they enacted will live on in ways we are not yet able to fully understand or interrogate. Removing Trump from office doesn’t change the mass he activated, the people he inspired. For the people who felt entitled to enact their own brand of justice at the Capitol, Trump is not a man or a president, but a founding insignia. Trump may go away, but Trumpism will live on. It is our project now to see it clearly.