The Big Lie, and the Epiphany that Didn’t Happen

Looking back at Jan. 6, 2021, it's clear that the violence of that day was a lot worse than we knew, and the dangers we face are increasing.

PUBLISHED JAN 10, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Trump supporters are seen in the NY Times video “Days of Rage” attacking police officers at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. About 140 officers received injuries ranging from lacerations to concussions, rib fractures and chemical burns.

Trump supporters are seen in the NY Times video “Days of Rage” attacking police officers at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. About 140 officers received injuries ranging from lacerations to concussions, rib fractures and chemical burns.   The New York Times   YouTube

When I was a child, my mother and I celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany every Jan. 6. That is the day—you probably know the story—when the Three Wise Men, following a star that they took to be a sign from the heavens, found the baby Jesus in a manger and decided that he was the son of God, the savior promised in Jewish scripture. We Catholics called the holiday Little Christmas, and it was a big deal in my house. (It’s the twelfth day of the 12-day Christmas season, BTW.)

My favorite definition of the word “epiphany” in its modern use is: “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something … a moment of revelation and insight.” I like the way the Bible story and the contemporary meaning line up. I was a bit surprised to see the word also associated with the synonyms “enlightenment” and “satori,” but that makes sense.

As it happens, I still celebrate the Epiphany on Jan. 6, although somewhat more in keeping with the contemporary meaning than in the way that I did as a child. Maybe that’s why, in the days following the invasion of the Capitol last year, the anger and fear provoked by that horrific event were tempered by a ray of hope. 

Here was my thinking: Trump and his army had shown the depth of the ugliness and violence at the heart of their movement. As of Jan. 6, 2021, we could all clearly see that we were witnessing a fascist movement. As a result, I believed, there was no way any reasonable Republican could abide what we had just witnessed.

I imagined that the vast majority of Trump supporters—who include, for the record, beloved family members and some of my closest childhood friends—would suddenly wake up from the nightmare their leader had induced. I was hoping and literally praying for a lot of sudden insights.

Specifically, I hoped that the events of Jan. 6 would put an end to belief in The Big Lie—that the election of 2020 was bogus and that Trump is America’s true president. As we were reminded on Thursday, that did not happen. In fact the Big Lie is now a lot bigger.

The Big Lie Gets Bigger

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2022, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) appeared on The War Room, Steve Bannon‘s daily podcast/ragefest, to announce that they would lead a march to the Capitol to honor the rioters that had defiled that building one year ago.

“We’re ashamed of nothing,” Gaetz said. “We’re proud of the work we did on January 6th to make legitimate arguments about election integrity. We’re actually going to walk the grounds that patriotic Americans walked, from the White House to the Capitol, who had no intent of breaking the law and doing violence.”

That last phrase, of course, is a lie. You probably know all of this but it bears repeating: Hundreds of people, many dressed in full military gear, stormed the Capitol, viciously attacked police officers and smashed their way into the building. Armed with baseball bats, chemical spray, and wooden “flagpoles,”  they loudly stated their intention to do violence to the nation’s highest elected officials.

To further prove their criminal intent: There’s a mass of evidence that the attack had been planned for months by far-right paramilitary organizations such as the Oathkeepers and white supremacists including the Proud Boys. These people had every intention of breaking the law, and they did break the law, and one way we know that is because more than 170 of them have already been convicted in courts of law. Another 600 have been arrested and face charges—187 of them for violent assault

Here’s the way President Joe Biden described the monstrous events of the day in his speech marking the historic event. “A mob, breaking windows, kicking in doors, breaching the Capitol. American flags on poles being used as weapons, as spears. Fire extinguishers being thrown at the heads of police officers. A crowd that professes their love for law enforcement assaulted those police officers, dragged them, sprayed them, stomped on them.”

At a press conference later in the day, Gaetz and Greene, using video footage, carefully explained the expanded version of The Big Lie that has evolved over the past year. You have probably heard this, but here it is: The riot at the Capitol was provoked by the government in part to prevent Republicans from being able to make their case for election fraud to the American people.

“Joe Biden‘s certification still occurred on January 6,“ Gaetz said. “But we were deprived of the chance to make our argument to the country about election integrity.” 

Watching the press conference on CSPAN I felt a little sick. I don’t watch much TV news and I had really never seen either of these two speak at length before, and it creeped me out. Gaetz spoke of the “pattern and practice where assets and agents and informants of the federal government are central to the criminal activities” of right-wing extremists. If not for FBI provocateurs, he suggested, there would have been little to no violence. He looked and sounded dangerously insane.

Earlier, I had watched the 40-minute New York Times video, “Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol,” and had a similar reaction. Obviously, this was much harder to watch than the conspiratorial presser. I don’t mind violence in films (big Tarantino fan here) but watching real violence turns my stomach. Witnessing this explosion of frenzied rage and hate, I arrived at an understanding that what happened last year was much worse than I had remembered.

In an editorial on the Sunday before the Jan. 6 anniversary, the Times stated the nightmarish situation simply: “In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends.” 

Not Patriots Then. Not Patriots Now.

The biggest takeaway for me, having spent many hours immersed in the insurrection over several days now, is a reminder that the human beings who committed monstrous acts on that day really did believe they were performing a patriotic act. Of course some of them were cosplaying patriot so they could dress up like soldiers and commit mayhem. But most of them, in my judgment, sincerely believed that the election was stolen and that Donald Trump is their president. They truly believed themselves to be warriors stepping up to defend not only their country but western civilization itself. I feel that I know this because the frenzied faces on my computer screen Thursday morning were a little bit familiar to me.

In 1995, while I was running an alt-weekly newspaper in Montana, I assigned and wrote a series of articles about what was then called the Patriot Movement. I attended rallies and interviewed leaders of the movement. In Darby, Montana, deep in the Bitterroot Valley, I sat in the kitchen of a man who showed me his closet-library of books, many published by the John Birch Society—one of the original far-right organizations of the 20th Century. As he lovingly made a sandwich for his pre-adolescent son, he shared with me racist ideas from those books, as well as vile misreadings of the Bible. 

Another militia member, who was threatening to kill any sheriff’s deputy who came to his ranch to enforce a warrant for his arrest, agreed to meet with me. My newspaper did not post articles online at the time, but London’s The Independent borrowed from one of my articles liberally

“A month before the Oklahoma tragedy, Cal Greenup, a member of a paramilitary group called the North American Volunteer Militia, issued a prophetic warning: ‘The only way you can clean up the mess we’re in right now, there’s got to be a shedding of blood.’

“The ‘mess,’ Mr Greenup told the Missoula Independent, was the work of the federal government. Take, for example, the government’s insistence that … he should have a social security number. Mr Greenup, a white-bearded rancher from Hamilton, Montana, refuses to have one, believing it would brand him with the mark of the Beast, the Anti-Christ.”

‘A Very Brutal and Bloody Conflict’

I came away from these encounters and others like them believing that the members of this movement were once-good people who had been tricked by some very bad ideas. The violent mob that created the melee in Washington, D.C., last year are the spiritual descendants of the Patriot Movement.

In this case, the bad ideas can largely be traced back to one man. While Donald Trump is no doubt the leader of the violent uprising that he’s been whipping into a frenzy of hate since he began his campaign in 2015, the contemporary version of the insurrectionist campaign is largely the work of Steve Bannon.

It was profoundly appropriate that Gaetz and Greene made their first insurrection-anniversary appearance on Bannon’s program. Bannon‘s incitement of far-right rage dates back to his days as executive chairman of Breitbart, which he openly described as “a platform for the alt-right movement”—the folks who later brought us the Unite the Right rally in Charleston.

Bannon is a fundamentalist Catholic with an apocalyptic worldview. In 2014, two years before he became Trump’s campaign manager, he spoke via video at a Vatican conference where, according to PBS’s Frontline, “he portrayed himself as a combatant in an epic war for the soul of Western civilization.”

“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon said, exhorting attendees to form a “church militant,” in order to “not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity … that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

Two years later, in a prominent Catholic journal based at the Vatican, two close associates of Pope Francis accused Bannon and ultraconservative American Catholics of making an “alliance of hate” with evangelical Christians to back Trump.

Under Bannon, Breitbart became, according to Reuters, “a far-right, pro-Trump propaganda arm.” I believe the dispersed volunteer writing team at Wikipedia describes Breitbart’s operation perfectly: “Its journalists are widely considered to be ideologically driven, and much of its content has been called misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist by liberals and traditional conservatives alike. The site has published a number of conspiracy theories … and intentionally misleading stories.”

In 2016, as it fueled fires of anger with buckets of lies in support of candidate Trump, Breitbart was getting more traffic than the venerable Slate. It had mastered Facebook, which had tuned its algorithms to promote exactly the type of outrageous content that is Breitbart’s brand.

So, I believe it must be said, even before he joined Donald Trump as campaign CEO and then chief strategist, Steve Bannon played a role similar to that played by the engineer of the original Big Lie just prior to World War II.

(And if you are shocked to see a link to a page about a Nazi here,  that may be because you're unaware that on Dec. 10, Steve Bannon and Matt Gaetz suggested that an “army of patriots” and “shock troops” be prepared for Trump’s victory in 2024.)

Breitbart, of course, was marching in lockstep with Fox News, spreading the same lies and triggering the same anger and hate. And now there’s the One America Network. And, partly inspired by Breitbart, ten thousand toxic websites distributed by Facebook, and countless high-production-value propaganda videos broadcast on Google’s YouTube. That flood of lies, of which The Big Lie is only the biggest—that is, for me, the enemy.

The truth is under attack in a way that is terrifyingly similar to what happened in Germany 80 years ago, and a shockingly large number of our fellow citizens have lost their way as a result. If we are looking for an ultimate cause of what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, that’s it, IMJ. Which is why you’re reading this essay on the California Local blog.

This is the place where the people who work here talk about what we’re doing and why we're doing it. As my colleagues explain in the blog posts at the top of the column to the right, we are part of the fact-based journalism movement, and the solutions-oriented reporting movement, and the civil discourse movement, etc. We are working to help set the conditions for a different kind of epiphany: that the truth matters, that Americans are better than this, and that by working together, we can save our democracy. Please join us.

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