It’s easy to forget how silly most people thought Donald Trump was, all the way back in January. It was before any primaries or caucuses. Trump led in most polls, but people still couldn’t really quite believe that people were actually going to vote for him.
I spent much of that month at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, reporting for The Daily Beast on the militants who had taken it over. In the intervening months, Trump has morphed from a vague joke or a thumb in the eye of the establishment, depending on your point of view, to a fascist megalomaniacal wreck of a candidate who is unlikely to be elected because he is fundamentally incapable of seeing past his own nose.
As Trump has become an ever-more-worrisome figure, you can track his descent into right-wing madness easily. There were the Red Meat days, where he was merely a bigot. Then came the alt-right phase, the joyous celebration of Daddy Trump and Pepe the Frog and the oven jokes on Twitter. Trump has by now lied so often and so blatantly that many people thought it a little joke when we found out he’d bragged about sexually assaulting women. Of course he did, he’s Donald Trump.
But for once the man was telling the truth, and in the last day or so America has watched with dawning horror as we realize that if he wasn’t lying about being a sex criminal, perhaps he has not been lying about the walls and the deportations and the locking up of his political opponents. Maybe he’s actually been telling the truth about himself this whole time.
I watched his speech Thursday, and if I closed my eyes, I could smell the campfire smoke at the Malheur refuge and feel the Oregon winter wind on my face. Here were the conspiracies, the references to the shadowy international cabals, the whispers about the illegitimacy of the Department of Justice and the Trilateralist coopting of the FBI.
It was like listening to an immodest Ammon Bundy. We have to protect ourselves from not just the government (because it is only a pawn) but from the people who really run it. We should be watchful, resilient, ready—and though he is reluctant, he will sacrifice himself, for he is the only one who can save us from the terror.
Donald Trump shouted out every fevered dystopian fantasy I heard on the refuge, with the exceptions of Agenda 21 and abortion as population control. “They control the Department of Justice,” he said. “They have essentially corrupted the director of the FBI.” “This is a conspiracy against you, the American people, and we cannot let this happen or continue. This is our moment of reckoning.” This is precisely the logic that led a few hundred people to take up arms against the government in Oregon, though at least Ammon Bundy started with a reasonably legitimate premise. Donald Trump doesn’t even have two Americans jailed twice for the same crime to legitimize his quest.
What he has is a small but growing fringe that talks about We the People instead of Americans. We have already seen the violence at his rallies, we have seen the vicious street attacks, we have worried about the rise of the right. What I have not until Thursday heard was something that spiked my nativist upbringing, words delivered in a very particular order that made me want to go buy another rifle and check my food storage.
I was raised among white people, sent to an elementary school in which there were no black kids, and then moved to the mountains of Utah for high school, where the neo-Nazis recruited at illicit drinking parties because kids who would have a beer were already disaffected in an overwhelmingly Mormon culture. There is a part of me that remembers the coding, the tones, remembers the fear that the government might come and massacre us again as they had in times not that long ago. I reject it violently, but you don’t ever forget what you were raised to believe even if you learn better.
It would take a linguist to comb through that speech and parse out which words came from where. I am only a writer steeped in the language of right-wing revolution. I was outraged by Trump before. But now I am worried. There is no scenario in which this country repudiates him and then goes about its business; we allowed his rise and we have emboldened the people that we ignored for so long. We have three weeks to go yet, more scandals and reactions and fear and terror, and at the end of it, we will have an unknowable number of people who will absolutely and without question think that Hillary Clinton’s election is an unmistakable sign that it is time for the governed to withdraw their consent.
Not a majority; not even many, compared to the millions of people who live in America. But enough. Thursday, Donald Trump traveled a step further down the path of militant right-wing revolution. It wasn’t a call to arms, exactly. But it was far past the point of comfort.