Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
When Congressman Mo Brooks attended Donald Trump’s “Save America Rally” at the Ellipse Wednesday, January 6 – the day Trump loyalists attacked the US Capitol and tried to overturn the 2020 election – the Alabama Republican’s big punchline was, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” Faced, now, with a lawsuit alleging that he incited the violence that ensued, Brooks claimed he never advocated for violence. And he has said that his comment about “kicking ass” was about the 2022 and 2024 elections.
But now, thanks to Brooks’ own revelation, made to Slate writer Jim Newell this week, that he wore body armor that day, we know that like so many other Trumpists, he was ready for a rumble.
“I was warned on Monday that there might be risks associated with the next few days,” Brooks told Newell. “And as a consequence of those warnings, I did not go to my condo. Instead, I slept on the floor of my office. And when I gave my speech at the Ellipse, I was wearing body armor.”
After Newell’s report, Brooks’ office told a local Alabama station that he had “zero warnings of any kind” about Trump supporters posing a risk on January 6 and that he wore armor because he was warned of a “risk of threatened violence by BLM & ANTIFA” and that he took it seriously because he had been shot at before.
But it seems like Brooks, realizing that he may have made things worse for himself, might just be walking back the comments he made to Newell. After all, blaming Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA is a routinely used tactic of many on the right.
The telling bit of news about the tough-talking Brooks, and the attackers Capitol officers described during their testimony this week before the House select committee investigating the riot, in many ways is a mass embodiment of the ugly values Trump himself had long validated for his supporters.
The bigotry Trump had modeled for years, for example, spewed from the mouth of a woman, in a pink “Make America Great Again” shirt, who led a crowd that screamed racist epithets at Black Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, Dunn recalled at the hearing. The violence that Trump had regularly toyed with at his rallies became manifest as DC Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone was beaten by attackers who called him a “traitor.” The degrading way Trump has spoken about many people seemed to be channeled by an attacker who DC Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges said taunted him with the words, “You will die on your knees.”
Like Trump, members of the mob claimed to be pro-police, even as they fought officers hand-to-hand. Like Trump, they talked of treason, though some rallied around the battle flag of the traitorous Confederacy. This was the moment that experts had warned might come, when Trump’s followers expressed all the rage, cruelty and aggression he had normalized though his lifelong effort to sell himself as the ideal American man of action.
Attackers dressed in combat gear represented Trump’s militaristic leanings, which he had expressed most vividly by requiring that the military display its hardware at his 2019 July 4th celebration. The countless Trump flags waved by the mob recalled his longtime branding strategy of putting his name, in huge letters, everywhere he can. Finally, there was the nonsense slogan –“Stop the Steal!” – that aped the former president’s blunt catchphrase style in both meter and tone.
As described at the House hearing and revealed in many videos, the riot was the product of Trump’s recent incitements, including false claims about election fraud and the pre-riot speech in which he told thousands of followers to go immediately to the Capitol to express their outrage. However, the process that led to January 6 began decades ago, as Donald Trump sold himself to the country as a crude, tough guy who spoke “politically incorrect” truths.
Much of Trump’s schtick back then involved talking about the world in apocalyptic terms and describing politicians as feckless weaklings. In 1987, he lashed officials who he said let other countries humiliate the US in trade agreements. In 1989, he said the country was enduring “the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.” In 1990, he would express admiration for China’s violent crackdown on protesters because the government demonstrated “the power of strength.” Throughout his life Trump also modeled cruelty and aggression, especially in statements about women. In one smarmy exchange he told a contestant on his TV show, “Must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.”
During his 2016 campaign, Trump frequently encouraged his supporters to get tough with protesters and even promised to pay the legal bills for anyone arrested for assaulting them. Trump made a thinly-veiled threat of gun violence, saying “Second Amendment people” would act against Hillary Clinton. As Politico reported at the time, cries of “Kill her, kill her!” and “take the b***h down” could be heard at Trump events.
During his presidency, Donald Trump continued to use violent words to connect with his supporters and rally them against his opponents or critics. He called journalists the “enemy of the people” and praised the actions of a Republican congressman who physically assaulted a reporter. Trump’s rhetoric surely contributed to the hostility, threats and physical attacks his backers directed at journalists.
Trump’s aggression was blended with inflammatory statements related to race. Sources told CNN in 2018 that during a meeting, then-President Trump described Black majority nations as “shithole countries.” Trump denied the claims. Something that he couldn’t easily deny was his very public tweet suggesting that Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three of the four women of color were born in the US, and one has been a naturalized citizen since 2000.
He railed against Black athletes who protested police violence and called Covid-19 “kung flu.” Is it any wonder, after the years he invested in building up his anti-social, bad boy image and after a political career spent winding up his supporters into an emotional frenzy, that Trumpism produced January 6? All the evidence that it did was displayed as the Capitol attackers gave free rein to the dark impulses that Trump had cultivated. They became, like him, men and women of aggression and action, certain they were right and intolerant of those who disagreed.
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The result was what the officers told the committee. “I was grabbed, beaten, tased, all while being called a traitor to my country,” said Officer Fanone. Sergeant Aquilino Gonell heard shouts of “traitor” and was told he deserved to be “executed.” Officer Dunn was met with racism of the kind he had never encountered while on duty at the Capitol. No doubt could be attached to the connection between these events and Trump. “All of them – all of them – were saying, ‘Trump sent us,’” Gonell said. “Nobody else.”
With his call for ass-kicking, Rep. Mo Brooks may as well have been Trump himself. In the rioters’ violence and bigotry, the attackers at the Capitol showed the officers that they had absorbed Trump’s message so well they too expressed the essence of Trump. In their snarling, violence they embodied what he has represented. And once again Trump got what he seemed to want: It was all about him.