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We Knew

To claim ‘no one knew it could go this far’ is to willfully ignore and erase the history of everyone who warned it would.

“I certainly did not believe, or have any anticipation, that [Trump] would take matters to the extent that have become clear over the last few weeks,” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told The Atlantic shortly after the January 6 riot and attempted terrorist attack at the U.S. Capitol. Mohler’s explanation is illustrative of the response of many conservatives who had previously supported Trump. We supported him for his policies, judges, or simply because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, they say. We didn’t vote for this. We never knew it would come to this.

But we did know. We knew, and many of us warned, that Trump was a demagogue with no sense of constraint and no respect for the Constitution, who was enamored of violence and prone to norm-breaking, who had a weirdly regular habit of expressing his public admiration for dictators and tyrants, and whose ignorance of and disrespect for American democracy was unprecedented in the history of the republic. That we knew matters because it means Trump’s defenders cannot plead ignorance, and it places a higher burden on them to reexamine what they got wrong and the role they played in bringing us to this point. 

A tiny sample of forewarnings about Trump would start with Peter Wehner’s op-ed, “Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump,” published five years ago this week. Wehner, who worked in the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations, wrote that “Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe.” Wehner further warned that Trump is “a demagogic figure who does not view himself as part of our constitutional system but rather as an alternative to it.” If there were a prize for prescient political commentary, Wehner would retire the trophy. 

In February 2016, National Review devoted an entire issue to explaining why Trump was the wrong choice, with writer after writer arguing that he did not respect conservative or Christian principles and might not respect democratic ones either. The same month I joined a rising chorus of voices—many of them conservative—warning that Trump showed uncomfortable parallels to outright fascism. I wrote

He is an autocrat in democrat’s clothing, a tyrant in the wings, a bully who admires the “strength” of tyrants and butchers, who finds a free press to be an inconvenience that he intends to tame with legal force once elected, a man who demonizes opponents and romanticizes violence, especially against minorities, who pines for the day when government could have its way with people without the trouble of constitutional law getting in the way.

A month later, dozens of Republican national security leaders (including me) signed an open letter warning that Trump was “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” We warned of his dishonesty and admiration for tyrants. And we concluded that “his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.” The same month Mitt Romney delivered a famous stemwinder of a speech denouncing Trump and warning against him. In May 2016, Andrew Sullivan wondered if America was ripe for tyranny. Months after Trump’s inauguration, David Frum warned how Trump could bring autocracy to America. 

Any Michael Gerson column from the past five years repeated the message. On top of that, political scientists and historians spent five years giving us their best scholarship warning about Trump’s demagoguery, authoritarianism, and disrespect for democracy. Here is a small selection of one scholar’s synopsis of what scholars said: 

We warned you that he had no commitment to democratic values or norms. We warned you about the dangers of a leader that abused federal law enforcement to investigate his enemies and to pardon his allies. We warned you that he was undermining the peaceful transfer of power, perhaps the most sacred and stabilizing tradition in American politics. We warned you that Trump’s lies about election results would erode faith in elections. We warned you that his embrace of authoritarianism would degrade American democracy for decades to come. We warned you that putting someone like Trump in the White House is how democracies die.

Finally we should just listen to Trump himself. The president repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power throughout the campaign last year, cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy months before any ballots had even been cast, and suggested the only legitimate outcome would be his victory. 

I could go on and on, and on. The point is that Mohler’s response—“I certainly did not believe, or have any anticipation, that [Trump] would take matters” this far—has no basis in reality and no justification. There is no reason he should not have anticipated Trump’s authoritarianism or the political violence of his movement.

Mohler is hardly the only prominent voice to have supported Trump and subsequently condemned the violence. I pick on Mohler’s statement because he carries significant influence in the evangelical world; I take his response as indicative of how conservative and evangelical thought leaders are likely processing the events of the past week. Scores of other pundits are trying to explain to themselves how they got this wrong.

Every pundit presents himself as an authority on political and cultural analysis. They write thousands of words in columns, hundreds of thousands in books, and speak thousands more on podcasts and in interviews. Yet pundits who defended Trump before the riot claim that they could not have anticipated that Trump would turn out to disrespect democratic norms or incite mob violence—when other scholars, pundits, activists, and thinkers have been warning of exactly that for half a decade. We warned so often that our critics invented a label—Trump Derangement Syndrome—with which to dismiss us as a band of hysterical Chicken Littles.

To claim in January 2021 that one couldn’t know it would come to this, to act surprised when political violence happened, is an unconscionably self-serving act of gaslighting. To claim no one knew it could go this far is to willfully ignore and erase the history of everyone who warned it would go this far. Acting like it was impossible to foresee what happened is to pretend that we didn’t spend half a decade bickering over just how close to authoritarianism Trump was taking us.

If a thought leader or pundit genuinely never entertained the thought that Trump might turn out this way and somehow never encountered any of the warnings summarized above, he or she has existed in the most perfectly sealed, self-reinforcing epistemological bubble ever constructed. In which case, that person has no business engaging as a public intellectual. 

If, as is more likely, a pundit did encounter these warnings but simply didn’t believe them, obviously that pundit got it wrong. That’s OK; we often get things wrong. But to then claim “no one could have known” is a bald-faced falsehood. If you drive over a cliff after racing past a crowd yelling at you to stop, surprise at the ground rushing up to meet you is likely not your main reaction, nor is “no one could have known this cliff was here.”

To keep driving in the face of the crowds yelling about the cliff ahead, and then to condemn the ground for failing to stay beneath you or the crowd for not yelling louder, is a sign of intellectual stubbornness and hubris. It is to purposefully shift blame away from your own choices and past analysis and onto reality for failing to conform to expectations. It is to exempt yourself from what you expect of everyone else: accountability. To do so as a public intellectual is a dereliction of duty, a refusal to take responsibility for your own words and arguments and the effect they have in the world. 

It is understandable to get things wrong—we all do—but subsequently waving away those errors, shifting blame, rewriting history, ignoring the path that brought us to this place is to act in bad faith. If you defended, explained, and justified every step of the way and then condemned the destination, your condemnation is hollow and cheap. Public commentary relies on an implicit contract with the reader: Listen to me because I have insightful things to say. But if, when proven wrong, you have no insight into why or how you went wrong—if you explain it away by claiming, falsely, that no one could have gotten it right—it is unclear what value that contract holds for anyone. 

If instead you don’t like where the path has led you, you may want to reexamine the path and the choices you made to keep driving on it, not act shocked that the road signs proved accurate. Put on the brakes. Stop the car. Put it in reverse and go back to ask directions, because you are lost and probably should not be driving right now. When faced with an avoidable error of judgment of this magnitude, the appropriate response is not surprise or bafflement, because nothing surprising happened. The more appropriate response is ruefulness, regret, chagrin, or sheepishness, followed by a change of heart. Christians call it repentance.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University.