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At the beginning and at the end: the big lie

And so the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump ended as predicted: the Senate Republicans told the former president, as they have for the last four years, that no matter how egregious or shameful his words or acts, he will not be held accountable, moral imperatives aside.

And therefore, when the verdict was read, I was not surprised. Clearly, the denouement to Trump’s presidency of chaos and dissembling would be a violent, murderous riot in our Capitol, for which he was given a pass.

I thought about this essay and was tempted to review his legacy of repeated dereliction of duty, his chronic conspiratorial fabrications and defensive, arms-folded ineptitude, all of it hiding in plain sight. But instead I’ll also give him a pass — well, sort of.

I still find myself puzzling over questions that I assume will never be completely answered: how to understand the 74 million Americans who wanted above all else to give Trump four more years. I mean, seriously, what were they thinking? The idea that they, the MAGA voters and the GOP, were card-carrying members of the cult of the Donald never seemed to me plausible. We had all watched the same movie. And yet, they worshiped at the shrine of the Donald with uncritical, full-throated enthusiasm, and the ubiquitous Trump rallies bordered on the religious.

What I saw, however, was a deeply flawed man, mean-spirited, vindictive and disingenuous to his core. From the get-go, his administration was a lie. He was the unindicted “Individual 1.” How to explain Russia? And yet, increasingly, as months passed, his supporters’ enthusiasm only grew. As did my own head-scratching cognitive dissonance.

But then came those interminable weeks before the 2020 election, and the occupant of the White House seemed willing to promise anything and everything except a peaceful transition of power should he lose. He insisted that such a loss could only mean that the election was “rigged,” a word that soon morphed into “stolen,” followed by totemic “stop the steal,” all of it predicated on a “deep state” conspiracy involving massive election fraud. He had “won in a landslide,” his victory snatched from the corrupt jaws of defeat.

And finally came the unvarnished, out-of-whole-cloth “Big Lie.” A lie embraced and then repeated by Trump and his disciples with the righteous fervor of the newly ordained.

Like demagogues past, Trump was desperate to hold onto power and refused to concede to any other reality than that he was and would remain the president, no matter how fair the vote count.

I would judge that throughout history there have been those who have sold their own brand of the “big lie” to the willing. Recall only Jim Crow’s “separate but equal,” Russia, 1917, or Germany, 1933.

And selling his own lie, one constructed from a thousand threads, Trump cynically turned his base into an insurrectionist mob of far-right groups — conspiracists, agitators, white nationalists and self-described militias — inciting them to participate in what was meant to be a supremely anti-democratic act of voter nullification. March on the nation’s capitol, he told them, be prepared to fight to take your country back. Their last-ditch objective: stop Congress from validating what Trump insisted was the fraudulent state-by-state Electoral College vote.

And so his steeped-in-rage mob followed Trump into the darkest, most destructive of places imaginable.

As Nietzsche once said, “If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.” And so they did. And in real time, we watched in shock, disbelief and disgust. But perhaps more apposite to this moment is what Edgar Allen Poe long ago wrote: “While, like a ghastly rapid river, Through the pale door, A hideous throng rush out forever, And laugh — but smile no more.”

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.