By Greg Olear
WHAT WE NOW KNOW as the Fourth Crusade began in 1199, when a troop of rough-and-tumble French noblemen—the MAGA of their day—heeded the new Pope’s call to liberate the Holy Land from the infidels.
The endeavor was bankrolled by the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, who was in his eighties and almost blind—a decrepit mob boss, basically. Using what amounted to early-13th-century psyops, the Doge managed to convince the Frenchmen that before they attacked Jerusalem, they should first lay siege to Constantinople. This made zero sense to the self-righteous Crusaders, because Constantinople was a Christian city—the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Why should they make war with other Christians? But the Doge needed this to happen: the Byzantine emperor owed him a lot of money, and this was an excellent opportunity to use borrowed muscle to collect on the debt.
Constantinople was famously impregnable: surrounded by difficult-to-navigate waters on three sides, and defended on the fourth by a series of unscalable walls, of the kind Trump never managed to build. Even Attila the Hun took one look at the place and kept heading West. But in April of 1204, the Doge and his French brute squad managed. They landed their ships on the perilous shore, and the Byzantine guardsmen helped them penetrate the city walls.
Once inside, the Crusaders lay waste to the greatest city in the world, slaughtering its citizens, raping its women, burning its buildings (including the great library), destroying its precious artwork, and stealing whatever they could get their grimy hands on. As one historian put it: “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.” That this unspeakable horror was committed in the name of Jesus Christ did not escape the notice of the Pope, who was livid when he heard the news. “Whoever suggested such a thing to you,” he wrote, “and how did they lead your mind astray?” The Pope’s C.Y.A. tone was similar to Mitch McConnell’s on Wednesday night.
Before Trump came along, back when I was still writing fiction, I spent a good year and a half working on a historical novel about the Byzantine Empire. This was a robust civilization that for seven centuries was the center of Medieval Christendom, the cultural capital of the Western world. And now? Most people are only vaguely acquainted with its name. Its greatest contribution to modern society is probably the word icon.
When empires fall, they fall fast.
I’ve thought about the Fourth Crusade a lot these last few days—since the motley MAGA army of smirking cosplay insurrectionists stormed the U.S Capitol. The Constantinopolitans surely knew that the three emperors who held the throne from 1199 to 1204—Alexius III, whom the Doge installed; the Trumpy Alexius IV, who robbed the treasury and fled; Alexius V, the Mike Pence-like sap who was left holding the bag—were bumblers. But I’m sure they did not realize, as they prepared for Easter that fateful year, that their city was on the verge of being destroyed—that life, as they knew it, was over.
When the Trump Crusaders stormed the building on Wednesday, most of our federal elected officials were inside—members of the House, including the Speaker; the entire Senate, including VP-Elect Kamala Harris; the Vice President, who was presiding over the counting of electoral votes. While they were certainly aware of the menacing MAGA gathered outside the Capitol—indeed, some of them, such as the seditious Senators Josh “Flaccid Dildo” Hawley and Ted Cruz, encouraged the insurrectionists—they were no doubt shocked and probably terrified that the mob had penetrated the building’s defenses. Some of the terrorists had zip ties, which are often used as handcuffs. Some were armed. Outside, a gallows was erected, and a cross large enough for an actual crucifixion. Richard “Bigo” Barnett, the self-described white nationalist who was photographed with his stinking feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, wrote on Facebook that
he “came into this world kicking and screaming, covered in someone else’s blood,” adding, “I’m not afraid to go out the same way.” The post was accompanied by a selfie of Barnett with a rifle strapped to his chest. He was wearing a polo shirt bearing on one sleeve a pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” flag logo.
“Blue Lives” don’t really matter to these hateful Fascists, however; one of their number murdered a Capitol police officer by bludgeoning him over the head with a fire extinguisher.
It’s easy to laugh at grown men with neckbeards dressed like they’re attending some perverse alt-right Burning Man. Fish, barrel. And these inbred morons should absolutely be mocked. “Trump’s supporters should not be allowed to memorialize this disgraceful day as a bold, noble revolt and the people who participated in this mob as committed patriots or daring commandos,” writes Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post. “Part of stigmatizing what happened and standing up to it should be turning the rioters into laughingstocks.”
But Wednesday was no laughing matter. This could have gone south in a hurry. These people were angry. They were violent. And they genuinely believed—with the same dangerous fervor of the Doge-duped Crusaders of eight centuries ago—that the election was stolen from their Lord and Savior, Donald John Trump. It is a minor miracle that only five people died, and that every single one of our elected officials emerged unscathed.
What if these goons had automatic weapons? This could easily have been a bloodbath. They could have killed Pence. They could have killed Pelosi. I shudder to think what these roving incels might have done to Kamala or AOC. And I somehow doubt that Last Action Hero wannabe Dan Crenshaw could have saved the day. There was no John McClane in that chamber; there was no John McCain in that chamber. Thankfully, there were crack Secret Service and Capitol Police, who secured the place. But what could they have done against Trump Crusaders with AR-15s, ready and willing to die for the cause? (Yes, I know the District has strict gun laws, but why would we expect MAGA nation to pay any attention? They fucking stormed the Capitol; they’re going to heed a pesky firearm regulation?)
At about three o’clock Wednesday afternoon, with the outcome of the besieging still very much in doubt, I found myself wondering what would happen if there was a massacre—how the Senators would be replaced, who would replace them, how that might effect the balance of power in the wake of our victory in Georgia. This is not something any American should ever have to consider, and I was ashamed of myself for even harboring those thoughts. I shook it off, I went home, I cleaned the house and packed up the holiday decorations. Christmas is over.
That I have been sounding off about the dangers of Trump for the last four years—that I was right—gives me no solace. If anything, it makes this all the more frustrating. Here is what I wrote in the introduction to Dirty Rubles, published in May of 2018:
Donald Trump is nothing less than a threat to the American way of life. His term in office comprises an existential threat to the republic, the gravest since the Civil War. Not since 1860 has the future of the Union itself been in such doubt. Other presidents might have lacked good judgment, but we never questioned where their true loyalties lay. George W. Bush loved America, Richard Nixon loved America, Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding loved America. Trump loves only himself, cares only about himself, is loyal only to himself. And Vladimir Putin has exploited this weakness, to the detriment of not just every American, but every freedom-loving human being on earth.
There’s no pleasure in told-ya-so. On the contrary, it makes me sad, and a little sick to my stomach. Never have I more wished that I was wrong.
Constantinople held on for a century and a half after the sack of 1204, before falling for good to the Turks in May of 1453. The Byzantines were replaced by the Ottomans. Their great Empire is no more. One day, America, too, will fall.
Wednesday’s botched insurrection was a warning we must heed. Unless we take urgent action right now, unless the MAGA terrorists are identified and arrested—unless the President is removed from office immediately—there is nothing to stop the Trump Crusaders from taking even more drastic measures 12 days from now.
I remain hopeful for the post-January 20 future. But as the Constantinopolitans of 1204 could attest: nothing is guaranteed.
Photo credit: The intrepid and wonderful Sandi Bachom.