I am still processing the events of Wednesday, January 6, and will be for some time. We came, I believe, perilously close to witnessing the execution of many members of Congress by a raucous mob that had made its way to Capitol Hill from a rally where they heard soon-to-be-former-President Donald Trump give an incendiary but (even by his standards) rambling speech. There, Trump repeated his usual falsehoods about a stolen election, the media being the “enemy of the people,” and the dangers of “cancel culture” for conservative voices. He highlighted the joint session of Congress that was ongoing at the time, and where the Electoral College tally would be received and finalized. Having unsuccessfully pressured Georgia officials to “find” enough votes for him to win, Trump had been leaning on reluctant Vice-President Mike Pence to reject electoral votes from several swing votes while also pushing Republicans members of the House and Senate to object to the votes as they were received and approved in Congress. Then he encouraged the crowd to continue on to Capitol Hill after the rally, promising to join them in their march:
Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down — and I’ll be there with you — we’re going to walk down. … We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.
Of course, Trump did not walk to the Capitol with those who had attended his rally. Nor did he force his way up onto the Capitol steps and porticos, or smash windows and assault members of the press and the Capitol Police, and he did not rip items from or smear his own shit on the walls inside the building, or steal a laptop potentially containing sensitive national security information, or trash the office of the Senate Parliamentarian. Nor did he descend onto the Senate floor with tactical combat gear and flexcuffs, erect a gallows on the green in front of the Capitol, or bring pipe bombs and a cooler of Molotov cocktails. He also, as far as I know, did not beat a police officer with a board to which he had affixed an American flag, nor did the President murder an officer by smashing his head with a fire extinguisher.
But those who had attended Trump’s rally, taking their cues from his speech about strength and weakness and rigged elections, did in fact do all those things, and more.
What else did the President not do that day? He did not call out the DC National Guard until hours after the rioters had descended on the Capitol and its surprisingly weak, almost non-existent, security perimeter, and far too late to help prevent them from overrunning it. He did not make a reasonable, timely, or coherent call for calm and order, but instead released a video in which he told the rioters to go home but also that he loved them and that they were very special people. And as of 7:00 pm on Wednesday evening, Trump did not tweet anymore because Twitter locked his account for 12 hours, followed just two days later by a permanent suspension.
The violence on display at the Capitol on Wednesday was shocking, even after a year of shocks and mass death through war, state repression, and a pandemic that has killed 350,000 in the US and almost 2 million worldwide. Pundits grasped for analogies and metaphors to describe the scene, asserting that it looked more like what you expect in a “banana republic” and that it was the first such violent invasion and sacking of the Capitol since the War of 1812. These comparisons are off, though, as many critics have pointed out in the past few days. It was not a coup but a failed spasm of insurrection, and comparisons to Third World states were inaccurate and ahistorical, conveniently neglecting that the US has helped stage the overthrow of many an elected government as a routine part of its foreign policy. I even noted a joke circulating on Twitter that was, supposedly, working its way around various Latin American capitals, stating that the January 6 coup had failed because there was no US embassy in Washington to provide support for it.
Others argued that the proper historical comparison for the storming of the Capitol is not military action by a foreign power, as in the British-Canadian burning of the Capitol in August 1814, but the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow era. This is compelling because it draws on a wholly homegrown and very long history of racial animus and bloodthirsty violence, and because it highlights the real possibility that one potential outcome of the Capitol riot was the televised and livestreamed mass murder of elected officials. Make no mistake that many in the crowd on Wednesday were out for blood. While many of the rioters milled about and took selfies, surprised perhaps to find themselves in the building, small coordinated groups within the chaos made their way quickly and with military precision into the building, to the chambers of the House and Senate, and to the private offices of many lawmakers, who had been secured and moved from the Capitol in the nick of time.
And what if they had not been? What if the officer who directed a crowd storming up the stairs outside the Senate chamber entrance, which was woefully and shockingly unprotected, away from the doors and down an opposite hallway, had not been so astute and quick? While the crowd itself was large and composed of people from many walks of life, including financial services CEOs, doctors, small business owners, and even local and state elected representatives, among its ranks were also avowed, active, and organized neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and members of militia movements (and ‘militia’ itself is a contested term, as it might denote some official governmental authority and legitimacy which these groups do not have). The class composition of the crowd storming the Capitol is important, as it gives the lie to the idea that Trump’s rabid base is simply some kind of “Y’all Qaeda” of poor white people driven by fanatical racism. Look at any history of lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were not always or even usually atrocities committed by those working in secret, ashamed of the act. They were, for the perpetrators and onlookers, often festive events, drawing dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of onlookers and prominent local political and economic figures. Read this story of the Waco Horror, the 1916 lynching of Black teenager Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, and tell me that a good portion of the crowd rampaging through the Capitol on Wednesday would not have erupted in bloodthirsty cheers if the paramilitary teams apparently hunting down Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer had gotten hold of them and taken them to the makeshift gallows they constructed. With lynching largely stamped out by the 1950s and the civil rights movement winning major victories in the 1960s, the bloodlust of racialized vigilante justice that underwrote the legal, political, economic, and social order in so much of the US after Reconstruction went underground. The idea of dispensing justice to corrupt politicians, journalists, and race traitors in order to re-establish and expand that order was crystalized in the far right novel The Turner Diaries, and particularly in the orgasmic violence of “the day of the rope.”
This is fringe ideology, but it’s not new, it’s not some foreign import, and it’s not the first time it would have inspired a deadly and spectacular attack on a federal building by domestic terrorists. All the rhetoric of revolution and jokes about guillotines from the last year or more by leftist twitter warriors looks like so much fluff against the organized paramilitary right wing teams prepared to decapitate congressional leadership. I do not mean that the radical left should take up such extralegal violence, as that is meant to terrorize and terror cannot long last as the organizing principle for any society, let alone a free and democratic one. But a truly free and democratic society is not, in the end, the goal of those who stormed the Capitol, and certainly not of those among them committed to violence. It would be instructive here to examine and compare the example from a different Capitol Hill, namely the Capitol Hill Organized Protest in Seattle in June 2020, where protestors demanding racial justice and police accountability stormed a police precinct and occupied the surrounding area for four weeks. The facile yet obvious comparison for those looking to dabble in whataboutism is that, well, the left does it too, so the real question is one of patriotic attachment and true Americanism. Yet property destruction is not the same as murder, and in the case of CHOP it was the inability to control spontaneous violence that in the end helped spell the occupation’s unceremonious end (as well, of course, as the inability to resist reactionary state violence and legitimate political authority – clearly, “socialism in one neighborhood” is not possible).
The spectacular use of violence that we could have witnessed in DC seems to have a different purpose as the people committing it are not marginalized in the same way (their grievances may be based on a perception of marginalization, but again this is where the class formations and ideological milieu in which they participate are vital to investigate), and the goal was not to occupy and control the building for an extended period. As one of those at the riot noted in this New York Times piece, “We had enough people, we could have tore that building down brick by brick.” But they didn’t. They did, however, leave a mess and the promise of more violent riots to come, including at legislatures in state capitals around the country. Michigan, Oregon, and Kentucky have already witnessed such violence or threats of it in 2020, and the opening of legislative sessions this month in the wake of the Capitol storming has invited all manner of rightwing protester and potential vigilante-terrorist to come out of the woodwork. These people are not divorced from the GOP power structure either. For example, Rhonda Palazzo, who in November lost her bid for the federal House seat from Kentucky’s 3rd district in Louisville to incumbent Democrat John Yarmuth, spoke to a crowd of self-styled patriots, many armed to the teeth, at the Kentucky state capitol on January 9 as the legislative session inside got underway. According to the Frankfort State-Journal, Palazzo “spoke in opposition to the results of 2020’s general election,” and argued “that Biden wouldn’t take office on Jan. 20, his scheduled inauguration date, and quoted several foreboding passages from a website that contains ‘The Trump Prophecies.'” And what did Palazzo quote exactly while standing in front of the State Capitol as a supermajority of her Republican colleagues in the legislature stripped the governor of emergency powers that had kept Kentucky’s covid rates lower than its neighbors through most of the pandemic? “Rake the enemy over coals for the end-time battle … stomp the enemy’s head with bliss.” Not exactly a paragon of democratic virtue, Palazzo, but she isn’t some yokel from the sticks. She owns a successful real estate company and an accounting degree, and worked for 25 years as a financial advisor. Her messianic invocation of end times and the visceral image of blissfully stomping heads doesn’t leave much wiggle room if you’re imagining what she might do as a legislator, but it might give her career opportunities in whatever extreme Christian nationalist political formation breaks out from the collapsing husk of the GOP.
This is speculation, of course, because the fact is, the Capitol was cleared, insurrectionists are being identified and arrested, and Congress even returned late in the night of January 6 to finish the business of finalizing the Electoral College votes. If you were viewing Senators’ speeches live that night as I was, you might have heard Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska whose milquetoast critiques of Donald Trump have earned him the ire of Trump’s voting base but none of the love of his opponents across the aisle, inform us that the country was too divided and that the solution might be to shovel your neighbor’s driveway. A true profile in courage. But this is the whirlwind the Republican Party has sown and which the weakness of the American left and opportunism of the American right’s careerists and egomaniacs have now started to reap. Will there be accountability for Trump, for Republicans enabling him, and those who ransacked the Capitol? Will it fall to capital to discipline them all, as the swift rebuke by tech giants and the pulling of political donations by CEOs might portend? What chaos and extremist violence await in the coming days, weeks, and years? Will the left organize itself into existence and offer some bulwark against the right’s claim to represent “ordinary Americans” even as it fantasizes about and plans for re-enforcing new forms of racial, gender, and class hierarchy? Will the imperial wars America has fought for so long finally break budgets and minds so fully that their wounds and scars come home in the form of homegrown insurgent violence? Are we on the precipice of some kind of politically significant American-born fascist movement? Will the state response involve a crackdown on left movements that seek justice and democratic economic transformation rather than just those far right groups espousing spectacular violence and hierarchical repression? We are left with more questions than answers in the wake of the Capitol riots, and few of the institutions on which we might rely for those answers seem up to the challenge.