Max Weber once remarked that politics is not like a taxicab: you can’t stop at a corner and say, “I want to get off.” Ideologically-inspired action tends to generate dynamics that become increasingly radical and intense. This is how best to understand the events of January 6th, 2021 – and understand who is to blame. Four years of incessant neo-fascist propaganda, police violence, and political polarization set the stage for an event where anywhere from twenty to eight-thousand insurrectionists descended on Washington DC. They wanted to protest the president’s electoral defeat and expose the supposed threat to democracy posed by manifold conspiratorial agents including the “deep state.” Countless extremists in the crowd then stormed the Capitol building in some strange caricature of 1789 or 1917, when insurrectionists wound up sitting on thrones, destroying artifacts and paintings, breaking into offices, and forcing leading politicians to flee for safety.
There are no “two sides” to this story. Thirty hours after the attempted putsch, six are dead, far more are wounded, and the Capitol building is a wreck. It was only at this point that President Trump addressed the nation by video. Assuring his audience that a peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joseph Biden would take place on January 20, 2021, Trump disavowed those “special people” who, earlier, he claimed to “love.” They were quite a group. One was wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie. Another wore a T-shirt proclaiming “6 million was not enough!” Others were in pseudo-military gear, and there were lots of red hats bearing Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again!” The slogan could just as well have been “Make America White Again!” – there was hardly a single person of color among the insurrectionists. And that only made sense. One idiot was waving a huge confederate flag and another, apparently a “shaman” for the utterly bizarre and conspiracy-obsessed “Q-Anon,” was wearing a fur hat and horns on his head.
How had it come to this? There has been a tradition intent on delegitimizing the republic since the Civil War, based in roughly the same agrarian parts of the Midwest and the South. It is impossible to forget the rhetoric and violence employed from the time of the Ku Klux Klan to that of the segregationist white councils of the 1950s and 1960s. In short, there was a mass base in waiting as 2021 neared. Driven by white nationalism and authoritarian impulses, its partisans wanted a return to the “true” America, where women cooked in the kitchen, gays stayed in the closet, immigrants performed menial chores, and people of color were kept out of sight.
Crystallized in Trump’s slogan “America First!” – which was lifted from the quasi-fascist movement of the 1940s – this idealized and falsified image of the nation seemed increasingly threatened. Reactionary propaganda identified feminists with baby-killers, liberals and socialists with “communists,” immigrants with “criminals and rapists,” BLM with fomenting a race war, scientists with falsely exaggerating the number of COVID deaths, and mainstream politicians with forcing “the people” to wear masks. Clusters of such subversives working in tandem with a corrupt and conspiratorial “deep state” seemed to justify Trump’s desire to “drain the swamp” of bureaucracy and corruption in Washington.
The president’s purge targeted not only Democrats but also “weak” Republicans. The latter were the “center-right” moderates connected with President George W. Bush’s two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the “great recession” of 2007-2009, and what had become an ideological vacuum within the party. Even before the election of President Barack Obama, the Tea Party had begun formulating a new agenda with its populist combination of white nationalism, suspicion of the federal welfare state, and fear of conspiracies being hatched not outside but inside the government against “the will of the people.”
Victories in local and state elections by Tea Party candidates, and the emergence of a reactionary political infrastructure, set the stage for Trump’s win in 2016. A well-known real estate developer and host of the television game show “The Apprentice,” he conquered seventeen mostly “moderate” and establishmentarian rivals for the Republican nomination; soon enough they would either fall in line with the new president or find themselves ostracized by the party. With the electoral triumph of Trump, against all odds, the political impulses driving the Tea Party were electrified: its racism morphed into white nationalist hysteria, suspicions about the federal government turned into obsessions with the “deep state,” and paranoid fears about hidden conspiracies became transformed into Q-Anon’s bizarre claims that the Democrats were being led by “Satanic pedophile elites” intent on destroying the nation.
Trump’s enemies counterattacked. They subjected everything about his person and his policies to scrutiny and criticism, including his lack of a healthcare policy, tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of industry, sale of public lands, denial of climate change, inhuman immigration policies, blatant racism and sexism, incompetence regarding the pandemic, endless tweets, and countless foreign policy blunders. Trump fumed; he was not ready for a dialogue. Blunt denial and lying were sufficient responses to the “fake news” perpetrated by The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN. After all, his mass base had never taken any of these Eastern liberal media outlets seriously. FOX was a far better bet; it reported the news as Trump felt it should.
The taxicab picked up speed: Following the botched Mueller Report on Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, and a failed attempt at impeachment, white nationalists, evangelicals, and other gullible souls came to believe that there really was a conspiracy at work. Clashes at the “Unite the Right” demonstrations of 2017 between white nationalist neo-Nazis and anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, provided a certain legitimacy for the radical right, especially when Trump insisted that there were “good people on both sides.” His supporters were distraught by Republican losses in the Congressional elections of 2018. Disappointment turned to hysteria, however, when BLM took to the streets against institutional racism and police brutality in a nationwide protest of 15 million citizens.
An avalanche of publicity was accorded protestors fighting the “New Jim Crow,” and it threw “White America” into a panic. As COVID spread amid the inactivity and confusion of Trump’s administration, Midwestern and Southern militias multiplied, and extremists stormed the state government buildings in Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere. Intimidation of officials became commonplace: homes were picketed, death threats were sent, and a plot was even uncovered to kidnap and then murder the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. The taxicab’s tires were burning.
Bob Dylan was right: “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” With the presidential election of 2020 looming, Trump’s Republicans went to work. Democrats mobilized as never before. The party’s left and right wings came together in the battle against Trump. It was clear that the larger the turnout, especially among minorities, the better the chance of victory. Meanwhile, Trump began a publicity blitz accusing his opponents of corruption, treason, and voter fraud, although it was actually Republicans who tried to sabotage the postal service, reduce voting stations, highlight registration technicalities, oppose early voting, and throw out ballots. It didn’t work, of course, and Joe Biden won the election by 81 to 74 million votes, and 306 to 232 electoral votes.
Sixty suits were filed by Trump’s lawyers contesting the results, and sixty times they were thrown out of court. Recounts affirmed the original tallies. But supporters of the president were enraged. These legal decisions only demonstrated the power of the “deep state.” The question for Trump was whether to accept reality or keep fighting the election results. His decision to keep battling called into question the democratic framework of the United States and, given the president’s erratic stubbornness, the “peaceful transfer of power.” As his Congressional supporters vacillated, Trump intensified his purge of “weak Republicans.”
White nationalists and groups like the Proud Boys were delighted as the crowd gathered on January 6th for a march to the Capitol building. Many were armed, pipe bombs and home-made napalm were found, and bullets flew in the Capitol. Trump had been stoking the flames of violent rebellion since before Election Day with talk of a stolen election. As the attempted coup unfolded, he called upon the insurrectionists to “fight like hell,” while Ivanka praised their patriotism, Donald Jr. threatened retribution against those who did not toe the line, and half-crazed advisors like Rudi Giuliani demanded “trial by combat.”
Trump had already told his people to “lock and load,” “stand down but stand by,” and – regarding BLM – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump had cried voter fraud before, during his presidential campaign of 2016, which he expected to lose; he stopped when he won. Yet this time his lying about voter fraud was so incessant, his incitements to violence so intense, that he was ignominiously kicked off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and most other major internet venues – after the uprising failed.
The taxicab was swerving. Public support for an embattled president whose claim to office rested on blatant lies was the dividing line among Republicans, and it kept moving ever more to the political right. Determining who is a real Republican rested on unwavering support for the president in a moment of crisis. Trump alternated between apoplexy and depression as many cabinet officials and former allies in the Senate and Congress hypocritically distanced themselves from their leader, denied any responsibility for anything, and jumped ship. Even Trump’s thoroughly obsequious vice president, Mike Pence, spoke up by refusing to decertify the electors who would make Biden’s victory official. He did not have the power to do so anyway, yet the president now vilified him in public. The gallows and noose erected outside the door to the Capitol building by the insurrectionists were apparently meant for him: Pence the “traitor.” Thus, this taxicab crashed.
What now? Trump will depart the White House on January 20th, 2021, but impeachment is being planned, which would make him ineligible to run again, and there has been talk about removing him from office. As usual, however, there has been little reflection about broader issues at stake. For all the fear and disgust generated by the insurrectionists, this rebellion never constituted a threat to the state. Of course, real threats lie on the horizon. Limiting civil liberties – especially freedom of speech and assembly – is a temptation.
In spite of the actions planned for the inaugural, however, not all the 7rmillion citizens who voted for Trump are fanatics. The deeper problem concerns what threatens to become a “post-truth” society. Paranoia, lying, and conspiracy fetishism are undermining consensual foundations for validating speech claims. Under the circumstances, populist naïveté about opening a “meaningful discussion” is just that: naïve. This country is divided cultural, ideological, economic, and cultural grounds – and that has been the case since its founding. There is no reason to think that the insurrectionists, and those who support them, will become our “friends.” The goal is to marginalize white nationalism and authoritarian movements, not legitimize the mob by integrating it into a public discourse that will lead nowhere. In this regard, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a host of other sites have banned the president from participating. These are private organizations and their decisions have nothing to do with “free speech,” which only involves government interference. Individuals and firms can be pressured to freeze donations, and publicly shamed if they don’t. And, finally, the culture industry can contribute by rolling back military video games, curtailing the neo-fascist music scene, and attacking conspiracy fetishism and paranoid politics while promoting humane and democratic values.
Of course, government is also tasked with defending the republic and driving extremists back to the fringes. It must prepare not only for multiple insurrections but for how to respond without suppressing civil liberties. Trump alone is not the issue. Any politician who supported the violence should be subject to censure. The government must set the right tone. “Just following orders” is not an excuse, nor is the claim that participants were somehow “duped.” Healing is possible only by assigning responsibility.
Investigations are necessary to find out who leaked information about the Capitol building to the demonstrators, who fed false information to city officials, and which police collaborated with the insurrectionists. Those perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It is also time, once again, to consider serious gun legislation. Also, though protestors should police themselves, legislation is required that prohibits people from carrying guns and the like at large demonstrations.
Armed “million militia” gatherings are planned for the Biden inauguration. They are supposed to take place at the capitols of all fifty states. New legislation is obviously required to disband the armed militias that dot the American landscape. Other tactics and strategies will undoubtedly prove necessary, however. Trump will seek a platform after leaving office, and the mass base for white nationalism and anti-democratic politics isn’t going anywhere – it is firmly entrenched. In spite of everything that has transpired, one-third of voters still believe that Trump bears no responsibility for the insurrection, and one hundred and thirty-nine members of Congress refused to certify the election.
Whatever the impact of Trump’s lamentable “concession” speech and the others that will follow, he will continue to have an audience in the Republican Party. Next time, however, true believers might need to find a fresh demagogue to express their hysterical fear of democratic norms, diversity, and the “deep state.” As the winds for yet another impeachment blow, as Republican senators try to soften the blow with a censure resolution for the president, as a host of pardons loom, and as the president’s day of departure nears, it is useful to recall the words attributed to Edmund Burke that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Stephen Eric Bronner is Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue and Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University. His most recent work is The Sovereign (Routledge, 2020).