Protest versus insurrection
There is a difference between attempts to change policy through public pressure and seeking to change the very nature of government through an insurrection.
The civil rights protests of the late 1950s and 1960s; the anti-war protests of the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s; more civil rights protests (these have occurred repeatedly) in the latter half of the 1970s and the 1980s; the recent climate protests and those of the Black Lives Matter movement all sought changes in government behaviour and policy through pressure. They could at times get disruptive – by stopping traffic in Washington DC or being met with unwarranted police brutality, but no one characterised them as attempts to overthrow the country’s democratic system. In fact, George W. Bush, when faced with a huge protest in February 2003 against the invasion of Iraq, dismissed the participants as a “focus group”.
However, what happened in Washington DC on 6 January was qualitatively different. With President Trump playing the role of agent-provocateur, the events of that day sought the overthrow – based on demonstrated falsehoods – of a legitimate, thoroughly vetted national election. It sought the replacement of the election winner by the egomaniac who had lost. If successful, it would have undermined the integrity of the nation’s electoral process, putting in jeopardy the nation’s democratic form of government. Whatever one thinks of the policies and practices of American governments, challenging them in this fashion is not the product of protest or civil disobedience. It is insurrection.
Seventy four million sympathisers?
A big hint that the US had a problem – one that could encourage insurrection – came when some 74 million Americans chose to vote for a racist neofascist in the 2020 national election. While Trump nevertheless lost the election, a multitude of like-minded rightwing candidates won, as they say, “down ballot”. These folks – gun fanatics, religious fundamentalists, conspiracy mongers and anarchists – are now plaguing Congress and tearing up the Republican Party. In the end, such “representatives of the people” are not so different in their mindset than the January insurrectionists.
The folks who sent them to Congress have a litany of complaints: economic, social, racial, religious, and so on. As voters, they have bought into over-simplified explanations for their discontent – they do not like the federal government either because of what it has done (all those equal rights programmes, etc.), or alternatively, what it has not done (giving Trump four more years in office). And then there are the ever-multiplying conspiracy theories. These folks are true believers and constitute the infamous “Trump’s base”.
Most of those enamoured of Trump are members of self-reinforcing communities. These communities are often relatively rural. Thus, many (though not all) of the 6 January insurrectionists come from roughly the same sort of environment: small towns in the South, West or Upper Midwest, places with a homogenous racial make-up, places that are on the economic margins, regions where white people sense their place in the nation changing in discomforting ways.
… the hard-core conservatives of these communities [Trump’s insurrectionists] have always been with us. They are the same type that made lynching occasions for picnics and public holidays. They are the ones who later screamed at and used dogs against African Americans trying to desegregate society.
And the majority of these places are “wired”. Conservative social media outlets, rightwing talk shows, Fox TV, fundamentalist ministers, and the like have all latched onto, and very successfully promoted, a range of rationales for the popular discontent of Trump’s insurrectionists. Under their tutelage these discontented Americans now confuse middle-of-the-road politics for communism; identify their indigenous culture first and foremost with gun ownership; and cultivate an unthinking, visceral hatred of liberals. Their numbers are significant and were enough to send thousands to Washington with the aim of overturning the results of a presidential election.
Here is another unsettling fact: the hard-core conservatives of these communities have always been with us. They are the same type that made lynching occasions for picnics and public holidays. They are the ones who later screamed at and used dogs against African Americans trying to desegregate society. If you get a chance, look for the photo or YouTube video of the guy walking through Congress with a Confederate flag over his shoulder you might at first think he is in the wrong century. However, as one historian noted, under Trump that flag penetrated deeper into the halls of Congress than it ever had during the Civil War. Then there is the fellow sporting the hoodie that reads “God, Guns, Trump”. Take away the “Trump” and the guy represents a frontier belief system as old as the nation itself. Unfortunately, these people can’t see themselves as American history’s losers, because your are not really a loser until the battle is over. For these folks the battle is never over. And so they cling to the symbols of their never-quite-lost causes as if they were symbols of their own personal worth.
Fooled by initial success
Events at the Capitol on 6 January have been interpreted as a success by Trump’s insurrectionists. They overwhelmed a suspiciously understaffed police contingent and violently broke into the Congress building. They ransacked part of the building, scared the heck out of legislators, and then most of them, at least temporarily, walked away. It is not difficult to see how this sent a misleading message to both the crowd and its rightwing cheerleaders.
Here is one version of that message:
We will return on 19 January 2021, carrying our weapons, in support of our nation’s resolve, which the world will never forget!!! We will come in numbers that no standing army or police agency can match.
This is foolish bravado. Millions might have voted for Trump but only thousands have taken to the streets. The crowd might have had sympathisers in the government – Republican legislators and certainly Donald Trump himself. They might even have had sympathisers in the police force that they confronted. But they are not the only ones this surprise “win” has energised. It has galvanised their opponents who, in truth, are much stronger than they are.
If and when Trump’s insurrectionists do show up again in Washington, or any other major state capital, things are likely to be different: most of the local police sympathisers will have been weeded out, the rest will be actively backed up by the National Guard and, if needed, the regular military; the people in charge on the government side will be different and not at all sympathetic. And if anyone tries to initiate a shootout, they will likely be wounded or killed. If they survive, they’re likely to be put in jail for a very long time. In other words, as things stand now, this assemblage of rightwingers cannot win.
Some Republican politicians know the above prognosis is true. That is why they are trying to head off any strong reaction to the 6 January event. Take, for instance, South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s assessment that “it is past time for all of us to try to heal our country and move forward”. Then there is Republican Representative Ted Budd of North Carolina who, after trying to overturn the presidential election, complained of the Democratic reaction to the insurrection: “If Democrats say they want unity, this isn’t the way to show it.” Actually, unity with the 6 January crowd is not what the Democrats have in mind.
Whatever the ultimate fate of the insurrectionists, it will not be the end of the story. Trump’s base will not just go away. It will still have influence. A 14 January 2021 New York Times article is entitled “Deep in the GOP ranks, the MAGA [Make America Great Again] mind-set prevails”. The piece goes on to explain that
While some Republican leaders and strategists are eager to dismiss these [Trump] loyalists as a fringe element of their party, many of them hold influential roles at the state and local level. These local officials are not only the conduits between voters and federal Republicans, but they also serve as the party’s next generation of higher-level elected officials, and would bring a devotion to Trumpism should they ascend to Washington.
As indicated above, some of them are already there.
Yet it is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, that Trump’s blatant form of authoritarianism will prevail. As suggested, the majority of those who presently command the use of force are still loyal to the system as it stands. The corporate elites, while favouring low taxes and little regulation, are not yet willing to support neofascism in exchange for those benefits. They are as of yet tied to a socially corrosive neoliberalism, even as Trump’s hijinks reveal that its efficacy is in decline. For the present, all the major power players will stay with the nation’s democratic political system.
It should be noted, however, that in the longer run no one can ignore the 74 million who voted for a neofascist leader with whom they had four years’ experience. That was followed by the debacle of 6 January. All of this suggests that an American-style neofascist authoritarianism has become acceptable to millions of Americans. Indeed, it is quickly taking on a prophetic appeal. And that makes this apparently well-rooted anti-democratic form the most likely successor of American democracy.