There are some events whose historical importance go unrecognized as they occur, like a fork in the road that you didn’t even realize you’d passed. But what happened in Washington on January 6th was one of those moments whose importance dawns on you in real-time, one which makes you feel as if you are witnessing history as it happens.
There was a strange aura of surrealness to it. Congress was going through the dull procedural motions of certifying the electoral votes, a boring sequence of speeches and points of order, while Trump was riling up his supporters at the other end of the National Mall. He told them that they ought to make a show of strength–as always, keeping his directives vague for the sake of plausible deniability–and so they spilled down the Mall in the general direction of the Capitol. Some of them stumbled on police cordons and simply decided to break through them; the police offered only token resistance. They seemed to have no plan at all and yet kept moving. They brushed aside police and flooded up onto the steps of the Capitol itself, hanging flags over the railings and milling about at the spot where Joe Biden is due to be inaugurated in two weeks’ time. They opened doors, smashed windows, and spilled into the labyrinthian corridors on the inside of the Capitol. What followed was a surreal sequence of images: the battle flag of the Confederacy being carried through the halls of Congress; clouds of tear gas hanging in the Rotunda; guns drawn on the floor of the House of Representatives; rioters in wild costumes standing on the dais of the now-deserted Senate chamber. Congresspeople evacuated hurriedly; Pence and Pelosi were spirited away to preserve the line of succession; barricades went up at doorways. There were brawls between police and insurrectionists. Five people died, including a San Diego woman, Ashli Babbit, who was shot by police while climbing through a barrier in a Capitol hallway; and a Capitol policeman, who was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. The Maryland and Virginia National Guards were called up, and the DC Guard was mobilized on the orders of Mike Pence rather than Trump himself. Police and guardsmen armed with rifles trooped down the streets of Washington as night came. It was several hours before police cleared the building out, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and flash grenades, and finding bombs left behind by rioters. Congress reconvened later that night with a bizarre aura still hanging in the air.
The situation escalated so rapidly that it seems almost hard to believe. One minute Trump was giving one of his compendiums of petty personal grievances to a typically adoring crowd, and the next, people were being shot and beaten to death in the United States Capitol. What went wrong, and when?
I don’t feel, as some do, that the rioters profaned the sacred halls of the Capitol. The people who work in that building have already profaned them plenty. They profaned them when they launched the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, when they perpetuated the annihilation of America’s native people, when they passed tough-on-crime bills that really made it a crime to be black, and when they furnished vast sums of money for military machines of death, but only pennies to help the starving, the homeless, and the poor. What happened on January 6th does not scare me because a mob sullied the place of business of a supposedly good and righteous institution. What scares me is more what it represents: namely that political violence is now well-established in the strategic toolbox of the far right, and that it’s here to stay.
There’s been a common saying that the events of January 6th were four years in the making, and, while that’s true in the most immediate sense, I believe that the roots of the problem go back much farther than that. America’s reactionary right lost much of its power in the New Deal era, and ever since then has been trying to maintain what power they have in progressively more anti-democratic ways. Richard Nixon used the apparatus of the state to spy on and destroy his political enemies. Ronald Reagan funneled money and guns to the Contras, a brutal right-wing paramilitary in Nicaragua because they fought socialists; when Congress demanded that support for the Contras stop, Reagan simply ignored the democratic will and continued supporting the Contras illegally. Likewise, all indications suggest that George Bush would’ve lost the 2000 election to Al Gore if the Supreme Court hadn’t stepped in and stopped the recount in Florida; the Supreme Court majority, which shared Bush’s antidemocratic right-wing goals, was aware that their intervention was legally baseless (such that they said the decision could never be used as precedent), but did it anyway. Opposition to the democratic process on the American right goes far wider and deeper than Donald Trump, and in that respect, we cannot allow them to escape blame for having laid the groundwork for the current moment.
But Trump does represent a new and more dangerous antidemocratic strain in American politics–the events of the past four years prove that. While previous reactionary figures helped pave the way for his rise to power, they never sent mobs against the Capitol to overturn the clear and decisive results of an election and preserve the rule of a widely reviled autocratic leader. They never condoned the murder of protestors, as Trump did. They never called for opposition politicians to be jailed, or, as the growing legions of QAnon followers desire, executed en masse. Nor did they so persistently and vocally dehumanize immigrants. What we are seeing is no longer garden-variety antidemocratic conservatism, but rather a uniquely American form of authoritarian ultranationalism based around violence and mass popular mobilization–in other words, fascism.
People get very skittish when you say that word–assuming that, if a person is not literally Hitler, they cannot be a fascist. But fascism is a broad, multifaceted tendency, based around common threads of extreme authoritarianism and ultranationalism; not all fascist roads necessarily lead to Auschwitz. Nor does a fascist have to be successful in their goals in order to be considered a fascist; most fascist movements start out as farcical freak shows before becoming deadly serious. Knowing and acknowledging what we are up against is a key step towards fighting it. And it is also critically important to acknowledge that the problem is not going away.
Many Democrats, right up to Joe Biden himself, have expressed the belief that Republicans will quickly return to their senses after Trump is gone, and that the buddy-buddy bipartisanship of the old days will shortly be restored. That is, at best, pollyanna optimism and, at worst, totally delusional. 42% of Republicans, in a recent poll, declared their support for the storming of the Capitol. Trump himself leads every hypothetical poll for the Republican primary in 2024. New Republican members of Congress are growing increasingly extreme with each passing election, with two full-out QAnon followers joining the House of Representatives this year. Groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters are swelling their ranks with new recruits, young men increasingly drawn to the idea of violent combat on behalf of their political goals. January 6th was not the last gasp of a dying movement on its way out of power, but rather a warning shot announcing the arrival of a new phase in America’s political struggle.
This is a hellish future, one that no sane person wants, making it all the more important that we know how to stop it in its tracks. One thing is for certain: the old politics will not do anymore. High-minded moralism about civility and decency will not do it–action will. Fascism builds off of a dedicated core of violent true-believers but gains power by appealing to a larger mass of disillusioned people. To address the root causes of that disillusionment–poverty, economic stagnation, social atomization–is the basic step towards undercutting the appeal of fascism. The United States was not impacted as severely by the rising tide of fascism in the 1930s as many European countries were, for one critical reason–we had the New Deal, which worked to make society better and more liveable, and kept Americans from falling into despair and anger that was so easily manipulated and weaponized by fascists. That, combined with rigorous popular mobilization and education against fascist movements that already exist, can help stop violent authoritarianism before it is able to seize power.
America’s new right-wing extremism is not going away–and it is growing more violent. And there are plenty of standard-bearers to continue the cause. Trump himself is constitutionally able to run again in 2024, and it’s difficult to foresee any Republican beating him given the current polling. But Trump isn’t a young man and, should a combination of Covid side effects and nonstop KFC consumption strike him down before 2024, there will be plenty of people to take his place. His son, Don Jr., is particularly beloved in the MAGAverse, as is Trump’s daughter Ivanka. Congressman Matt Gaetz is a rabid Trump loyalist who is a popular figure on the far-right. Senator Josh Hawley led the charge to overturn the election results in Congress but also supports economically populist policies like $2000 stimulus checks–a blend of concerning authoritarianism and economic concessions that could prove effective if the country’s financial situation does not improve. Tom Cotton, while lacking any charisma whatsoever, won points among the MAGA crowd over the summer for arguing that the army should be sent out after Black Lives Matter protesters and that they should be given “no quarter”–in plainer language, killed. The basic point is that, even with Trump out of office for now, the threat of the authoritarian right still looms large–whether from Trump himself or from one of his countless acolytes.
And that’s not even taking into account the individual members of the movement–increasingly well-armed and organized into militia groups, followers of deranged conspiracy theories, who believe that it is eminently valid to employ violence to overturn the democratic process. At Charlottesville in 2017, a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters, killing one person and injuring many more. At the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, lone-wolf gunmen and far-right militias routinely murdered protesters simply for expressing their beliefs–in all, some 30 people died in the wave of protest. And this past week, when the people returned an outcome with which they did not agree, America’s far-right decided that violence was once again the answer–that storming the Capitol was the only way to get what they wanted. The storming of the Capitol moved beyond the realm of individual murderers and small groups of militiamen, and progressed to violence on a mass scale. And every day, this approach gains converts–and gains power.
The events of January 6th were not an ending, but a beginning. They did not signal the death throes of a dying cult of personality, but rather the birth of a new type of politics–one in which violence and fear are primary actors, one in which democracy is forced to look down the barrel of a gun. They have not succeeded yet, and I hope they never will. But hope is not enough–action is what’s necessary. We must recognize what we are up against, and fight it. There is no turning back. Two paths lie ahead of us, one leading to spiraling violence and dictatorship, and the other to greater freedom, democracy, and happiness for all. It’s up to us to choose which path we follow.