Trump-Supporter sitting in a chair in the Capitol after infiltrating with other pro-Trump members.
Photo courtesy of CNN Breaking News / Twitter

Reflections on American Democracy, Post-Attempted Coup

As any credible historian knows, interpreting events isn't easy. Since this rings true for centuries-old events, it certainly applies to the attempted coup in D.C this past Wednesday. Social media and cable news turned everyone into a historian as thousands watched and tried to outshout or out-quip each other. Many people on Twitter and other social media reacted in horror, others in grim acceptance, and some just laughed at the bizarre spectacle of it all. While we won’t know which reaction was appropriate for some time, the historical and social currents that led to the march on the Capitol are worthy of analysis since they mark this critical period of American history.

First and foremost, understanding exactly who was involved in this insurrection is crucial. While those marching in D.C Wednesday may seem like unfamiliar figures, I would like to expel the notion that they were “white working-class Americans.” Those folks, who for many years have been the fascination of news outlets like the New York Times, watched these events unfold just as everyone else did. Rather, many rioters were upper-middle class. The man who sat at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk and stole her mail is the owner of a glass installation business. Another, the man clad in Viking regalia, is an actor and voice-over artist as well as a QAnon conspiracy theorist. Insurrectionists were seen mingling without masks in an upscale, four-star hotel in downtown D.C after the day’s events. These are business owners, not employees. These are people who can afford to take the middle of the week off in January to travel to D.C for a march. They are the beneficiaries of Trump’s policies and his most loyal supporters because of that. 

This is not to say the entire march was comprised of “small business owners” nor that only financially secure individuals support Trump, rather that class-based arguments should not be made about the rioters. At the end of the day, a significant amount of the people who took over the Capitol have financial power over their employees and other members of their community. They are affected by the current recession, but they aren’t lining up at food banks anytime soon. Many Americans have encountered this kind of person enough to know that their faith in the brand of politics and conspiracy Trump exemplifies can’t be shaken. Further, it is not in the best interest of a progressive movement to fixate on swaying people with that background and lifestyle: They are not threatened by Republican oligarchy and grift, nor do they need to worry about the reaction of the “Deep State.”

In fact, the “Deep State” didn’t inhibit the marchers but helped them, a reality both deeply disturbing and entirely unsurprising. Americans once again confronted the corrupt extent of law enforcement this past summer in the wake of grotesque police killings and brutality. That moment seemed like the perfect opportunity to confront America’s extensive and well-funded law enforcement network. Sadly, that moment passed us by, leaving only nominal change and performative actions in its wake. Wednesday’s march is a reminder of the implications of that fizzled enthusiasm. Capitol Police were captured on video letting protestors beyond the metal barriers, with some even taking selfies with rioters entering the building. As journalist Robert Evans notes, police have a history of ignoring—if not outright abetting—right-wing extremists. Federal enforcement like the FBI has a slightly better track record of warning about the dangers of right-wing terrorism. However, that same “intelligence community” has broad surveillance power and a history of contact with these same extremists, most notably in the recent plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan

It should not be surprising, then, that Capitol Police failed to put its extensive budget to use on Wednesday. Nor should the Pentagon’s reluctance to send in the National Guard be overwhelming news. The same FBI that courts right-wing extremists once murdered Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in his sleep. The same NSA that ignores scores of posts discussing a march on the Capitol is currently trying to prosecute Edward Snowden for revealing its intrusive data collection apparatus. These organizations hold an inordinate amount of power in America today and use it to achieve their ideological goals. Whatever good work these agencies do is outweighed by the sheer tonnage of dangerous work they have done in the name of right-wing causes or institutional legitimacy. This is the true tragedy of movements like QAnon: They identify the existence and influence of an entrenched domestic surveillance and security network, yet are hardly threatened by it. Their fanaticism over the “Deep State” inhibits any action to actually reclaim power from these agencies. 

Indeed, the expansion of government power in the wake of the Capitol storming is one of the most frightening potential outcomes of the event. Even after Wednesday's fascist disruption, members of Congress were able to certify that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Wednesday’s protest presented the only real threat to Biden’s inauguration, and the bipartisan coalescence around him in its wake almost guarantees a successful, if reluctant, transfer of power. The biggest mistake a Biden administration could make is giving law enforcement and security agencies more funding and power. Biden’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests and reluctance to support cutting funding for law enforcement is proof that he likely won’t root out this problem. In fact, Biden’s allegiance to intelligence agencies was lauded as a political strength during the general election campaign. Security officials past and present were among the first guests brought into news outlets on Wednesday, signaling a general consensus around the continual role of intelligence and armed law enforcement in America. 

Expanding surveillance to potential right-wing extremists is the wrong path forward. It is not enough to diversify the leadership of these agencies and departments—power must be taken away from them. If the police still arrest left-wing protestors with impunity, should they take comfort in knowing they acted under the watchful eyes of Merrick Garland? So long as the intelligence community can obtain extensive information on each and every American citizen, it poses a threat to structural change in this country. These agencies have been at the center of decades-long efforts to undermine American left-wing movements, and it is foolish to believe they will change overnight on Jan. 20.

This is truly the challenge set before the American Left in 2020: contending with entrenched power structures. Systemic critiques took off this past summer because there is a systemic resistance to progressive change. It extends far beyond federal intelligence agencies or local law enforcement, though those are certainly the most effective forms of resistance. Media outlets that condemn Antifa activists while inviting scores of former security officials on air are complicit. The same can be said for a political party that caves on direct relief to Americans in favor of a defense spending bill. The sad truth is that when it comes to American empire, there is never a lack of bipartisan and nonpartisan support in Washington. 

I cannot prescribe effective action in response to the march on the Capitol, mostly because any specific plans made this soon after such an event are likely futile. I can, however, encourage American progressives to fully realize the situation in front of us. We have just seen the ease with which radical right-wing action can threaten the function of American democracy. The movements that comprised Wednesday’s march have a long history of indoctrination and organization culminating at this moment. They are clearly not relenting, no matter how many GOP officials condemn them, and they can safely rely on federal and local law enforcement to aid and abet them. 

In the face of Wednesday’s breach of the Capitol, as well as the myriad issues plaguing the country at present, many of us feel disempowered, hopeless. One thing I am more certain of than ever, though, is that anyone allied with the progressive cause is an ally of mine. Further, anyone standing in the way of this push towards change is an enemy of that change. Remember that those who broke into the Capitol believe in enemies. They believe in them enough to risk life and limb to bring them down. If you agree with some of the things written in this article, there’s a good chance they’d see you as one of those enemies too. This is not inherently defeating—every effective political movement has enemies. What will decide the success of this movement, of progressive change in America, is who we deem our enemies and how we organize to defeat them. Wednesday was a step back for everyone not aligned with Trump and right-wing reactionary movements; whether that step was a pause or a retreat is yet to be decided.

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A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.