01/06/21: The Insurrection that Wasn’t
“Only the chief … can still save bourgeois society.
Only theft can still save property;
only perjury, religion; bastardy, the family; disorder, order!”
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Trump is now gone. But his leaving was not without a certain drama. His legacy is about as tarnished as it is possible to imagine, but a part of Trumpism’s message remains relevant. The swamp really does need draining. The bog that is Washington overflowed with crocodile tears on 6 January 2021.
Music from Big Orange
Trump’s troops, summoned by the Líder Máximo, assembled in Washington, D.C., their minds mangled by an ideological fusillade of conspiratorial tripe about frauds, stolen elections, and political betrayal. For all that this deluge of delusion contravened reality, it nonetheless often resonates with an understandable sense of grievance and anger, stoking a not entirely off-base intuition that a much-vaunted democracy has proven little more than sham.
The Commander-in-Chief appeared with others at the Washington rally. He and his entourage did not disappoint the crowd, pillorying the “radical socialist” Democrats and Republican renegades, excoriating those who would grant Joe Biden the Presidency on the basis of a truly trumped-up electoral travesty. Don Jr. went his father one better, taking aim at the two “commie bastards” recently elected to the Senate from Georgia. There was talk of “patriots kicking ass,” and exhortations to “Fight, fight, fight!”
Trump wept tears of rage, tears of grief, reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and “The Band’s” Music from Big Pink (1967-1968): “We carried you in our arms on Independence Day/And now you’d throw us all aside and put us all away/Oh, what dear daughter ‘neath the sun could treat a father so?/To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him, ‘No’.”
The Motley Crew
The election, Trump claimed, was stolen from him and, by extension, from them, his loyal subjects. They were a motley crew: overwhelmingly white, the old and not-quite-so-old, if not too many who were young. Donning the colours of the Proud Boys and biker gangs and white supremacists, many were the kinds of human material it is easy to loathe, including neo-fascistic combatants trained in the paramilitary wing of the far right and unashamed advocates of the Holocaust.
But there were undoubtedly marginalized and poor people among the Trumpers as well. Unemployed or reduced to the most precarious of livelihoods, these men and women are guilty of much, including stupidity, but given their lack of political representation, and the absence of a genuine voice addressing their needs, the illusions Trump promotes nurture a false consciousness that is truly tragic. For all the prattle about the lumpen-proletarian armies of the Appalachian hills, decimated textile towns, Pennsylvanian trailer parks, and hollowed-out rust-belt manufacturing cities in Ohio, however, the most visible of Trump’s riotous supporters seemed to come from other socio-economic backgrounds.
Among the “Fight for Trump” crowd, buying into the “Wild Time” promised by Presidential twitter feed, were independent contractors, self-employed professionals, the classic petty bourgeoisie. Many of these were of the $75,000+ annual income cohort attracted to the rugged market individualism and tax cuts of a hyped-up Make America Great Again. Among those now identified as involved in the Trump rally and riot were a well-to-do graduate of the Air Force Academy, a criminal defense lawyer, the stay-at-home husband of a physician, and even state legislators. This was no Coxey’s Army, as evidenced by the Dallas real-estate magnate and right-wing talk-radio host, Jenna Ryan, who flew to Washington in a private jet.
To be sure the pettiest of the petty bourgeois were also present, epitomized by the coddled failed actor, Jacob Chansley/Jake Angeli, whose sensitive stomach demands an organic diet. With his mother as spokesperson for his digestive needs, Chansley/Angeli is now forever etched in the collective mind of a television-watching world as the face-painted, horn sporting, “U.S.A!” yelling, raccoon-draped QAnon “shaman.” Where is the critique of cultural appropriation, however bizarrely staged, when you need it?
There were also fundamentalist Christians rubbing shoulders with nihilistic grifters. One of the self-proclaimed organizers of the “Stop the Steal” rally, Ali Alexander/Ali Akbar, identifies as Christian, Black, and Arab. A former Tea Party activist, confrère of far right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and a felon convicted of theft and credit card abuse in 2007-2008, Alexander/Akbar was front and center at the Trump rally, occupying a preferred seat courtesy of the President. Alexander then marched with the crowd, but drew back when the rally turned riotous, appealing to the increasingly agitated throng not to storm the Capitol. Many among the shock troops he had goaded to action, however, were not to be deterred. They were ready to rock.
Some notables, like Rudy Giuliani, shared the outdoor stage with Trump, speaking from behind the plexiglass-protected dais, calling for “Trial by Combat.” Brave talk that would not, of course, be followed by the walk. Like Giuliani, the speculative and parasitic elements of capital that sustain Trumpism materially were not likely to take their politics to the streets. They, watched the proceedings from afar. One of these benefactors, Julia Jenkins Fancelli, Publix Super Market chain heiress, funded the Trump rally to the tune of $300,000. Such billionaires are decisive in sustaining the Trump coalition, as the likes of Ted Cruz and his co-objectors appreciate so well.
The Diabolical Dance of Dissent
Calling on his followers to be strong, to never concede defeat, and to take their message to the Biden confirmation proceedings, Trump said he would join the procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, only to disappear into the White House, partake of a nice lunch, and watch the televised spectacle of insurrection unfold. As Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “When you play the fiddle at the top of the state, what else is to be expected but that those down below dance.”
Forty thousand in number, the Trump throng marched under the flags of the United States, the Klan’s conception of the Confederacy, and the Tea Party’s favoured Colonel Christopher Gadsden standard (designed during the American Revolution, a coiled rattlesnake poised on a yellow background over the words ‘Don’t Tread on Me’). But the day’s banner of choice was simply emblazoned ‘TRUMP’.
The angry crowd soon surrounded and then overwhelmed the Capitol, seat of the deliberative branch of the American government. Members of the Senate and their counterparts in the House of Representatives, going through the ritual of formally constituting the composition of the Electoral College that would establish Biden as the President Elect, were blithely unaware of what was happening outside of their sanctuary. The most bellicose of Trump’s rag-tag brigade no doubt wanted to confront Mike Pence, their contempt for what they regarded as his Judas-like act of betrayal in overseeing Biden’s coronation ramped up by Trump’s escalating petulance. Some among them constructed a mock gallows, from which was suspended a menacing noose. A chant of choice was, “Hang Mike Pence!”
Skirmishes ensued and soon a significant number of the Never Bideners entered the Capitol Building, backing police into corridors, and taking over hallways, offices, and eventually forcing the Presidential confirmation proceedings into retreat. The good men and women of the Congress took to the aisle floors, donning gas masks, or were evacuated to shelter and safety. As the Trump supporters broke windows and battered doors, they gained entry to a number of chambers, including the Senate. One protesting wag, sporting his COVID-19 mask and clowning for the cameras, took a seat usually warmed by the butt of Vice-President Pence, his fist raised in defiant salute.
Law enforcement personnel seemed not quite able to get themselves on the same page. At times battalions of police battled the determined demonstrators. Contingents of cops in full riot regalia were crushed by at least one advancing wall of Trump’s supporters, who were clearly in no mood to be stopped. There were, however, other scenes, less confrontational, more chummy. Some officers gave up the apparent ghost of guardianship rather quickly and easily, shunting metal fencing aside to let the crowd flow through or stepping away from a barricaded door and, essentially, abandoning their posts. At times, security personnel simply pleaded with protesters to leave specific chambers or at least treat them with appropriate decorum, a polite entreaty that was, equally courteously, ignored.
Not all of the secret service agents and Capitol police got the message to handle Trump’s riotous retinue with kid gloves. Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year old woman, Air Force veteran, QAnon ideologue (she referred to a coronavirus curfew as “commie bullshit”), and financially-troubled small business owner was shot and killed as she attempted to crash through a window leading to an area that the protesters had not breached. A fellow Wilder declared in shocked awe: “They are supposed to shoot BLM [Black Lives Matter], but now they are shooting patriots.”
Three others died of “medical emergencies” such as heart attacks. Memo to old, overweight white guys, like myself: don’t put yourself in the position of being a battering ram for reaction. A Georgia woman taken in by QAnon conspiracy claptrap, Rosanne Boyland, carried a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ banner, only to find herself trampled on as the surging Trump crowd crashed the Capitol. Her subsequent death, either a cause of being crushed as she collapsed to the ground, or a result of some medical distress that resulted in her faltering and being stomped and fallen on by others, remains difficult to ascertain. The old adage of being careful of what you wish for was, in Boyland’s case, reversed in deadly irony: what she refused defiantly, soon contributed to her end.
Dozens of cops sustained wounds and physical trauma. One US Capitol officer, Brian Sicknick, succumbed to injuries said to have been caused when he was struck on the head with either a fire extinguisher or a baseball bat. Alabama GOP Congressman Mo Brooks, whose ultra-inflammatory speech to the Trump rally egged the crowd on to assail the Capitol, now hails the fallen policeman as a hero, calling for death penalty retribution. As with everything Trumpite, hypocrisy overwhelms reason.
Eventually, after a few hours that saw the declaration of a 6 PM curfew and the arrival of massive police/National Guard reserves, the Capitol was cleared, the Electoral College hearings reconvened, and Biden confirmed. Democracy prevailed; the insurrection was over.
The Surge of Sanctimony
All of this was broadcast in real time on all major television networks. This was when the flow of crocodile tears turned into a tsunami. They flooded the Capitol and gathered force in an unrelenting tide of sanctimonious, postured rage. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate waxed eloquent about the cherished history of this citadel on a hill, an edifice that enshrines the dream that is American Democracy. A sacred place had been desecrated. It had not faced such an invasion of the barbarians since the War of 1812. Thugs and rioters overran the hallowed halls of the world’s “perfect union,” where Congress conducts “the People’s Business.” Media commentators vied with politicos in speeches of disbelief and indignant condemnation, a saccharine rhetoric of American self-satisfaction uniting liberals and conservatives alike.
The complacent assumption that the ideal of American democracy is not only real, but the beacon to which all progressive and advanced nations aspire, dripped from the mouths of those shocked and stunned by the threatening protest. That this “anarchy,” as it was called by television pundits of the right and the liberal mainstream, was unleashed by the transparent barrage of disinformation emanating from the White House Administration, rather than from the scapegoated, vilified forces of Antifa, only added to the incredulity. It was not long before the more deranged voices of Trumpism, like Congressmen Brooks, Paul Gosar, and Matt Gaetz, intimated that left-wing, Black Bloc provocateurs were indeed involved in the violence, claims supported by no evidence whatsoever, but ones that got a hearing inside the Administration.
No one dared speak truth to an ideologically unassailable Democracy, whose history is hardly one of unblemished good. Questioning the revered record of what has happened within the blessed walls of the Capitol was most decidedly not done in the face of the bad manners, audacious raucousness, intimidating violence, and brazen display of far right ugliness evident among Trump’s insurrectionists. Claims now abound that among some in the crowd the intent was to kidnap, put on trial, and physically harm office-holding traitors to Trump, like Pence, or hated Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi. Whether such fears of what the rampaging elements of Trump’s rally turned riotous intended to do would have been borne out had the crowd not been contained will never be known. What is certain is that the frightening situation on 01/06/21 suffocated acknowledgement that the American state and its seemingly democratic institutions cry out to be interrogated and scrutinized critically.
The Capitol is where the nation state has sanctified slavery and segregation, justified “Indian removal,” privatized the commons, and constituted a settler society beneficial to largely white property holders, a colonial, capitalist order premised on expropriation. In Marx’s words this is not a history of a republic of egalitarian promise but, rather, one “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” If theft and violent subordination and calamitous depressions have driven this history forward, the mark of the beast whose appetite for accumulation is voracious scars the modern landscape. Floods and flaming forests, droughts and melting icecaps, pestilence and pollution are evidence of the grim reaper that stalks profit and takes no prisoners in an endless, crisis-ridden war of attrition.
Within the Capitol’s walls the pockets of the rich have historically been lined with all kinds of “honest graft,” of which the modern tax cut is only the tip of an iceberg of largesse. Legislation drafted there has criminalized the poor and forced austerity measures down their constricted throats, established pernicious racist immigration exclusions, proclaimed and bankrolled wars, kept women in their subordinate domestic place, thwarted workers’ struggles, and restricted the rights of the people to health and welfare.
Democracy, American-style, has long backed dictators around the world and engineered coups in the name of “regime change.” The threat of Communism tops all other rationales for invading, bombing, and destabilizing foreign governments, adding ideological weight to the ever-present need to wage domestic war against subversives on the left, which Trump and his followers conceive of rather elastically. The list of countries that have been on the receiving end of such aggression is truly staggering, extending well beyond the better known cases, between 1950 and 2020, of Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Panama, Libya, and Venezuela. One study concludes that the United States has launched military aggressions against 84 of the 193 countries of the world recognized by the United Nations, and has been militarily involved with 191.
This gives new meaning to Mike Pompeo’s bragging about his time as the Director of the CIA: “We lied, we cheated, we stole. It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.” Or, in the arrogant words of entitlement of one Trump advisor, responding to a query about whether or not the United States should be wielding such brazen military might: “We’re America, bitch.”
Sacrilege & The Modern State
Anti-communism is thus the spiritual stuff of the modern American state. Traditional religious belief may well remain an opiate of the people. It certainly found a particular niche in the Trump crowd’s politics of grievance. One prominent modern-day Know-Nothing placard proclaimed, “Pelosi is the Devil,” while a religious-like demonization of communism could be read on other signboards. Interspersed between “Trump Is President” banners were simple declarations that “Jesus Saves.” Exactly what was not clear.
Trump? Truth? The electoral process? Or America’s privileged place in the world economy? Not people dying by the hundreds of thousands of COVID-19. Not the homeless in New York, Calcutta, or Sao Paulo. Not refugees and jailed dissidents and those whose jobs and lives have been declared redundant in the proliferating crises that tear up the terrain of modern capitalism.
Yet in the outpouring of resentment and shocked indignation at the temerity and travesty of trashing the Capitol, another opiate surfaced as the drug of choice in an obvious legitimation crisis. A religiously-constructed veneration of the ceremonial trappings and ideological obfuscations of American democracy belied the critical truth that after two-and-a-half centuries United States experience still manages to confirm, on an almost daily basis, that some black lives do not matter, that the rich benefit from everything, including pandemic crisis, and the poor take it in the neck. Sacrilege in the modern state is not so much a heretical pronouncement that God has fallen or is fallible. Rather, the mere suggestion that bourgeois democratic governance, and its material structures, are not to be worshipped adoringly – this is the blasphemy of America’s national chauvinism.
Insurrection as Hyperbole
Sedition! Insurrection! Domestic Terrorism! were the thus the words of the hour. 01/06/21 was a day that would live in the history of the United States as one of infamy, likened in its ignominy and dishonour to Pearl Harbour. Hyperbole flowed as the trail of tears grew to a tidal wave.
George W. Bush and almost all other mainstream commentators likened the events of 6 January to a banana republic insurrection. This gives banana republics and the politics of insurrection within them a bad name. No self-respecting attempted coup d’etat against a dictatorial regime in the developing world (or among the fractured states of once-Soviet Europe) would have been willing to settle, as did the so-called insurgents of the Siege of the Capitol, 01/06/21, for a flurry of mayhem, a walk back to the four-star hotel, and a comradely drink and sociable cigarette.
Yet Trump’s patriot phalanx, some of whom urinated and tossed bagged feces on the floor and against walls, was satisfied with this as its particular day’s work. The denouement of a few hours of domestic terror, seditious conspiracy, and violent insurrection was perhaps an indication less of what happened than of what did not.
The Capitol riot that has sparked such vehement condemnation among liberal commentators and sitting members of the United States Congress was certainly troubling, given the prominent place of white nationalist, fascistic elements within it. But it was no insurrection. Most of the crowd was not armed, there was no public display of long guns, and bear spray and flag poles were the weapons of choice in battles with the police, hardly the kind of firepower needed to bring the state down. No concerted effort had been made to coordinate a riotous demonstration against a symbol of state power with actual insurrectionary intent among the military, sections of the media, or many other spheres where power is concentrated and perpetuated.
The riot was orchestrated chaos, to be sure, and it was certainly characterized by violence and determination, as well as a bizarre performative theatre, costumed in QAnon ridiculousness, but it lacked anything approximating leadership, let alone a coherent governing alternative – prerequisites of any insurrection worthy of the name. Those invading the Capitol justified their presence there by insisting that they were listening to Trump and that they had been summoned to Washington by him. This was their first of many mistakes.
Trump to the Barricades?
An insurrection with Trump at its head is surely destined to derail before a booked tee-time or a sumptuous dinner. And it largely did. Trump, who at first reveled in the riot, pushed his sycophants in Congress to use the chaos to derail Biden’s confirmation. He stalled when pressed to mobilize the National Guard to clear the Capitol of rioters, instead praising them as patriots whose deeds would not be forgotten, declaring his love for them. Princess Ivanka was, at first, of a like mind.
A day later, Trump’s tune changed. He was now singing for his future suppers. Allegations of treason and anguished announcements of former supporters that Trump had finally gone too far, prompted lawyers, aides, and advisors (and almost certainly the inner circle of nepotism so influential in the Oval Office) to insist that the President look after his own interests, protect himself from allegations that he had incited people to violence and was responsible for it, and backtrack. Conceding an orderly transition to power, and throwing his supporters under the proverbial bus (a place many ex-Trumpites have learned to call home), a seemingly chastened Trump woodenly called for those guilty of illegal acts to feel the full prosecutorial brunt of the law.
Right-wing social media like Parler and 4chan blew up in contradictory messaging: while some railed against Trump’s perfidy, anguishing that they had been sold out, others kept the faith. QAnon nodded knowingly that Trump would never desert the cause, and his public repudiation of the assault on the Capitol was another bit of deep state fakery, or perhaps a hacked hoax perpetrated by Chinese Communists.
Many Trump supporters entwined in the loose knot of a socially-constructed seditious conspiracy saw what a non-insurrection they had been whipped up to stage. They departed Washington, less with a bang, than with an audible whimper. Some of them, foolish enough to have videotaped their actions, providing the state with mounds of evidence, are now being tracked down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Marshals, and the Department of Justice. They will face a slew of charges – criminal trespass, assaulting police, disorderly conduct, theft of government property, and many other transgressions, including possibly sedition, conspiracy, and murder. Those charged well deserve whatever fate awaits them at the hands of the criminal justice system, responsible as they are for their actions and the repugnant dog’s breakfast of motivations that animated them.
Certainly there were some among the crowd’s most prepared and well-trained combatants who are committed cadre of the extreme politics of reaction and willing participants in a raging war of hate and retribution. This dangerous militia-like presence in the Trump crowd no doubt provided a good part of its discipline and preparedness. Unlike their cell-phone touting ballast, some of these types might well avoid being collateral damage in Trump’s insatiable appetite for adoration, refusing to be casualties in a sociopath’s sense of entitlement. They will live to fight another day, a dangerous soldiery poisoned by the politics of toxic reaction.
The Uses of Seditious Insurrection
If the riot at the Capitol was sedition, it was truly a bizarre variant of this high crime against the state. No plan animated Trump’s supporters other than to slap down, momentarily, his successor and nemesis. Sedition surely demands something more than a frenzied crowd and some capable militia-like figures willing to scale walls. To actually crown the actions of 01/06/21 a seditious insurrection is, of course, to structure them in ways that further deepens faith in the staying power of a socio-economic order fraying at its capitalist seams. The defenders of this crisis-ridden system of exploitation and oppression, having seen an ostensible armed assault on its political caretakers handily put down, can proclaim themselves resilient and redoubtable, as did so many puffed up members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. They now have a platform from which to endlessly proclaim the Republic a bastion of righteousness encompassing liberty and espousing just values, able to vanquish an insurgent challenge with alacrity.
Policing Protest/Licencing the Right
A different assessment is possible. Indeed, the story of this insurrection that wasn’t is how the vanguard of Trump’s marauders were able to walk up steps of the Capitol Building largely unimpeded, ascend its walls with impunity, fly their flags from scaffolding, breach police barricades, and take over a seat of US government for a time, however brief. Their insurrectionary lark, in the end, was a pastiche of cheeky photographs of beaming, bellicose forces lounging in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, hauling away an ornate Speaker’s podium, or snapping selfies inside the halls of the Capitol, some of them with police officers charged with keeping unauthorized personnel from violating the inner sanctum of stable governance. The insurrection that wasn’t registered on the political Richter scale largely because those forces tasked with keeping the seismogram on an even keel managed to amplify the boom of Trump’s always mercurial political earthquake.
The indignant invasion of the Capitol would never have gotten within a Molotov cocktail’s throw of the building’s stately stairways had it been a left-wing protest. Those of us who have seen a few marches on Washington, or Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill in Canada, for that matter, know full well that the armed might of the state seldom goes to sleep the way it did on 01/06/21. This insurgency would have been stopped in its tracks before it ever got near the Biden confirmation hearings, if it was mobilized by those actually challenging power rather than hoping to sustain one particularly nefarious variant of it. That unique expression of politics – Trumpism – is an ideological edifice which sections of the “law and order” industry gravitate to instinctually.
Left-Wing Protest: Overpolicing and the Cops Riot Back
As the Andrew Sorkin-directed 2020 film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, makes abundantly clear, left-wing protest, if it threatens constituted authority in any way, has historically been met with unambiguous police force and often brutal repression. Generally, it is the cops that lose their cool in such situations, not the protesters.
This is what happened at the August 1968 anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the Democratic Party’s National Convention. The entire 12,000-member Chicago police force was placed on rotating 12-hour shifts; the US Army mobilized 6,000 troops to “protect” the city, taking their place alongside 6,000 National Guards (with an additional 5,000 on standby alert), and 2,000 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Secret Service agents. As the respective forces of peaceniks and state troopers clashed, protesters were pushed through hotel plate-glass windows by police, who beat the young demonstrators as they lay sprawled on broken glass. Six hundred arrests ensued; hundreds of injuries were sustained, not only by the dissidents but also by the gendarmes. In the end, the consensus of inquiries into what happened in this 1968 protest is that the police, not the demonstrators, rioted. But you could never say that the cops were not prepared, or that they assembled in insufficient numbers to protect property and the business of politics as usual.
1968’s repression was matched by a similar ruthless resolve in 1971. An attempt to shut down the District of Columbia on May Day, 1971, when tens of thousands of anti-war leftists massed at a number of sites to engage in civil disobedience aimed at calling attention to the imperialist carnage in Vietnam, was met with a decisive show of force. Richard M. Nixon’s not-yet-disgraced Attorney-General, John Mitchell, unleashed thousands of Army troops, Marines, and National Guards to supplement the Capitol police, the Washington police, and reserves drawn from near and far. With Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman describing the nation’s capital as a “simulated Saigon,” the city’s traffic circles were designated battle zones, pitting combative protesters against the cops; teargas hung thickly in the air like a rainforest fog; and many a “Mayday Tribe” demonstrator had their shins and backs slapped with truncheons, and worse. Ridden down by police horses, tossed into paddy waggons with abandon, 12,000 were arrested, hauled off without due process, and incarcerated twenty to a two-person cell. Washington’s jails soon overflowed, necessitating transporting those in police custody to makeshift detention camps.
At the “Battle of the Bicentennial” in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, protesters gathered to declare an end to colonialism, and a “Rich Off Our Backs – July 4th Coalition” mobilized thousands to demand Puerto Rico’s independence and defend the dispossessed of all colours from attack, marching through the streets of the City of Brotherly Love. We did not get much love from Philly’s police: I recall filing past a park, and seeing hundreds of police lining a hilltop, batons menacingly thudding on their riot shields. One of these civic-minded officers turned his back on us, dropped his pants – all of them – and offered us a very unappealing full moon. I suppose this was a gesture preferable to a crack upside the head, but it did not express a lot of regard.
More recently many have witnessed rampaging police violence at anti-World Trade Organization Summit protests in Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto and Quebec City, or Ontario Coalition of Poverty marches on provincial and federal legislatures in Toronto and Ottawa. The armed might of the state has not been shy in establishing fenced perimeters, pepper-spraying demonstrators, kettling protesters, riding down marchers with horses or corralling them with bicycles, and beating mercilessly on anyone who stepped out of what the police consider a proper line. Many have felt the sting of tear gas in their eyes or on their skin, or recoiled as rubber bullets bounce off their bodies. Police and “intelligence agencies” often infiltrate left-wing groups organizing protests, sometimes arresting “ringleaders” before the actual demonstrations occur. Those who ostensibly incite riot with their words are seldom given a pass, and many have been arrested and put through the wringer of costly and time-consuming trials.
A database established by the US Crisis Monitor at Princeton suggests that left-wing protests are three times more likely to be subjected to violence by police and other law enforcement agencies than are demonstrations organized by the right. Over the course of the last ten months, 511 left-led actions (or just under five percent of all such protests) found themselves on the wrong end of tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings with batons and other force, compared to 33 mobilizations of the right (about one-and-a-half percent of the total of these conservative protest gatherings).
Trump’s Blue Wall of Shame
The Capitol Police treated the Trump rally as a legitimate expression of right-thinking dissent. They were clearly reluctant to prepare for the “Stop the Steal” rally as they would have if it had been organized to protest the confirmation of a right-wing Supreme Court Justice like Brett Kavanaugh or mobilize against imperialism and war-mongering hawks. Offers of police reinforcements from the Mayor of Washington and other governing authorities in the region apparently fell on deaf ears. In spite of more than ample evidence that Trump’s supporters were coming to Washington to raise wild hell and possibly worse, there were few special provisions made, no attempt to put in place the kind of police/military/security personnel and protocols that are standard operating procedure in the playbook of state responses to left-wing protests.
That the American security state somehow missed the signs on extremist, right-wing social media sites of what was coming down on 01/06/21 is, simply, incomprehensible. Mother Jones has reported that in the month leading up to the Trump rally, the phrase, “Storm the Capitol,” was used 100,000 times on websites and platforms frequented by the far right. Quite a few people in a lot of particular places inside the state apparatus and the agencies of policing let Trump’s bidding be done by an archetypal “Church and King” mob.
The result was that when the Trump crowd proceeded to the Capitol, specific sections of it had something of a cakewalk. A few metal barricades were in place, and a modest contingent of police “guarded” the Capitol building’s entrances. When the crowd proved unruly and determined to break its way into the legislative chambers, there was simply no stopping it. Indeed, cops moved fencing aside so protesters could enter the Capitol. Even after Ms. Babbitt was shot, an accommodating police escort, intimidatingly decked out in black from his helmeted head to his booted feet, outfitted in riot gear and wielding a baton and large protective shield, gallantly held the hand of an elderly female Trumper as she sidestepped her way down the Capitol stairs. The tough love the left has come to expect from police at demonstrations was, in the Washington invaded by Trumpists, long on the love and rather short on the tough.
This is not surprising. Officials at the Capitol and the higher ups responsible for policing and calling out the National Guard, not to mention many, many cops and ex-military personnel are themselves part of Trump’s base of support. A 2019 poll reported on by Military Times surveyed 1630 active-service soldiers, finding that 36 percent had seen evidence of white supremacist/racist ideologies in the military. This constituted a dramatic rise from the 22 percent detailed a year earlier, in 2018, an increase undoubtedly related to Trump’s legitimizing the right and its white nationalist component.
Among the most ardent and seriously trained of the militias championing the President and supporting his views – on Obama, Clinton, and voter fraud – are the Oath Keepers. Formed in 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, former Army paratrooper, and one-time Ron Paul staffer disbarred by the Montana Supreme Court, the Oath Keepers claim a membership of thousands. Rhodes and his considerable gaggle of gendarmes regard BLM protests as “open Communist insurrection,” support Trump unequivocally, and likely played a role in the most coordinated corps of Trump supporters laying siege to the Capitol Building. Charges have been filed against at least one Oath Keeper leader, 65-year-old Thomas Caldwell from Virginia. Evidence for his alleged conspiracy cites interactions and communications with at least two others, former Army veteran Jessica Watkins and ex-Marine, Donovan Crowl, both members of a sub-group of the Oath Keepers, the so-called Ohio State Regular Militia.
Police associations, all the moreso in a climate of antagonism to the brutality and killing that has made Black Lives Matter into a public watchword, are often committed to Trump’s agenda. The cops eat up Trump’s ratcheted-up rhetoric of coming down hard on urban violence, always coded in racialized terms, and clearly enjoy the President’s mockery of a liberal establishment regarded as far too soft on crime and cosmopolitan decay. Police forces in Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, and smaller cities and towns are now acting on tips identifying off-duty cops from their ranks involved in the riotous activities inside the Capitol Building. It is not surprising, then, that the messaging among the protesters and within broad swaths of the police was that this demonstration was to be given a certain licence, of a kind that a left-led initiative would never have been granted. Both sides – cops and those storming the Capitol – were perhaps captive of Trump’s capacity to foster illusion. People died as a consequence.
Trump’s Troops Get a Pass: White Privilege and the Cops Curtsy to the Right
The failures of the police are now subject to denunciation from politicians and pundits. Heads have already rolled; resignations of people in positions of responsibility are trotted out daily. Mainstream liberal commentary rightly points out that if the protesters had been associated with Black Lives Matter they would have been handled far more roughly. Largely peaceful BLM protesters were arrested and manhandled, tear-gassed, fired on with rubber bullets, and bounced off sidewalks for simply looking askance at the police. Trump’s rampaging crowd, in contrast, was at times given a wink and a nod. If some cops were forced to fight, and even appeared to have gotten the worst of it, there were police inside the Capitol and on its steps who clearly had little appetite for battling back the protest.
It is not wrong to make this comparison between the unequal treatment of blacks and whites. But it is now so self-righteously commonplace that it veers toward the myopic. Nancy Pelosi has declared that the insurrectionists chose “their whiteness over democracy.” Joy Reid, an MSNBC newscaster, insisted that the Trump throng enjoyed and indeed consciously exploited their white privilege.
The danger with this kind of interpretation, as the black scholar and left-wing activist Adolph Reed would point out, is that it obscures as much as it illuminates. That white supremacy was at work among those rallying to Trump and assailing those who would deny his false claims on the Presidency is undeniable. That this was the entirety of what happened on 01/06/21 is, however, unconvincing. It misses important dimensions of what was going on.
What privileged the Trump crowd in the eyes of the cops was something more than the colour of the protesters’ skins, as white as they undoubtedly were. A politics of right-wing indignation and demand for redress of a plethora of grievances sits far more comfortably with many cops than simply telescoping resentment into white supremacy, as racist as such police may be. In short, a lot more was swirling in the witches’ brew on which the Trump crowd was drunk and disorderly and from which many rank-and-file officers have imbibed, than singular hatred of peoples of colour. Those who now suggest that the entire explanation of the curtsy the cops gave to Trump’s army of redressers was a consequence of the protest’s whiteness and its long history of privilege and entitlement see something that was at work on 01/06/21, but simultaneously close their eyes to too much.
Many whites have found themselves on the wrong, and occasionally lethal, side of law’s vengeance. From the time of the expulsion of a revolutionary abolitionist, Benjamin Lay, from Philadelphia Quaker congregations in the 1730s to the hanging of John Brown for treason and incitement of a slave insurrection in 1859 or the execution of the class struggle Haymarket martyrs in 1887 for conspiracy culminating in murder, whiteness has not bought militants of the left a pass. Challenging the power of church, capital and the state has always been dangerous.
Militant working-class revolutionaries, such as members of the Industrial Workers of the World – white, black, immigrant, Mexican-American, and of mixed ancestry such as Frank Little – were tarred and feathered, castrated, hung from bridge trestles, and run out of town. Not all whites enjoy the privilege of their skin colour when confronting police or the retribution of extra-legal posses and menacing night riders. Striking men and women aspiring to establish and sustain trade unions have been shot down by cops, punctuating the struggle for collective bargaining rights with blood. Left demonstrations, their ranks composed of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition of dissenters, have routinely been brutalized by police, as many veterans of the 1930s, the 1960s, and activists of more recent years well know.
The point is not to understate the particularly acute threat African Americans have faced from an armed state apparatus and a historical culture of racist lynch law, but rather not to forget others who confronted violence, be it vigilante or validated by the justice system. Ignoring this formidable and ongoing history is something more than merely a reflection of the short and limiting memory of television newscasters and mainstream politicians, who generally have the historical attention span of a two-year old. What it signifies is the capacity of a liberal mainstream to soapbox on the political terrain that it sees as respectable and justified, defending a politics of racial inclusion (which no leftist would oppose) that is nonetheless presented in ways that relegates to the shadows both the history of a left-wing politics of challenge and the state’s universally heavy-handed response to this.
The state and its considerable apparatus of repression responded to Trump’s supporters with an incoherence bred of ambivalence. Trump’s legions seemed to some in positions of power and to many rank-and-file Capitol police and others as sympatico with their generalized belief system, which of course contains unhealthy doses of racism as well as a melange of other reactionary ideological vices. The result was that a riot that could easily have been contained was not. This, too, serves specific interests.
Concocting an Insurrection
It now suits a ruling order confronting a Trump who has clearly gone too far to designate 01/06/21 an insurrection. It wasn’t. Labelling the Capitol riot in this way makes it almost impossible for Trump to retain his hold on the entirety of the Republican Party, insures that there are amped up justifications for his displacement, and reinforces the likelihood that, his utility now exhausted, he can be marginalized, relegated to the chat rooms of the conspiracy-driven fringe right.
Trump, of course, may well rise again, Phoenix-like, from the detritus of conflagrations of his own making. He has done this before. And clearly Trump retains the allegiance of a significant component of the Republican base. He managed to raise over $30-million in the weeks leading up to the Capitol riot, greasing the wheels of donations to his cause with reckless rhetoric of election fraud, stuffed ballot boxes, and rampant corruption. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that Trump’s finest hour, if it can be described as such, has long passed. That said, we shouldn’t be spreading his ashes just yet.
The sad and tragic reality is that it is our ashes that are being scattered. Caught in the vise-grip of a pandemic and a ravaged economy, impaled on racial divides that seem too enduring, too wide, and too fraught to breach, the political tea leaves can only be read with difficulty, lost as they are in the dark swirl of events. The future, to the extent that it can be glimpsed at all, looks barren and bleak. For whatever Trump’s fate, Trumpism and worse is not going away. The rise of the organized extreme right, from groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys to the Traditionalist Worker Party and the Three Percenters, shows no sign of abating. Trump has legitimized such ugliness, and the Capitol riot will only further embolden militarized expressions of American fascism, racism, anti-semitism, and the most extreme right-wing embrace of capital’s ideology of acquisitive individualism.
To rely on the Democratic Party of Joe Biden to move us out of the current crisis is no less illusory than the irrational faith Trump’s legions of combatants place in their chief. It is likely to end in the same disappointment, disillusionment, and despair. Trump’s folly has given Pelosi and Company an infusion of self-righteousness. This led to a series of maneuvers that were little more than ritualistic postures.
The initial call for Trump to resign of course came to naught. An expectation that Trump would step down was never anything more than a forlorn hope. Begging Pence and those of his Cabinet cronies still standing to invoke the 25th Amendment, removing Trump from office, was as likely to result in anything as appeals to this same group to set up an abortion clinic in the bowels of the Capitol Building.
Impeachment has proceeded, but its finale in a Senate trial has been delibertely delayed by Republicans, who are happy enough, under the circumstances, to have the Democrats carry the impeachment can. Biden is anything but enthralled with the prospect of an impeachment trial, and would much prefer that Trump simply fade away into the Mar-a-Logo night. If enough GOP Senators get on board with the ultimate Congressional sanction of convicting Trump in the forthcoming impeachment trial, it will be because there are those among the Republican elected elite who want to cut the Party loose from Trump. This will unleash an unseemly raft of repugnant pretenders to the throne and allow vindictive venalities like Mitch McConnell a chance to settle a score with an ex-President who did them dirt. If, however, impeachment fails to get the two-thirds Senate majority vote required to convict – which appears likely – it will allow Trump to yet again claim, however tortuously, victory.
And the left should ponder the obvious. While no tears can be shed for anything that befalls Trump, a successful mobilization of the centre and the right to bury his deteriorating place in history with allegations that he incited insurrection will, in the future, invariably rebound against left-led protests. If Trump can be tarred with this brush, imagine what will be done to those who do actually believe in the capacity of the dispossessed to rise up and defeat their genuine exploiters and oppressors, calling on them to fight back. We know that such leaders of our ranks will be pilloried by the state, subject to relentless legal hounding, jailed for their ideas, if not executed, as have been so many, from Albert Parsons to ‘Big Bill’ Haywood to Fred Hampton.
Let us not forget that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), established in 1938 on the eve of World War II to investigate disloyalty, subversive activities, and organizations with fascist or communist ties, spent an obligatory, metaphorical few hours addressing the far right, and then trained its sights, for decades, on the left. Communist Party members who shamefully applauded the victimization of Trotskyists under the infamous Smith Act in the early 1940s, reaped what they had sown. The Smith Act set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the US government, and Communist leader Earl Browder provided the prosecution of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ leaders and their Socialist Workers Party comrades with affidavits calling for the jailing of “a Trotskyite Fifth Column.” Less than a decade later, the Smith Act would be used to repeatedly bring to trial and sentence to jail over 130 communists, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Eugene Dennis, and Claudia Jones. Prosecuting and jailing speech is something all progressive-minded people should have learned, by now, establishes dangerous precedents more likely to be used to stifle and silence the left than rebuke the right. In the aftermath of 01/06/21, Florida, Mississippi, and Indiana have already taken steps to rebrand and extend the reach of laws targeting BLM protests as illegal, further criminalizing dissent.
The FBI now tracking down as many of the Capitol rioters as it can identify has a long history of carrying a big and threatening stick in its dealings with the left and talking rather softly to the right. The Bureau had a less than exemplary record of taking on the White Citizens’ Council and Klan members, some of whom were cops, who terrorized and killed civil rights campaigners and Congress of Racial Equality Freedom Riders like Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1963-1964. J. Edgar Hoover was always more interested in Martin Luther King’s and Bayard Rustin’s sex lives, or Abbie Hoffman’s and David Dellinger’s apparent conspiracies, all of these professed crimes and misdemeanors linked to the ubiquitous threat of communism. Keeping tabs on enemies like these was far more of a priority than putting Byron De La Beckwith, well know to have murdered Evers, in jail.
If the situation is now different, in 2021, Trump has so hollowed out the “security and intelligence” apparatus of the state, which has been directed to concentrate its energies on foreign terrorists, that it remains to be seen just what will be done about right wing extremists. A long history suggests that while the crisis of the moment dictates directing the state’s security resources and personnel toward the right, this focus will, inevitably, shift back to the left.
Proud Boy proclamations to take to the streets in armed protests on January 17, 2021 largely petered out. Insurrection II, Inauguration Day, came and went with little fanfare. The protests and disruptions promised, for both Washington and all 50 state capitols, failed to materialize. Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., was duly sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. Much of the ceremonial hoopla of the event was constrained by COVID-19 restrictions, but what was lost in hype was more than made up for in a display of armed power. The District of Columbia was quickly converted to a fortress, with 25,000 National Guards patrolling streets and the Capitol Building in military lock-down. Had a fraction of this martial preparedness been evident weeks earlier the insurrection that wasn’t would not have provided the ideological brace Biden and Company now enjoy.
As Boogaloo Bois wept in their beer and Oath Keepers swore under their stale breath, Joe Biden no doubt went to his White House bed with remembrances of his version of Martin Luther King, Jr dancing in his head: “Here at last. Here at last. Thank God, Almighty, I’m here at last.” Trump’s storm troopers slept less easily, vowing to “Live and Learn” and “Fight Again, Another Day.” Yet for many among them the revelry had gone out of their revolt. They complained that the heralded “Storm” had come to naught, that Trump had “sucker punched” them, that their seemingly fearless leader, fixated on his last flight on Air Force One and a proper state send-off, had proven to be weak, a coward in retreat who was little more than the liar excoriated by the effete liberal elite.
For the millions of poor and dispossessed, Biden’s claims that relief is on the way also probably ring rather hollow, reminiscent of the old Wobbly standbye, “The Preacher and the Slave,” with its refrain that, “You’ll get pie in the sky, when you die.” Promises to get cheques of $2000 in the mail are falling short of realization, wallowing in the mire of commitments to working with Republicans to achieve the chimera of bipartisan comity. If Biden is championed in the mainstream media, whose broadcast journalists spare few superlatives in gushing over the new dawn breaking over Washington’s now seemingly fair-weather politics, the likelihood of the 46th President’s promises of unity and resolution of the current crises coming to fruition are slim. To be sure, “plans” exist, packaged between official covers and held up to the cameras. But Trump and his non-Administration have left such a mess, McConnell is already using his Senate minority pedestal to attack a few tepid executive orders as a “far left” agenda, and the usual Democratic Party phobia of appearing “socialistic” is going to limit what is done to some much needed handouts and a modicum of coordination between levels of the state on the COVID-19 front. This may be sufficient to please some of the already parti pris people, but it is not going to be nearly enough for everyone in need. Biden confronts a capitalist crisis, even if capitalism itself is not in crisis.
When all is said and done the main beneficiaries of the insurrection that wasn’t were probably the police state in general and FBI agents in particular: logging overtime hours galore will buttress their bank accounts. The building products outlets retailing plywood for Washington window coverings and the rental agencies letting out makeshift fencing for legislative buildings from Albany to Sacramento, have certainly made out like bandits in the preparations for Biden’s swearing in on January 20, 2021. And, of course, the bloated ideological arsenal of American Democracy has a new armory of weaponry.
One thing only is certain. Unless there is a substantive organized left response to the contemporary impasse in bourgeois politics – decidedly lacking in our present conjuncture – nothing good can come of where we are now. Generations have associated specific decades of discord, like the 1930s and the 1960s, with radicalization, many of us seeing our development as Marxists, militants, and mobilizers as part of this historic process of the formation of dissidents and oppositionists on the left. Yet radicalization is now a term applied to the right. 01/06/21 has made this clear, at the same time as it has given liberal emissaries privileged ground on which to make their stand in defence of capitalism and its ostensibly democratic order.
Trump at least managed, in spite of himself, to expose different possibilities, highlighting vulnerabilities. Like the Bonaparte Marx wrote about in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Trump,
“[d]riven by the contradictory demands of his situation, and being at the same time, like a conjurer, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze fixed upon himself … by springing constant surprises … throws the entire bourgeois economy into confusion, violates everything that seems inviolable …, makes some tolerant of revolution, and others desirous of revolution, and produces actual anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping its halo from the entire state machine, profanes it and makes it at once loathsome and ridiculous.”
If it is possible to see through the veil of sanctimonious tears shed over the insurrection that wasn’t and get past outrage over the despoliation of deified institutions, Trump’s sordid legacy might well be turned to good purpose by the left. A small beginning would be to commence building an organized resistance that will genuinely strip the “halo from the entire state machine.” In this project, so necessary to any fundamental change, Trump’s right-wing defenders have lapped the left in a race to transform and transcend the politics of our time. •
An early draft of this essay, much abridged, appeared under the title, “The Meaning of January 6, 2021,” Jacobin 26 January 2021.