In the wake of a bitterly disputed presidential election, a central hub of government operations was suddenly under siege. A group of aggrieved right-wing protesters defied security and flooded into the now-chaotic center of activity. Government officials were harassed and feared for their safety, as charges of fraud and betrayal of the people’s will rose up from the angry mob.
No, this wasn’t January 6, 2021—it was two decades earlier, on the day before Thanksgiving in the year 2000. The target wasn’t the US Capitol but instead the nondescript Steven B. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami. Election officials had congregated there to review disputed ballots marred by ambiguous or otherwise imperfect impressions of electoral intent on the part of voters in the deadlocked 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. They were met by a throng of Republicans clad in polo shirts, chanting, “Shut it down!”
The precedent set by the post-election uprising in Miami-Dade County gives the lie to the common depiction of the failed Trumpian coup as an isolated and outlying event in the annals of right-wing protest. In reality, the “Brooks Brothers riot,” staged amid the surreal, fiercely contested battle over the Florida vote, laid out the blueprint. Then, as in 2020, key legal and political strategists on the right sought to disrupt a clear procedural mandate to preserve the integrity of a vote count. The symbolic staging of the right-wing uprising conveyed the clear message that the votes of a white, upscale electorate were innately more American, legitimate, and potent than the more numerous non-white coalition that broke for the Democratic presidential ticket.
Still more remarkably, both disruptive actions aimed at flipping the election into the Republican column took shape under the guidance of fabled right-wing dirty-tricks impresario Roger Stone—an ardent student of Nixonian electoral realpolitik who moved seamlessly into the vanguard of the Trumpian right. The legal arm of the GOP’s orchestrated bid to shut down the 2000 election recount in Florida boasted no less than three future Supreme Court justices among its foot soldiers: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. The improbable elevation of Donald Trump to the top of the GOP presidential ticket, and then the White House, during the 2016 election cycle drew directly on the racist animal spirits unleashed in the early-’90s candidacies of presidential hopefuls David Duke and former Nixon communications aide Pat Buchanan; likewise, the horrific and deadly assault on the US Capitol on January 6 built to a striking degree on the precedent set by the Brooks Brothers riot.
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Former GOP operatives who took part in the Brooks Brothers riot still see it as falling within the bounds of political decorum. Douglas Heye, former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, was among the political professionals who cut his teeth in the Brooks Brothers uprising. He insists that, in contrast to the January 6 effort to lay low the legislative branch and force the adoption of a phony slate of state electors, the Bush-Cheney team was looking to return public transparency to the recount process in Florida. “The whole thing was predicated on public counting,” he says, “after they started to move the recount crew behind closed doors.” Heye insists he saw no violent conduct unfold at the protest. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a charged mood of confrontation throughout the proceedings. “At one point—I do think this looks a bit different in light of the subsequent developments under Trump—someone pulled down a sign in the building that had the number for a voter fraud hotline, and started chanting ‘Call now!’” Heye recalls. The protesters were also amazed to see no meaningful opposition. “I still don’t understand how it was that we completely outmatched the Democrats,” Heye says.
Florida officials didn’t find the protests so benign, to put things mildly. Miami Dade County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Geller—now a Florida state representative—walked into the throng and felt immediately threatened. “This one guy was tripping me and pushing me and kicking me,” Geller recalled to The Washington Post. “At one point, I thought if they knocked me over, I could have literally got stomped to death.” The mob went on to chase Geller even after he exited the building, claiming that he was smuggling a ballot out of the tabulation room, and shouting “Busted!” and “Cuff him!” to a nearby group of sheriff’s deputies.
It’s not hard to discern distinct echoes here of the far more militant demands from the aggrieved January 6 mob to overrun the Capitol barricades, attack the Capitol Police, and hunt down and menace Democratic lawmakers inside the building. One difference, though, is that the Brooks Brothers riot worked—by the time the battered and harassed Geller returned home, he saw a TV news bulletin announcing that county election officials had suspended the Miami-Dade recount, thanks to Roger Stone’s new-model Republican army. The stated objective of the Florida mob action was to preserve the narrative that the Bush-Cheney ticket beat out the Gore-Lieberman one—and with that win in hand, the Bush team mined the same potent story line. (This prime directive was neatly summed up in their derisive slogan for the other side, “Sore Loserman.”) The insurgent GOP operatives sustained the mirage of a consistent edge in the Florida vote through successive court challenges to the state recount and on through the Supreme Court’s December 2000 decision awarding the presidency to Bush.
“The closed loop of raw power here is extraordinary,” says Roosevelt University political scientist David Faris. “You have Barrett, Roberts and Kavanaugh on Bush’s legal team, who help convince the Supreme Court to issue a party-line 5-4 vote to stop counting votes in Florida. With Bush installed, Roberts eventually becomes chief justice, guts voting rights and campaign finance laws, allows Republicans to continue gerrymandering, cuts the heart out of unions and subjects the ACA to endless legal Calvinball.” At the core of this judicial revolution, Faris continues, was the logic of the electoral putsch, as test-driven in Miami: “With the Brooks Brothers riot, Republicans got their first taste of intimidating election officials, gaming the courts and playing the outrage card to tilt the scales in their favor.”
The winking irony conveyed in the GOP’s self-chosen designation for the Florida mob seemed meant to downplay it from the start. The core imagery of a Brooks Brothers riot played off the putative improbability of a bunch of comfortable, well-credentialed white guys laying siege to an electoral process by force. Indeed, the well-known preppy clothing brand telegraphs in most public settings as “white”—as photos from the 2000 Florida uprising plainly show. The intended air of respectability is how white entitlement plays out in an invisible flourish of social power. This vanishing act is anything but benign, since the history of electoral coercion, particularly in the American South, is the saga of white mob violence.
The iconography of the American right has changed in 20 years—at least on the face of things. The golf-course-ready Republican establishment operatives of the turn of the century have given way to white nationalist militia groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, who turned out in camo gear on January 6, with more than a few flourishes of Confederate and Nazi symbolism thrown into the mix. Almost none of the rioters storming the Capitol in 2021 would look at home in a Brooks Brothers store—with the possible exception of Roger Stone himself, who still favors the derby-and-bowtie look of the postwar conservative elite. Even so, Stone is known for gleefully stripping off his shirt for press photographers in order to show off the large Nixon tattoo emblazoned on his back.
In other words, appearances can be deceiving. After five solid years of credulous press reports portraying Trump’s key base of support as the downwardly mobile white working class, the striking thing about the January 6 insurgency was how consistently it drew its ranks from the well-heeled (if still overwhelmingly white) haute bourgeoisie. One analysis by University of Chicago political scientist Robert A. Pape surveying the demographic backgrounds of more than 700 rioters arrested on that day found that at least half were high-achieving white-collar souls: architects, doctors, business owners, and lawyers. Rather than in the red-state interior, they lived mostly in counties that broke for Biden in 2020. Pape found that the strongest demographic indicator of riot participation in his group was residence in a county where Hispanic population growth has recently tilted white residents out of their historic majority.
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This potent folk belief in the control of American governance and mass media by an invading force—immigrants, Black radicals, left-wing outside agitators—went from the alibi of first resort in the Brooks Brothers riot to perhaps the most central, unifying article of faith in the 21st-century Republican Party. Over this midterm cycle, more than 70 percent of Trump-endorsed candidates for federal and state office parroted false claims that the 2020 balloting was rigged and stolen for Joe Biden; 23 candidates for secretary of state in 18 states hold the same view. Meanwhile, a vast Trump-backed corps of right-wing poll workers is already undergoing concerted training in tactics to disrupt and undermine the midterm results in 2022. The rapid institutionalization of the tantrum thrown by Trump’s legal team after the loss of the 2020 election is one of the clearest signs that January 6 wasn’t in any way aberrant—and that the GOP remains closely aligned with the playbook that Roger Stone originated with the Brooks Brothers riot. (Stone did not respond to The Nation’s request for an interview.)
Longtime establishment Republicans gaze out at this reconfigured landscape in mordant disbelief. “What was once a recessive gene in the Republican Party has become dominant,” says William Kristol, former senior George H.W. Bush White House aide and editor of the late Weekly Standard. “And it doesn’t look like it’s going back into recession any time soon.” As usual, the militant hard-right apparatchik Stone was the premier early adopter of the American right’s most enduring fables of power. One longtime associate of Stone’s in GOP circles—who requested anonymity, in consideration of the criminal investigations Stone is now facing—neatly summed up his legacy: “As a professional chicanery artist, Roger’s been practicing half his life to overturn an election, as he did in the Brooks Brothers riot. But he used to do so in a fringe capacity. The problem is, by the time he perfected his craft, he was too close to power, and stands to get indicted for it. He now needs to get and keep Trump elected, just so he has someone to give him a pardon when he needs one.” As the past two decades of Republican efforts to shut down the vote have shown, as Roger Stone goes, the rest of the American conservative movement will eventually follow.
Chris LehmannTwitterChris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).