No one in the United States has been treated with more unearned grace and deference over these past four years than Donald Trump’s supporters. Their anger is always justified, their failures someone else’s, and their accountability for their own actions nonexistent.
However horrific the crimes and cruelties they commit, it’s the rest of us who are guilty—of not offering them enough empathy and compassion. And even as their conspiracy-fueled paranoia and racial fascism have festered, they’ve been coddled via narratives that paint them as good, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth patriots.
But patriotism, to modify a phrase, is the first refuge of white supremacist terrorists. And the portrayal of Trump supporters as a monolith of uneducated, small-town rubes duped into “voting against their interests,” as the saying goes, is a classist projection of those who imagine that racism only afflicts poor whites. We knew even before the 2016 presidential election that the median household income for Trump supporters outpaced that of the average American home. It should be no surprise that in addition to expected attendees such as the Proud Boys, neo-Confederates, and militia members, white-collar seditionists and state-backed players took part in the Capitol riot. Attorneys, a jet-setting real estate broker, a tech CEO, and at least six Republican state legislators identified in the days after the riot laid siege to the Capitol alongside active-duty military and veterans, as well as off-duty cops and firefighters, many of them reportedly flashing their badges and IDs as they took part in the attempted coup.
These were the kinds of very fine, almost exclusively white people who took over the Capitol in the president’s name. The marauding crowds were not all small-town factory workers gripped by economic anxiety. The insurrection drew folks who could afford to fly from their hometowns to D.C. for the weekend. Once there, they took part in a few unpoliced hours of domestic terror and insurgency before returning to their nearby hotels.
That violent manifestation of white backlash has been threatening to consume the rest of us for years. The actions of the rioters belied the law-and-order rhetoric trumpeted by Trump supporters throughout his administration. Though they’ve shouted “Blue lives matter!” when confronted with Black death, they viciously attacked the Capitol Police, killing one officer. Despite denigrating Black athletes for protesting systemic racism by kneeling during the anthem, they entered the Capitol with Trump banners and the treasonous Confederate flag. They’ve claimed that anti-racist protesters and “radical leftists” have denigrated this country, but literally defiled the Capitol by smearing excrement throughout its hallowed halls. They say they’re defending democracy, but they’re attempting to overturn an election in which Black voters played a decisive role.
After four years of openly aired racial grievances and threats of violence, the Capitol riot was the most defiant expression of white rage in modern American history. By occupying the seat of national government, the rioters sent a message about the boundlessness of whiteness’s dominion, which is indifferent to the laws that whiteness creates. The police response—nonexistent at times and complicit at others—only helped drive the message further home.
And while it’s true that Trump and his craven GOP abettors have relentlessly pushed election disinformation and pro-insurrectionist propaganda, the white terrorists who attacked an entire branch of government have made the choice to believe those lies. How else to explain that while all Americans were exposed to those conspiracy theories, only Trump’s aggrieved white followers have gone all-in, using them to justify their efforts to overturn democracy?
That’s why those involved must face consequences, something we haven’t seen enough of yet. The right-wingers who in April invaded Michigan’s statehouse in an armed tantrum over the state’s coronavirus lockdown faced no charges until October. Just seven months later, gun-toting extremists attempted a takeover of Oregon’s State Capitol. Only five people were arrested. Six of the conspirators in a scheme to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and televise the execution of multiple state lawmakers have been indicted, but the case remains a terrifying indicator of the lethal danger posed by homegrown white terrorists. Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 17-year-old who fatally gunned down two Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Kenosha, Wis., in August, has become such a right-wing celebrity that he crowdsourced his $2 million bail. Despite footage documenting the shootings, he pleaded not guilty to all charges in a hearing earlier this month.
There are many more examples of heat-packing Trump supporters and other neofascists menacing society, but suffice it to say that the normalization of right-wing violence demands that accountability for the Capitol rioters be a national priority. The FBI’s efforts to locate and prosecute an ever-growing list of those involved is a decent start (though arrests at the scene would’ve made more sense, but no looking back now, I suppose). Other measures we’ve seen—such as receiving public opprobrium, including job losses—are well deserved. Otherwise, count on yet more displays of white terrorist violence from Trump followers every time they don’t get their way. And lots more bloodshed.
In fact, the FBI has already announced that more insurrections aimed at overturning the election are on the horizon. According to an internal bulletin obtained by ABC News, the bureau “received information about an identified armed group intending to travel to Washington, DC on 16 January. They have warned that if Congress attempts to remove POTUS via the 25th Amendment, a huge uprising will occur.” In effect, Trump’s shock troops are attempting to hold the nation hostage to their political goals. Any argument against pursuing violent right-wing extremists because it further inflames extremists ignores that they plan to pick up arms and seek revenge in any case.
We’re long past the point when the right-wing violence that springs from white entitlement threatens to destroy us all. Accountability in this moment is only the first step in stopping a far more deadly takeover in its tracks.