It is tempting to see the violence in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday as the death rattle of a disintegrating political order—the Trump administration and its most cultish devotees’ final spasmodic grasp for power. In truth, it is the shape of things to come.
Already a litany of elected officials and public figures, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are insisting that “this is not who we are” and “this is not America.” In truth, pressure has been building to this point for some time.
The disintegration of the “alt-right” after the murder of Heather Heyer at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville left a power vacuum that has been filled by the Proud Boys—a kind of “big tent” organization for conspiracy-addled neofascist thugs—and a decentralized array of ultraviolent accelerationist sects primarily found online. In the ideological pressure cooker that followed Donald Trump’s defeat in November, new syntheses and alliances between these elements and the president’s hardcore MAGA base began to form, made manifest in Wednesday’s riot.
President-elect Joe Biden, who ran on a promise to heal the country’s divisions and restore the supposed post-racial tranquility of the Obama era, condemned the insurrection, calling on the Trump supporters who had occupied the Capitol and interrupted the certification of the election results “to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward.” However, the autogolpistas who stormed Congress—encouraged to do so just hours before by the president himself—do not believe in the legitimacy of the outcomes produced by the recent elections. To appeal to some shared, principled commitment to democracy is to misunderstand the nature of the threat that they pose.
The thousands who participated in the riot on Wednesday, the tens of thousands more who cheered them on through livestreams and obscure social media platforms, and the millions who support such action respect the legitimacy of democratic processes only to the extent that their preferred results come to pass. In this, they are not so different from more conventional sections of the Republican Party—the difference being that while the mainstream GOP subverts democracy through the courts, the neofascist GOP seeks to do so in the street.
Over the course of the day, photographs and videos of Trump supporters brawling with police on Capitol Hill, stalking the halls of Congress, and generally just clowning around poured across social media. They raised a giant cross outside the Capitol and inspired copy cats in Albany, Atlanta, Olympia, Salem, and Topeka. Asked why the cops hadn’t forcibly driven the demonstrators out of the federal buildings, one Capitol Police officer told a New York Times reporter, “We’ve just got to let them do their thing now.” As another cop told a Bloomberg reporter, “We were just not prepared.… I hope they don’t do this shit during the inauguration. We don’t have the people to handle it.”
In light of the show of force deployed against protesters in D.C. this summer—to say nothing of the hundreds of arrests made during Donald Trump’s inauguration four years ago—such claims are difficult to countenance. Multiple videos recorded at various points throughout the day showed police officers abandoning barricades, seeming to allow demonstrators into the federal buildings unopposed. “Again we were reminded that the designation of a peaceful protest is one made by law enforcement and the state. There’s no question of keeping the peace, really, when there’s only one side,” The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant wrote. “What we’re witnessing at the Capitol isn’t an insurrection; it’s an alliance.” In Jacobin, Peter Gowan observed: “The repressive apparatus of that state does not simply take different approaches to left-wing and right-wing protesters by coincidence. It brutally cracks down on those who threaten the ruling class, and it coddles those who don’t.”
Even as the Capitol Police ultimately showed great deference to the demonstrators on Wednesday, we should not lose sight of the fact that the afternoon was marked by bloodshed and confrontation—Trump supporters fought the cops, who in turn shot and killed Ashli Babbit, an Air Force veteran. (Three other people also reportedly died of medical emergencies during the riot.) Tuning into various livestreams from the Capitol, expressions of confusion and bafflement at police resistance could be heard amid the curses and sneers; after all, had not these very same Trump supporters just spent months “backing the blue” against the Marxists, antifa, and the dreaded Black Lives Matter? To be blocked now from stopping the steal was a great betrayal, and thus a remarkable spectacle was produced: the base of America’s party of law-and-order throwing haymakers at uniformed cops on the steps of the nation’s Capitol.
Those leading the charge into the Capitol are driven by a kind of nihilistic ethnonationalism, in some cases filtered through mainstream discourses of patriotism and civilizational struggle, while in others through pseudo-mystical appeals to blood and soil. On the far right, the question of how to relate to law enforcement and the State writ large is an open one: over the past few years, at demonstrations around the country, Proud Boys could often be seen courting police officers, emphasizing their shared contempt for liberals, progressives, and leftists—to the extent they cared to make a distinction at all—while accelerationist propaganda often depicts cops as enemies of the white nationalist project.
While the old saw that “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” remains true, the political currents now flowing through the American right require more careful analysis. Historically, anti-state actors on the right have carried more weight under Democratic administrations—no matter how moderate. As Joe Biden takes office, the influence of the accelerationist right likely will grow, inciting greater violence not only against the left but also opportunistically against police and the state as well. The potential path to state power presented by the Trump administration has been closed, so the fascist right will pursue its political goals through other means.
On Wednesday, after hours of demands by liberals and conservatives alike that Trump condemn people for doing exactly what he’d asked them to do that very morning, the president sent those who laid siege to the Capitol a characteristically mixed message. “We love you. You’re very special,” he told them in a video posted to Twitter, but it was time to “go home.” Of course, he could not help but remind everyone that he was the victim of a “fraudulent” election. “There’s never been a time like this, where…they could take it away from all of us—from me, from you, from our country.”
Rest assured that this will be Trump’s parting message: that he has been betrayed, and that the time will come to avenge that betrayal. It won’t be long before his supporters take matters into their own hands once more.