There was a sense, on the afternoon of the Capitol insurrection, that violent white American Trumpism had reached its apex. But by the next morning, as Republican politicians and right-wing media figures began rewriting history in real time—claiming antifa actually did it, pretending the insurrectionists merely went on self-guided tours of the building and “took selfies,” portraying the white mobs as victims—it became clear that the previous day’s act of sedition hadn’t been the final spasm of white supremacist anti-democracy but the harbinger of white supremacist anti-democracy to come. And those who support and excuse it are attempting to give the anti-democratic violence of the insurrection a veneer of respectability by dressing it up in the language of election integrity.
In the year since the Capitol siege, Republican lawmakers have continued their assault on democracy, not by condoning violent public rampages but via the codification of undemocratic laws. GOP legislators have passed 34 bills that suppress voting in 19 states; undertaken extreme gerrymandering to ensure the maintenance of conservative white political power; killed federal voting rights bills—with help from Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, unwavering supporters of a filibuster consistently used to oppose multiracial democracy; and in multiple states, are now working to make it perfectly legal to overturn free and fair elections. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue have each proposed the creation of law enforcement teams to police elections and, no doubt, to intimidate the kinds of voters who tend not to vote Republican. “History will judge them by their actions,” the old saw goes. But it does not hold here, since GOP legislators have also outlawed the accurate teaching of history in a dozen states.
Elsewhere, members of groups that invaded the Capitol are continuing to deform our politics. But instead of risking negative national attention, many of these groups have decentralized, inserting their members into political issues at the local level. Labeled “patriots” and “martyrs” by establishment Republicans, much of their “political” involvement involves physical intimidation.
Members of the ultraviolent Proud Boys—who have collectively been named in three separate federal lawsuits filed by Capitol Police officers; the NAACP and 10 Democratic members of Congress; and the city of Washington, D.C., all accusing the group of inciting violence on January 6—have been especially active. Previously best known for instigating street fights as long as they outnumber their opponents, Proud Boys members have become regular features at school board meetings and other public meetings across the country, where they turn up as “muscle” for their fellow right-wingers or simply intimidate political opponents. According to local news reports, in July, Proud Boys “carrying guns, bats and body armor” served as “security” for anti-reproductive-justice demonstrators in Salem, Ore. At a Chicago-area school board meeting in November, students who opposed the removal of a graphic novel by a nonbinary author were “jeered” and called “pedophiles” by local Proud Boys in attendance. And Proud Boys told a school board in Orange County, N.C., that, as one member recounted, “someone should tie rocks around our necks and we should throw ourselves in a river.” It seems likely that this sudden burst of local “activism” by the Proud Boys will continue for some time, since the national organization instructed members to “stand down” after the Capitol insurrection. At least three dozen members of the group are facing federal charges for their involvement in that event.
The Proud Boys aren’t the only ones. Last October, members of the Colorado-based militia United American Defense Force who came to a school board meeting to oppose a school’s mask mandates were described as “agitated,” “angry,” “combative,” and “intimidating” by a school administrator and other attendees. A few months before that incident, two people wearing UADF gear showed up at a school board meeting to protest the teaching of what conservatives have consistently mislabeled “critical race theory.” Patriot Prayer, a militia group often linked to the Proud Boys, reportedly played a role in the shutdown of a school in Vancouver, Wash., when its members spread a rumor that students without masks were being arrested and staged a disruptive rally near school grounds.
Members of these groups are also making forays into local electoral politics. In Eatonville, a tiny rural town outside Seattle, members of the Three Percent—a national militia group with multiple members facing indictment for their role in the Capitol breach—now occupy two of the seats on the local five-person school board, one of which was won just before the new year. The Washington Post notes that “the Washington Three Percent claims members in dozens of official posts throughout the state, including a mayor, a county commissioner and at least five school board seats.”
What’s more, spurred on by Trump adviser turned podcast host Steve Bannon and micro-influencers on the QAnon message boards, at least 57 people “who played a role” in the events at the Capitol, “either by attending the Save America rally that preceded the riots, gathering at the Capitol steps or breaching the Capitol itself,” are now candidates for elected office, according to Politico. Of those, at least three (though the number might rise) are being charged for their role on January 6. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that one or two won’t get elected.
This is what the creep of anti-democracy, long a part of the GOP effort but accelerated by Trump and the Capitol takeover, has brought us. This isn’t just bad for our political process. Each incursion is another tear in the fabric of democracy. And if history offers any sign of what’s ahead, we are nowhere near the end of this assault on democratic norms and principles. What began as an effort by white conservatives to disenfranchise Black voters has now spread so that a far broader spectrum of citizens will also have their voting rights eroded, their children’s schools filled with ahistorical curricula, their legislatures openly indifferent to the will of the majority. And perhaps, once that becomes clearer, more people will realize the immense danger we face, and a more intense effort will be taken to stop it. Here’s hoping that, by then, it won’t be too late.