On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it helps to think of America not as the soaring adult Bald Eagle, but as this awkward creature not yet in its best plumage, goofily trying to land on things that can’t support its weight, and trying to catch birds it can’t eat… It’s our job, as outlined by MLK, to make this America grow up into the awesome graceful adult we’d all like it to be – by rejecting racism and militarism and fighting to democratically exclude those -isms from our communities.
America is in the midst of five major crises: A public health crisis with the coronavirus, a Constitutional crisis with a President determined to remain in power despite the people electing his challenger, a justice crisis with people of color subjected to violent policing far more often than people thought of as white, a climate crisis with rampant well-funded denial of a slowly unfolding tragedy, and an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic that adds to the suffering and feeds many of these other crises.
I’m writing this about 24 hours after the Trump rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. moved to the Capitol Building, smashed windows and furniture, and threatened lawmakers in the midst of certifying the electoral votes from the 2020 Presidential Election, in which Joe Biden defeated President Trump by 7 million votes and 74 Electoral votes. This close to the insurrection/riot (we don’t even know what to call this event just yet) emotions and fears are running high, and while I think the near-term implications are frightening, I also believe the long-term implications are even worse and interact with the other four crises.
One thing I find fascinating about yesterday’s riot (doubtless history will find a better term? Putsch? MAGAgolpe?) is the almost-immediate denial in some right-wing circles that the people who invaded the Capitol to disrupt the Electoral vote certification were right-wingers at all.
Donald Trump, Rudi Giuliani, and other Republicans appeared onstage at the “Stop the Steal” rally on the morning of January 6th, with Giuliani paving the path to bloodshed: “But if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail. So let’s have trial by combat.” Trump offered bellicose rhetoric as well: “Fight like hell. You fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Then going on to say “So we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue – I love Pennsylvania Avenue – and we’re going to the Capitol; and we’re going to try and give – give – the Democrats are hopeless, they’ve never voted for anything, not even one vote; but we’re going to try and give our Republicans – the weak ones because the strong ones don’t need any of our help – we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.” Trump does not then walk down Pennsylvania Ave., but many from the crowd do, and the rest is history (very recent history.) In numbers that overwhelmed the Capitol Police, they shoved their way in, were allowed in, broke windows to get in, and flowed through the offices and hallways of the Capitol while Congress ceased the business of certifying the election and evacuated.
By the time I write, 5 people have died from this autogolpe – also 60 Capitol and DC Police officers injured and an uncertain number of rioters were injured. Members of Congress returned to their chambers and completed their count of the Electoral votes, which has always been more ceremonial than real, and are now mulling over impeaching Trump a second time. Cabinet officials, including Secretary of Education DeVos and Secretary of Transportation Chao, are resigning. It is possible Trump’s legacy will be seen through the lens of this autogolpe, his most violent and open attack on democracy.
But the rioters – they were excited to let people know what they were doing. They livestreamed, tweeted, and posted:
Disrupting the orderly and fair election was exactly what this collection of white supremacists and neo-nazis want. Elections and a functioning democracy are the last thing they want. The playbook for fascists is to make the democracy no longer function, because fascism does not look appealing to people who can vote for representatives who will effectively improve their lives.
This sabotage of democracy would look bad for Trump, so right away friends of friends on facebook, and actual right-wing celebrities from Kevin Sorbo to Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), began to deny that it was right-wing people who had gone from Trump’s rally to the Capitol, on Trump’s urging (if the crowd was antifa, why did Trump tell them to go to the Capitol, and if they were antifa, why did they obey Trump?.)
An important key here is that the construction of plausible deniability on the part of the right-wing is not sincere. There is no good-faith attempt to establish who the voters really wanted to elect. This mob wanted the man who is most clearly a liar, most clearly favors violence over peace, and most clearly corrupt, to avoid all responsibility for his actions. The way this riot unfolded, with a mostly white crowd brazenly overrunning the police and threatening Congressmembers with violence, acting with impunity like it was a giant live-action roleplaying event to be shared on Instagram and Facebook.
There is precedent for this. The Brooks Brothers Riot in 2000, the Iran-Contra Scandal of the 1980s, and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, all have in common that right-wing instigators got away with no responsibility and no consequences. For the right must create a story that permits an escape from any responsibility for the wrongs they have done.
One comparison that leapt to mind is the Burning of Washington in August of 1814 by the British, but I think there are more recent examples that are less tied to international warfare. In 1874, the “White League” attacked the state house, armory, and other locations in New Orleans, which was then the capital of Louisiana, holding off loyalists for days before federal troops arrived. That coup failed; but it set the terms for future coups and paramilitary actions in the American South: In 1870, the Kirk-Holden War pitted the Ku Klux Klan against Republicans and people of color In 1898, white supremacist paramilitaries launched a violent coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, using murder and arson to eliminate what they called “Negro Rule.” Those are the violent coups that have happened in America before, and this it what we can expect if this is allowed to stand.
The people who see success in the coups that ended Reconstruction 150 years ago also see success in the failure of the US to address the other crises facing us: They see the coronavirus as an obstacle to the flow of money into regular business. They see President Trump as a bulwark against cultural change and against government regulation. They see people of color as inferior and agents of cultural changes they would like to prevent. They see the climate crisis as a barrier to making money off coal and oil. They see the economic crisis as a threat to the inequities of wealth in our society.
Two weeks from now, Trump’s term is scheduled to end, and accountability is an option. If we really want to address any of these five crises, accountability for the attempted coup and the threat to democracy must be the highest priority.