The Assault on the U.S. Capitol and the Problem of Right-Wing Radicalization
EDITORIAL, 11 Jan 2021
As we know, the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. was invaded on January 6th by right-wing protestors bent on disrupting the proceedings of a joint session of Congress called to certify the results of Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’s election as U.S. president and vice-president. The house in which I am now writing this editorial is located two short blocks from the Capitol, and from my study I could hear the shouts of the crowd, punctuated by sirens, helicopter noises, and occasional explosive “bangs” later revealed to be the sound of flash grenades detonating. My impulse to walk a short distance to see what was happening was short-circuited by a phone call from my daughter, who said, “Turn on your television, and don’t you dare go there. You haven’t avoided the coronavirus just to be shot by some Proud Boy!” One look at the chaos onscreen confirmed the correctness of her advice.
The events of January 6
The facts, as lawyers like to say, are not in dispute. Donald Trump, the outgoing president, invited his supporters to come to Washington to demonstrate against the certification of the Biden/Harris victory on the grounds that the election was “rigged” and its outcome the result of massive fraud in the voting and vote count. The facts that Trump and his allies had filed more than sixty lawsuits in state and federal courts making the same claims, and that their complaints were uniformly rejected by Republican- as well as Democratic-appointed judges, were simply ignored. A crowd estimated by the police at 40,000-45,000 listened for more than one hour on the National Mall as Trump repeated his charges, insisted that he had won the election in a “landslide,” and branded the vote a “disgrace.” He then invited his followers to march to the Capitol to insist that election results be rejected.
It took almost no time for the crowd to surround the building, which was virtually unprotected by police or other security forces. A few score members of the U.S. Capitol Police, a special force used to police the Capitol grounds, were quickly and thoroughly outnumbered by demonstrators, who climbed the stairs and walls on both sides of the building, smashed windows, and entered the building, going so far as to occupy Congressional offices and the U.S. Senate chamber. Six people died in the assault – a woman demonstrator shot by police as she tried to enter the chamber of the House of Representatives; a Capitol policeman struck on the head by a demonstrator wielding a fire extinguisher canister; and four protestors who suffered heart attacks or strokes during the violence. Searches of the building and grounds immediately afterward turned up automatic weapons, ammunition, paraphernalia for taking hostages, and live pipe bombs.
President Trump watched the fracas on television with his family, then issued a statement praising the rioters, but asking them to go home. Two days later, with calls for his resignation or impeachment mounting, he issued another statement regretting the violence. One day after this, he issued another statement regretting his prior statement.
The problem restated
Recently, a television interviewer asked me to discuss “short term” and “long term” solutions to the problems revealed by the assault on the Capitol. I began by talking about the need to prosecute demonstrators who had invaded the building or hurt other people, and to hold Trump responsible for the violence, perhaps by having a joint session of Congress censure him. Short term solutions would also include reviewing the colossal security failure that permitted the attack to occur and quickly designing improved measures to protect the Capitol and other potential targets from future attack. (Far Right groups have already announced their intention to hold “peaceful armed demonstrations” in Washington and other capitals on January 17.) It seems clear, however, that aside from a few punitive or protective actions, there really are no short-term solutions to discuss. Since the problem is long-term, so are the solutions.
Let me say clearly that the problem is not merely Donald Trump. This maleficent demagogue with fascistic leanings is surely a problematic leader, but he is a symptom and constituent of a much larger problem: the intense polarization of U.S. politics that has tribalized American political conflicts. Once thought of as struggles between competitive “interest groups,” these conflicts increasingly resemble the ethnic, racial, religious, values-based communal conflicts that have long plagued nations in other parts of the world. The 74 million U.S. citizens who voted for Trump in 2020 and the 79 million who voted against him consider themselves members of communities united by common cultural, political, and moral tastes and values. Socioeconomic issues involving growing income and wealth inequality, job insecurity, poverty, and precarity, not to mention the near collapse of social services in many rural and urban communities, are actually at the heart of this polarization. But, since challenging the overall health of the capitalist order is still taboo, these issues are increasingly translated into ethnocultural grievances and a search for scapegoats.
In saying this, I am aware that many readers will suppose that I am talking about right-wing white supremacists, religious fanatics, and conspiracy theorists. Of course, I am, at least in part. Watching the attack on television, it was impossible not to notice the Confederate flags being carried into the Capitol building, the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt worn by one demonstrator, and the QAnon regalia sported by others. Although investigations of the perpetrators are still at an early stage, it is likely that they will reveal the active presence of neo-fascist groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other Far Right militias.
But anti-Trump forces, no less than pro-Trumps, have come increasingly to constitute a political tribe. Their ethnocultural grievances tend to be directed against conservatives stereotyped en masse as violent white supremacists, and their particular scapegoat is Donald Trump himself, seen as a primary cause of political decay rather than as a representative of a decaying system. Largely college educated, they are quite conscious of themselves as a distinct culture group superior to the benighted, manipulable “deplorables” who oppose unrestricted immigration, the liberal news media, gun control regulations, and the Deep State.
The bulk of Trump supporters are regularly described by respected U.S. newspapers and journals as “whites without a college education.” This means is that they are members of the working class (a term scrupulously avoided by the American press) whose standard of living was declining sharply even before the COVID pandemic worsened their situation. But the more educated, technologically sophisticated, urbane masses who tend to support liberal Democratic candidates are also wage workers. This points to an enormous, highly consequential split between sectors of the working class – a split that has become the basis for a status differentiation which gravely undermines social unity. Some workers feel that their work is honorable and important and that they have an economic future, while others, humiliated and despairing, seek a recompense for their declining status in dreams of vanished glory and myths of racial superiority. Still others suffer from economic insecurity, poverty, and violence-ridden neighborhoods because they are people of color: the victims of systemic, trans-generational racial and ethnic discrimination.
The solution reimagined
We cannot talk about solutions to the problems that generated the attack on the U.S. Capitol without understanding their social roots. To halt the radicalization of many workers by the Far Right, one of these sources of conflict – the split between more and less “skilled” strata of the working class – must be recognized and overcome. But how to accomplish this without understanding that such splits are products of the normal operations of an unplanned socioeconomic system driven by the compulsion to maximize short-term profits? Dividing workers into viciously competitive status groups may not be the result of any conspiracy by owners or elite “opinion-makers,” but the results are the same whether the strategy is consciously designed or adopted spontaneously, as a sort of Darwinian response to threats to the supremacy of Big Capital. Divisions between white workers and workers of color have long been encouraged or tolerated for the same reasons. If Joe Biden is serious about “bringing Americans together” – a goal that he never tires of confirming – he will need to start by bringing sectors of the working class together, whether or not this pleases the wealthy donors who finance the Democratic Party’s electoral campaigns.
Since the problem is long term, the solution must be long term. It seems clear that the movement that elected Donald Trump will outlast his demise, just as the jihadi movement on several continents has outlasted the disappearance of charismatic leaders from bin Laden to al Baghdadi. The challenge, in both cases, is to prevent larger and larger segments of the movement from moving from conservatism to fascism, and from mostly nonviolent protest to calculated, organized terrorism. The January 6 attack on the Capitol was not an act of terrorism, in my view, nor was it an “insurrection” or a “coup,” even though it was an illegal occupation aimed at disrupting Congress in the performance of its duties. But, even if one thinks that a comparison with Mussolini’s March on Rome or Hitler’s 1923 Munich putsch is apt, the question is how to prevent 1923 from becoming 1933 – how to stop the mass radicalization that could produce a violent neofascist movement with mass support.
It might help to begin by admitting that nobody has yet proposed an effective ready-made answer to this question. The results of a decade of research into “CVE” – countering violent extremism – have not been particularly encouraging. In part, I think, this is because of the difficulty of recognizing that the problems requiring solution are systemic, not just the result of bad leaders or policies. Political tribalization in America is not a recent development. The modern roots of the current crisis go back at least to the 1960s and 1970s when young radicals on the left participated in a controversial “cultural revolution,” and to the 1980s and 1990s, when right-wing forces launched a cultural counter-revolution under the banners of states’ rights, rugged individualism, and evangelical religion. The intense polarization that presently confronts us is the product of a systemic crisis, not just the appearance of demagogic leaders, and can be challenged only by measures that restore failing socioeconomic and political systems to health.
Our job, from here on, must be to diagnose those failures correctly and to propose imaginative and practical cures. To do this will involve challenging widely held taboos and convincing people to allow themselves to think more freely about the sort of society that they want to create for themselves and their descendants. This in turn requires sustained conversation – dialogue, if you like – between social groupings that have been far more inclined to tune into self-confirming social media and news sources than to talk with members of another tribe.
Punishing the perpetrators of the assault on the Capitol is both warranted and necessary. President Trump should surely be held responsible for encouraging a mob to surround the building and threaten Congress. But punitive measures alone will not help us to conduct these desperately needed inter-tribal conversations. Punish the perpetrators and secure our public sites, certainly. But start these dialogues now!
Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017). His book in progress, to be published in fall 2020, is Post-Corona Conflicts: New Sources of Struggle and Opportunities for Peace.
Tags: Anglo America, Demonstrations, Hegemony, Imperialism, Military Industrial Complex, Protest movements, Protests, US Military, USA, Violence
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jan 2021.
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