In the early hours of Wednesday 6 January, Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church – Martin Luther King’s former congregation – was elected as one of two senators for Georgia. It was the first time a Democrat had been elected to this position in two decades and the first time an African American had ever held it.
Later that day, Donald Trump addressed a crowd of around 8,000 supporters on the Ellipse, near the White House, claiming the presidential election was rigged. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he told his followers. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” He promised to accompany them to the Capitol, only to go back to the White House and watch on television as several hundred of them fought their way into the building while Congress was certifying the presidential election results. Congressional staffers barricaded themselves into offices and hid under desks, and the certification was halted as legislators were ushered out of the chamber to safety. The mob ransacked the place; smashing windows, killing a police officer, looting laptops. They made off with the House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, broke into her office, stole her mail and one photographed himself with his feet on her desk.
A few hours later, shortly after Trump tweeted a short video telling his supporters, “Go home, we love you, you’re very special”, the other Senate race in Georgia was called. The Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, had won – the first time a Jew had been elected to that position. His victory together with Warnock’s, alongside the casting vote of vice-president-elect Kamala Harris (the daughter of Indian and Jamaican migrants), gave Democrats the majority in the upper chamber.
The relationship between these events – Georgia’s elections and the insurrection at the Capitol – was contextual, not causal. Each had their own timetable; each might have ended up differently. But that they coincided made the challenges of the US’s emerging political and electoral reality painfully clear.
The results in Georgia confirmed what more lucid Republicans already knew: November 2020 was no fluke. Trump had proved himself to be more of a liability than an asset. This was too bitter a pill for his base to swallow. The America they sought to protect could no longer be reliably defended through the polls, but the future they feared could be obstructed by force.
The Democrats won both Georgia seats narrowly (Warnock by 51 per cent to 49 per cent; Ossoff by 50.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent) thanks, in no small part, to the high turnout of black voters, 93 per cent of whom went for the Democrats, according to early exit polls. This once again showed that an electoral fightback built on Trump’s politics – with or without Trump himself – remained possible: although his defeat in November was beyond question, he had proved competitive. But the prospect of victory through following that path was waning. There has been around a 28 per cent increase in minorities in Georgia over the past 20 years. It was more or less the same coalition that won the state for Joe Biden by an even slimmer margin in November – the first time a Democratic candidate had won Georgia in 28 years.
These victories, in the heart of the former Confederacy, laid bare the electoral limitations of the ever more naked appeals to white supremacist rhetoric that have become Trump’s hallmark, and the ever more ruthless and desperate efforts at disenfranchising poor and minority voters that have long been a Republican staple. Far from being caused by demographic shifts alone, the elections of Warnock and Ossoff were made possible by an intensification of grass-roots efforts to mobilise black voters and effectively challenge their exclusion.
The scenes at the Capitol were born from a flat-out rejection of this reality. In a year in which there were huge nationwide anti-racist demonstrations, the electoral coalition cohered by Trump had been outnumbered and out-organised in November. The complexion of that defeat was made clear as his slight lead in on-the-day voting was eroded and eventually overturned by mail-in votes from cities such as Milwaukee, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit, where black people outnumber whites, and where the suburbs are increasingly diverse. The almost exclusively white insurrectionists would not tolerate – or even countenance – defeat on that basis. They would support democracy so long as democracy supported them, but they could do without it if it did not deliver.
A rejection of the result of the presidential election was rooted not in fact but in fable shrouded in an air of futility. “If you beat your head against the wall,” argued the Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci, “it is your head that breaks, not the wall.” The source of the far right’s headache was not difficult to fathom. The scores of legal challenges had failed. The recording of Trump’s attempt to pressure Georgia’s secretary of state into overturning his presidential defeat in the state was not only shocking in its own right; it also illustrated that Trump believed his own lies. Even as the mob ran amok in the Capitol, after Vice-President Mike Pence had certified the results and the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had rejected Trump’s appeals, both the outgoing president and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani were calling legislators in a bid to change their vote.
“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “In Front of Your Nose”. “And then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite period of time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
That battlefield started at the ballot box, continued through the courts and eventually found itself at the steps of the Capitol. Little more than 24 hours after Warnock’s race had been called in Georgia, Pence declared Joe Biden the president-elect.
It is difficult to find a word that accurately describes what happened on 6 January without either downplaying the events or inflating the power and importance of the protagonists. There can be no doubt as to their immediate intention. The demonstration was planned for the day the electoral college vote would be certified – generally a ceremonial procedure. They stormed the building to interrupt that process with a view to preventing the authentication of a free and fair election. According to a media intelligence company, Zignal Labs, the phrase “storm the Capitol” was mentioned 100,000 times on various social media platforms in the 30 days preceding 6 January.
Some had violent intent and those who did not seemed disinclined to openly object to those who did. That evening, police caught Lonnie Coffman, from Alabama, with an M4 assault rifle, a large cache of ammunition and equipment to make Molotov cocktails in his truck and two handguns in his pockets. Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr, who had driven to DC from Georgia, allegedly threatening in a text message to put “a bullet in [Pelosi’s] noggin”, was arrested with a Glock 19, a 9mm pistol and an assault rifle in his van alongside “approximately hundreds of rounds of ammunition”, FBI agents said.
At least one explosive device was found in the Capitol; others were found at the Republican and Democratic National Committee offices. Some in the mob carried crowbars, plastic restraints, Tasers and knives. They reportedly killed one policeman by hitting him over the head with a fire extinguisher, and injured several others. That the president and his lawyer were still lobbying politicians as the violence erupted suggests, at the very least, they saw it as an opportunity to leverage the situation to their advantage.
Many rioters were agitated by the false claims of vote rigging; some had been energised by their opposition to Covid restrictions. But the whole enterprise was underpinned by more long-standing demons. They carried Confederate flags and wore clothes emblazoned with messages such as “Camp Auschwitz”, illustrating that there were not only Holocaust deniers among them, but Holocaust celebrators. Not all may have shared those views – Ashli Babbitt, the female rioter who was shot dead, had once supported Barack Obama before becoming a devoted conspiracy theorist – but, again, they did not openly object to those who did.
If their ultimate intention was to overturn the results of the election, then the riot was as well thought out and had as much chance of success as the legal challenges that preceded it. It seems as though storming the Capitol was the goal in itself. A show of strength, confidence and menace; a spectacle of the emboldened and entitled. If there was a plan beyond making it into the building and interrupting the process, it was not clear.
In a mark of their confidence, stupidity and sense of impunity, rioters actually videoed themselves and posted clips on their social media accounts. When they made it into the Capitol, they were at a loss as to what to do beyond strut, maraud, steal souvenirs and pose provocatively with iconic props. These were insurrectionists who did not take themselves or their insurrection particularly seriously. By the next day, they were claiming victory even as Biden was officially named president-elect.
That doesn’t mean we should dismiss them. That they were able to make it as far as they did with so few fatalities – Babbitt, and three others who died of medical emergencies – suggests, at the very least, a passive complicity with the police.
A number of off-duty officers were apparently involved. Police departments in Seattle, Pennsylvania, San Antonio and New Hampshire, among others, are investigating the involvement of police officers who were at the rally, to see if they broke any laws. One black officer on the scene reported seeing two rioters produce their police badges. One allegedly said, “We’re doing this for you.”
Clearly, Capitol security didn’t assess the rioters as a threat. Indeed, there is some evidence, from the few who smiled at the gates, posed for pictures or helped insurrectionists wipe tear gas from their eyes, that some looked upon them indulgently. It’s not difficult to see why. For much of this year, these have been law enforcement’s most vociferous defenders: insisting that Blue Lives Matter and championing law and order with their own vigilante squads. Many called on the police to join them before branding them traitors, cowards and oath-breakers. Among the groups represented within the throng were the oath-keepers, a right-wing vigilante band of former police officers, military and first responders who pledge to actively observe the oath to “defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. Another black officer told Buzzfeed: “We were telling them to back up… and they’re telling us, they are on our side, and they’re doing this for us, and they’re saying this as I’m getting punched in the face by one of them.”
When the civil rights movement and unions called the March on Washington in 1963, all police leave and elective surgery in DC was cancelled. A thousand troops were stationed in the area, with more to join, and 30 helicopters were sent to DC. The Pentagon put 19,000 troops on standby with the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There were three arrests.
On 10 January the Capitol police chief, Steven Sund, who has now resigned, said he pleaded with House and Senate security officials for the DC National Guard to be placed on standby, but they turned him down because they were not comfortable with the “optics”.
For a coup d’état to be worthy of the name, the organs of the state – most importantly the police and military – must be in play. They might actively support the insurrection, but they could also just decide not to intervene. There was an ambivalence about the treatment of this mob that puts a serious question mark over the reliability of the police when defending democracy against white supremacist insurrection. That Black Lives Matter supporters would never have been treated this way is a matter of politics, not mere “policing”.
“Kings were put to death long before 21 January 1793,” wrote Albert Camus in The Rebel, referring to Louis XVI’s execution after the French Revolution. “But regicides of earlier times and their followers were interested in attacking the person, not the principle, of the king. They wanted another king, and that was all.”
Quite what Trump’s relationship to politics will be after 20 January is not clear. He has been the far right’s most senior and effective advocate; never before has it had such a powerful, unprincipled and opportunistic spokesman. Whatever he does next will not bear the seal or the authority of the presidency. He is, however, a product of the US’s racial, nationalist and xenophobic pathologies, not the originator of them. He has been a lightning rod for – and an amplifier of – them. But they long preceded him and will long outlast him.
Since the end of the civil rights era, supporters of the far right have increasingly become a crucial part of the Republican base (before that, in the South, they were Democrats). They were junior partners in the coalition that could mostly be placated at the polls by the promise of anti-abortion judges, pro-gun rhetoric and dog-whistle racism. “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Richard Nixon told his chief of staff. “The key is to devise a system that recognises that while not appearing to.”
This tense and evolving relationship between the leadership and the base was exemplified during a Republican town hall meeting in suburban Minnesota, addressed by the Republican candidate John McCain, just a month before the 2008 presidential election. One man confessed: “Frankly, we’re scared of an Obama presidency” because “someone who cohorts with domestic terrorists” might be in a position to choose Supreme Court justices. McCain replied: “He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States,” and was booed at his own rally.
Some minutes later, Gayle Quinnell took the microphone and said: “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him. He’s an Arab…” McCain took the mic back, insisting: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Trump’s ascendancy within the Republican Party effectively handed the mic back to the crowd, with the leader, and then president, acting as a vessel and bullhorn for their anxieties, bigotries, ignorance and falsehoods. They traded the dog whistle for a wolf whistle.
As the two contributions at the town hall meeting suggest, conspiracy theories and ill-informed rumours were central to the far right long before they were caffeinated by social media. Conspiracists claimed the Clintons have had more than 50 of their associates assassinated and that, as a young governor, Bill was complicit in flying weapons out to Nicaragua and cocaine back through a small airport in Arkansas.
While these fantasies begin on the margins, they have a habit of going mainstream. In 2010, according to a Harris poll, a majority of Republicans believed Obama was a Muslim and a socialist who wanted “to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government”. Another poll that year showed about two-thirds of them believed that or were not sure whether Obama was “a racist who hates white people”, and more than half believed he wasn’t or were not sure if he was born in the US and wanted terrorists to win. Even in 2015, half of Republicans believed the US had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Trump’s arrival into politics, at a time of feverish Obama-phobia and economic crisis, was well timed. Trump’s departure from office would have prompted a realignment within the right anyway; the recent insurrection will give that reconfiguration a sense of urgency and gravity it would have otherwise lacked.
Joe Biden keeps calling for unity. The question is on what basis, and to what end. The events of 6 January are clarifying in this regard. You cannot reach across the aisle if you’re hiding under your desk or being ushered out of the chamber by security guards. And, if the person you are trying to reach out to is in any way responsible for the present chaos, you wouldn’t want to. After two decades throughout which the mantra “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” was paramount, one would hope there would be clearer principles and parameters about the nature of the unity the Democrats seek.
On the day of the insurrection, the US recorded its highest daily death toll from coronavirus (it has since risen higher). Two days later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the US economy had lost 140,000 jobs in December, leaving the unemployment rate at 6.7 per cent – the first time it hasn’t improved in seven months. At the time of writing, Democrats have introduced articles of impeachment against Trump for “inciting violence against the United States”. Meanwhile the FBI has learned that “armed protests” are being planned at all 50 state capitols and in DC in the week running up to the inauguration.
One assumes Republican grandees will distance themselves from any further violence and will use whatever leverage they have – which may not be much – to prevent it. The actions of the mob have given white supremacy and nationalist fervour a bad name for now. But the lies and the incitement to violence were not new; indeed, they have been characteristic of Trump’s tenure. Some cabinet members who stuck by him as he called the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville “fine people” have resigned. It took Trump losing an election, refusing to accept it, lying about the results and then inciting a riot, which trashed the nation’s democratic home two weeks before he had to leave anyway, for them to “weigh their options” and find their conscience. They wait to see which way the wind is blowing, and then wait for it to blow a gale.
Their pusillanimity speaks to the durability of right-wing extremism within American political culture. On the very evening of the insurrection, once the mob was removed and the vote to certify the presidential election was finally taken, two-thirds of Republicans in the lower House still voted against certifying Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania (which he won with almost twice as wide a vote margin as that by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton). Less than 24 hours after the insurrection, Trump was welcomed with cheers at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Florida when he called in and was placed on speakerphone. When one attendee said it was important that Trump remained engaged lest his base start feeling disenfranchised, there was applause.
Anyone who wants to become a Republican candidate will have to stand in a primary in which these voters and donors are key. The party enabled Trump to radicalise them; it has indulged them and is electorally dependent on them. There appears to be no individual, or ideology, within Republican ranks that has the capacity to challenge the fundamental dynamics of what has driven the party to this point. Trump may or may not leave the scene, but Trumpism is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war