Two days after its first homegrown beer hall putsch, the United States is still in both disbelief and denial. CNN’s Van Jones made ill-informed comparisons to Syria on Wednesday afternoon, and President-Elect Joe Biden tweeted, like many others had before him over the last four years, that America is “better” than this. But the truth is that the historic events of January 6th revealed as much about America itself as it did about Donald Trump, the right wing, and the Republican Party, giving the country its first real taste of the power that authoritarian populism has to derail democracy.
Here are a few hard lessons we learned from Wednesday’s events:
If you’re white and have guns, you can actually storm the US Capitol, and quite easily too
Countless commentators online and in the media have already pointed out the glaring inconsistency between the stunningly lax, and at times friendly, behavior of police on Wednesday towards the right-wing mob and the brutal treatment of Black Lives Matter protestors during last summer’s racial justice demonstrations. In a way this was just a more visceral expression of something we’ve all seen before — there have been numerous recorded examples from the summer’s protests in which police stood by as armed right-wingers confronted leftist demonstrators. In the most notable such instance, officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin infamously thanked armed men in the city shortly after one of them, Kyle Rittenhouse, shot two people to death in a street altercation in August.
But what was new on Wednesday were the stakes — the security of a legislative session that was key to the functioning of the American democratic system. In the face of risks to the integrity of the US government, Capitol Police appeared so underprepared to fulfill their one single job that at times it looked less like they were trying to stop the mob of would-be usurpers and more like they were trying to help them. In several videos, police officers were seen stepping away from metal barriers as Trump supporters pushed through, or simply giving up on holding back the crowd. Once the police finally started clearing the Capitol, one officer was filmed escorting a woman who had just committed a federal felony down the building’s steps while holding her hand. According to one DC police officer’s Facebook post, some off-duty officers were part of the mob itself, and apparently flashed their badges as they attempted to breach the Capitol.
A multitude of explanations have come up for the police’s lack of action on Wednesday, including the obvious racial bias, a desire to save face after being criticized during the BLM protests for using excessive force, and just simple incompetence, buoyed by a muzzled and slow National Guard response. What has not been mentioned enough is fear — fear of a mob, some of whose members have guns, that has the backing of the most powerful man in the country. What consequences would DC officials face if the Capitol Police unleashed deadly force against the Trump supporters as a last resort? What sort of wrath would the country face as a whole if a bloodbath took place on the steps of the Capitol? What would Trump and thousands of armed militia members across the US do then? Implicit in this fear is the knowledge that the right is powerful in America in a way that the left and the cohorts of the BLM movement are not, leading to a subconscious calculation that it may be better to placate the existing power structure than to upset the applecart and risk even more chaos.
The far right aren’t kidding
One explanation that has been given by the chief of the DC Metropolitan Police, which is separate from the Capitol Police that guards Congress, for Wednesday’s events is that “there was no intelligence that suggests there would be a breach of the US Capitol.” This is despite the fact that far-right groups had openly been communicating their desire to do exactly that on Reddit, Parler, Gab and elsewhere for days before January 6th, and many had for years been advocating for a second civil war (the prophesied “Electric Boogaloo” that the Boogaloo Boys chose to name themselves after). Some even showed up to Washington on Wednesday with sweatshirts to that same effect.
This country has sat through dozens of high profile far-right terror attacks and watched white supremacists march through Charlottesville shortly before killing a counter protestor with a car, and yet somehow authorities continue to underestimate what right wingers are capable of. When radicalized individuals in large groups publicly broadcast their violent intentions, perhaps we should finally start believing them, especially now that they have perpetuated perhaps the single most damaging breach of national security since 9/11.
Unfortunately, violence and force sometimes work
Here’s perhaps the most disturbing consequence of January 6th — the realization that violence and sheer force of will actually have the power to be effective in American politics. After Congress reconvened on Wednesday evening, Mike Pence proclaimed that “violence never wins” and that lawmakers would continue to fulfill their constitutional duties. But while the violence of the pro-Trump mob in Washington didn’t ultimately win, it definitely achieved many of its goals — it brought the Capitol security apparatus to its knees, sent Congress into hiding for hours, and allowed right-wing extremists unfettered access to the halls of power for photo-ops their movement will cherish for a generation. Looking at the news coverage from Wednesday, it seemed like people posing in Nancy Pelosi’s office or standing with riot shields in a Capitol lobby were just as surprised that they were inside the building as people watching at home. In fact, according to social media posts, some people who gathered at the Capitol on January 6th expected to die while trying to breach the building — getting inside and stopping the certification process, even temporarily, seemed like a pipe dream.
Already, far-right militia organizers are reportedly rallying around the storming of the Capitol on messaging platforms, claiming that it was only the beginning. If an unruly mob can achieve this kind of impact through force alone, why would other political actors not follow suit? Whereas previously the use of force against the power of the American state could largely be dismissed as hopelessly ineffective, we will now have to grapple with the fact that violence is on the table as an option for groups to produce real consequences in the political arena.
American exceptionalism is truly dead
If the Trump years have shown us anything, it’s that the American system is susceptible to the very same pressures that have weakened democracies since the time of the Roman Republic. The fact that a rabid mob was able to halt the functioning of the government for several hours to try to keep power in the hands of a president who lost a democratic election has now made that even more clear. After Wednesday, who can now seriously claim that the United States is a step above other countries that are struggling with democratic challenges of their own? How can America declare that it is a shining city upon a hill when armed supporters of an authoritarian leader threaten its legislative body with violence if they don’t get their way?
After decades of American grandstanding on a pedestal of moral superiority, Wednesday’s events should force this country to re-examine its place in the world. Democracy is hard. We need to start trying to better our imperfect practice of it alongside the rest of the international community instead of constantly pretending we know best. We’ve all got a very long way to go.