SOME PRELIMINARY THOUGHTS ON THE CAPITOL BUILDING SIEGE
This problem isn’t going away after the inauguration
I want to offer some preliminary thoughts on the Keystone Cops Insurrection at our Capitol. I am working on a more comprehensive project, but wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
Just like all of you, I was shocked and appalled by Wednesday’s events.
I was shocked and appalled…but I was not surprised.
Unless you live in a hole in the ground without access to any information from the outside world, this scenario was depressingly predictable. Of course there’s the understandable denialism that precedes such calamities. They’re just peaceful protestors. They wouldn’t do anything to tarnish the American image. They love their country too much. Or, as President Obama famously miscalculated, this isn’t who we are as a people. And, man, despite in my face evidence to the contrary there’s a part of me that really wants to hold on to this particularly tenacious incorrigible proposition.
But after five years of watching the plaster of this pretty fresco that is our national self-image crumble revealing the underlying rot undermining American society for all to see, it’s hard to justify holding on to my illusions no matter how comforting they may be. Now, when someone tells me, “you’re over-reacting, Mike. It’ll never happen…” I may really want to believe them, but I just don’t.
Such jaded skepticism was again reinforced on January 6th. As Congress performed its standard ritual of counting the Electoral Votes for President of the United States, stalwart political posers, peacocks, and blatherskites bloviated around the Capitol intent on disrupting what should be mundane proceedings. Soulless sentinels of opportunism like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz promised to fulfill their Mephistophelian bargain with their sinister master to throw as much sand into the cogs of an already rusted and creaking electoral machine.
Cheering them on was a mouth-frothing menagerie of deplorables gathered to “stop the steal” and to “defend America” from…well…us. Their ire was stoked by a constant barrage of misinformation within a closed bubble of self-reinforcing social media networks and right-wing propaganda institutions. Within this blathersphere, their leader is the greatest, most popular president in American history. His presidency is an unprecedented success. This success has made America great again and uncovered a widespread secret cabal of Satanic socialist pedophiles who run the opposition and hate their noble leader for representing all that is good and right and American. This Democrat cabal is so powerful that it can run fraudulent elections even in Republican controlled states. It can hack voting machines even when they are not on the internet. They even control over fifty courts that ruled against the President’s valiant attempts to adjudicate the election.
No counternarrative is allowed within this bubble. So it’s no wonder that they are outraged. After all, if you know that there’s no way that a mentally deficient, Satanic pedophile whom everyone hates just beat your guy, whom everyone loves, then there must be some explanation. And that explanation cannot possibly be that you are wrong in your underlying assumptions. It must be that there is some deep rooted conspiracy against you. Furthermore, this cabal is out to take your job and give it to a brown person, convert your children to atheism and force them into gay marriages where they will be required to get abortions and vote Democrat.
Okay, I’m going off the rails a bit in that last paragraph, but not by much. That sad truth is that most of what I wrote above is not hyperbole! The most important thing about the group that vandalized the Capitol is that they are motivated by what they are convinced is righteous anger and they have been spoonfed the justifications for violence from the beginning. They believe they are on a patriotic crusade1 and that their leader is the personification of this mission. When their leader spoke and told them to show strength as they all marched together2 on the Capitol to save the election, they all knew what he meant and they were primed to act.
Furthermore, they were primed from the very beginning. According to Advance Democracy Inc, violent rhetoric was rampant on social media before the protest. Protestors were planning to bring weapons, crowbars and even zip-ties for securing members of Congress when captured. “By Wednesday afternoon in Washington DC, 80 per cent of the top posts on thedonald.win featured calls for violence…”
So violence was a forgone conclusion. It turns out that the FBI warned law enforcement about “specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled.” Yet the police presence was painfully and obviously inadequate.
Which almost begs the question, what if this were a Black Lives Matter protest and the on-line rhetoric was mostly violent with participants suggesting bringing crowbars and zip-ties and spilling blood? What would the police presence have looked like? Does anyone believe that such a protest would not be met by a fully militarized “police” force?
Yet in online discussions and even professional debate panels one couldn’t avoid the “yes, but BLM…Antifa.” The common refrain went something like this. “You liberals are so hypocritical to get mad at MAGA supporters getting out of hand when you didn’t say anything about Black Lives Matter and Antifa burning down cities all over the country.”
Okay. First, liberals and leftists overwhelmingly condemned the violence and vandalism that broke out during Black Lives Matter protests…much of which is impossible to specifically attribute to BLM representatives. We condemned civilian violence as well as the much more significant violence perpetrated by the state.
Secondly, cities weren’t burning down. It may have looked that way on the cell phone videos, but most of the vandalism was isolated and almost all of the protests were peaceful.
On the other hand, MAGA protestors “got out of hand” by storming the Capitol building!
It’s just another false equivalence. On one hand we have a movement responding to over four hundred years of slavery, exclusion, segregation, abuse and exploitation. We have a community that has, for hundreds of years, watched its children be beaten, abused, exploited, imprisoned, raped, and murdered. Communities have, for hundreds of years, been subject to apartheid, neglect, police state authoritarianism, not to mention the occasional mass slaughter. This is a community that has marched and protested, organized and advocated, taken knees and held their fists in the air, only to be ignored and marginalized time and time again. So yes. Occasionally, they set some fires and break some windows.
Maybe four hundred years of subjugation doesn’t condone some broken windows. That’s not for me to say. It does, however, put such responses to persistent inequality in context.
Contrast this with the MAGA crowd. Here is a group, overall, with a history of relative privilege and an expectation of security and status. This expectation has taken a hit in the last couple of generations…mostly due to the policies that they themselves voted for and support. That being said, their ire is whipped into a froth by second rate propaganda instruments like OAN and Newsmax…even FoxNews is now part of the left-wing conspiracy…spewing balderdash about deep, dark conspiracies designed to deny real Americans a say in their own country.
And then there’s the racism. We can’t forget the racism. At the heart of these conspiracies is “those people”. Those people always seem to be some shade of brown.
So on one hand, we have a community with a long history of unremedied grievance expressing their legitimate anger and frustration. On the other hand, we have Confederate Flag draped wannabe vikings upset that their cult-leader is being evicted. There is no equivalence.
There is no equivalence…but that doesn’t mean we should just discount the MAGA anger and resentment as nothing more than the product of raving individuals immersed in a nonsensical discursive bubble. Yes, that element is there, but we have to remember that people don’t storm the Capitol building just because some pundit…even when that pundit is the President…tells them to. There are serious and very real underlying motivators for such action. Remember, a riot is the language of the disempowered. That’s true for white conservatives, too.
As Paul Krugman noted in today’s New York Times’s, “No, the election wasn’t stolen — there is no evidence of significant electoral fraud. No, Democrats aren’t part of a satanic pedophile conspiracy. No, they aren’t radical Marxists — even the party’s progressive wing would be considered only moderately left of center in any other Western democracy. So all the rage is based on lies.”
Well, the rage isn’t based entirely on lies. It’s dismissive to assume that it is.
Yes, this particular demographic is being actively manipulated by media and cultural outlets playing against their fears and insecurities to make a profit and to gin up political capital. The Alice in Wasteland discursive world they have been herded into over the last twenty-five years would be a combination of laughable and pathetic if its consequences weren’t so dangerous. This, however, is only the surface expression of the movement.
There is some substance to the fears and insecurities that underlay this movement. I’m reminded of the research done by Arlie Hochschild in her book, Strangers in their Own Land. She elaborates what she refers to as the “Deep Story” of the right. According to Hochschild, contemporary conservatives see themselves as hard working Americans doing all the right things, all the things they were told will work, to achieve the American Dream. They are all standing in line, making their way to this magical golden success story. But up ahead they see the government allowing undeserving people who do not work hard and do not do all the right things to cut ahead in line, putting everyone else back and making them wait longer.
I remain a bit skeptical of this Deep Story because it is a fiction. This story was fabricated by interest groups to take advantage of bigotry and resentment to mobilize a fragment of the working class to act against their own interests. However, though the story is a fiction, it is built upon a true premise. Hard work and following the rules does not necessarily lead to achieving the American Dream. Movement conservatives are not wrong in that assessment.
And herein lay the problem. Like millions of Americans, movement conservatives, the right, has seen its economic prospects pulled from under them. Decent paying working class jobs are all but dried up as a result globalization and technological changes. College is too expensive and no guarantee of success. Many of the jobs that are available are so bereft of meaning and conspicuous value that it is hard to derive a sense of identity and purpose in doing them. The nation that they love is clearly in decline. Our representatives blatantly disregard the will of the people as they pursue the big dollars necessary for their campaigns. Furthermore the culture is transforming, challenging the traditional values that are the last refuge of those under socio-economic strain.
Here is a group of people facing very real changes to their prospects and challenges to their worldview. They see the landscape changing around them and they are not sure that they will have a place in the world that is emerging–and there is nothing that they can do about it.
True, we are all facing the same challenges, the same changes. Some of us are better positioned to navigate the course of history. Some of us are more open to the exciting prospects of a more integrated, more multi-cultural, more diverse and tolerant world.
But change is uncertain. Change is scary. And we are not all equally situated to benefit or sustain the buffeting and often white capped currents of our times. In the face of fear and uncertainty, many become susceptible to discourses that scapegoats others, that glorifies the in-group at the expense of those perceived as threats. There are motivations for building walls around that in-group and protecting it from the tumultuous outside forces we fear.
It’s a mistake to dismiss the MAGA crowd’s very real anxieties. After all, they are the foundational element of this right-wing movement that has so transformed and tarnished American politics. These paranoid elements of the American polity have always been around in one way or another. The contemporary decay of the integrity of our institutions, the right-wing assault on our sources of knowledge, and the rise of a media infrastructure whose business plan is to build a paranoid market base have swelled the ranks and turned what was a marginal, monstrous subculture into a disproportionately powerful political movement. This would have happened with or without The Orange Don. The Twitterer-in-Chief was always a symptom of a more malignant disease.
Indeed, in many ways we got lucky. We dodged a bullet. The man the right turned to for leadership turned out to be so profoundly incompetent and viscerally impotent that he was incapable of creating the kind of authoritarian state that his followers demand. His energies were dedicated more toward building up his fragile ego than in actually making the necessary technical moves requisite to a real coup d’etat. He had a talent for Nielsen Ratings and self-marketing–not the exercise of power.
He has now fallen–and his time is running out one way or the other. But the base remains, and they will be looking for a new Messiah. Furthermore, it looks like there are plenty of applicants for that particular job. It is just a matter of time before a new king is crowned. What happens if that person is more than just an obnoxious figurehead to rally around? What happens if the monsters are united under a leader with true political aptitude and appetite for power?
In the meantime, we have another week before the monster king is dethroned. Then there’s the inaugural. What can we expect from the MAGA crowd? Their actions may very well shock us again, even as they don’t surprise us.
Unless we can erode the base. Unless we can make real, substantial, positive changes in the lives of working people, allaying their fears and insecurities, making them feel as if the future may be all-right after all, we are in big trouble. This will require bold initiative and radical changes at the political, social, and cultural levels of our society. It will require a truly democratic visionary at the helm with the most creative, innovative and competent staff. It will require a legislative body that can actually function to address the needs of the day and the anxieties of everyday people. It will require a mass re-education of media literacy with an emphasis on open-mindedness, reason and science.
We are in big trouble.
- I mean this in the literal translation of the word, “War of the Cross”. For the right, there is a firm overlap between patriotism and Christianity. Their leader represents the best qualities of the super-patriot and an albeit flawed general in the army of the Christian God.
- It should come as no surprise that their fearless leader, after talking about how “we” were going to walk to Pennsylvania avenue, promising that he would go with them, did not, in fact, join the march. Instead, he went home and watched everything on TV. The right needs to understand that when their leader says “we” he means, “you” and if it works, “I” will take credit. If it fails, it’s “your” fault.