So this is how it ends. Four years of rage and lies; four years of racism and xenophobia so coarse and inflammatory Richard Nixon might have blushed; four years of dismantling economic and environmental regulation, packaged as a populist revolution on behalf of the forgotten (white) American; four years of ‘law and order’ indistinguishable from moral and political disorder; four years of war against the media, ‘globalists’, ‘elites’ and other ‘enemies of the people’, which is to say his people, or rather his loyalists; four years of contempt for the vulnerable, whether Muslims, undocumented immigrants, Black victims of police brutality or those afflicted with Covid-19; four years of garish exhibitionism parading as leadership – four years of Donald Trump in power have led to the bizarre and grotesque spectacle of 6 January.
To call the explosion of the mob that took over the Capitol building an attempted coup, or an insurrection, is unfair to the plotters of coups and insurrections. Like the man who egged them on in a speech that morning – and who had spent the last two months refusing to concede the election, going so far as to order Georgia’s secretary of state to ‘find’ votes to overturn the outcome – the revellers in DC were practitioners of what political scientists call ‘expressive’ politics, capable only of defiant stonewalling and destructiveness. Some had arrived in full Civil War re-enactment regalia, carrying rifles and Confederate flags. Others looked as if they were auditioning for a sequel to The Big Lebowski, notably the ‘QAnon shaman’, Jake Angeli, a tattooed, shirtless man who strutted through the chambers of the Capitol with horns on his head and red, white and blue paint on his face. And then there were the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and militia members, the ‘fine people’ of Charlottesville. For all their shouts of ‘USA, USA,’ they represented a furious, desperate, lumpen minority unwilling, or unable, to accept defeat – or the ‘surrender’ of Trump’s Republican collaborators, who could no longer go on pretending that Joe Biden hadn’t won, especially when they realised the potential political costs of doing so.
Trump indulged them, of course: ‘We love you.’ Here were the people who turned out at his rallies, who made him feel like a populist leader, like a patriot, like a king, like a billionaire – like all the things he wasn’t, except in his imagination. ‘Very special’, he called them on 6 January, as they rioted in the Capitol. The Republicans, like his wives, were always temporary partners whom he’d used (just as they’d used him). The mob, like his own narcissistic reflection, was what he really loved. The only difference between 6 January and an ‘ordinary’ day during Trump’s tenure in office is that the mob had to force its way into the corridors of power.
In a famous Saturday Night Live skit from 1984, ‘White like Me’, Eddie Murphy painted his face white, put on a suit, and discovered the secret joys of life in white America. The newspaper man refuses to accept payment; a bank employee hands him stacks of cash. ‘Slowly I began to realise that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free.’ Among those things, it turns out, is relatively untrammelled access to the Capitol building, the ‘temple of democracy’, in the words of innumerable politicians and commentators in the States, the least secular of secular republics.
The peaceful protesters in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in DC last summer were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. During the siege on 6 January, one woman, an air force veteran and QAnon supporter, was shot dead, three others died of ‘medical emergencies’, and a police officer was so badly beaten with a fire extinguisher he later died of his injuries. But on the whole the violent mob was so decorously treated by the Capitol police they might as well have been escorted into the building with White Lives Matter banners. Once inside, they seemed to have unusual knowledge of its layout, including the location of offices belonging to the politicians they most despised, notably the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Was there collusion? Stephen Sund, the chief of the Capitol police, has resigned over the security breach, but the responsibility does not lie with one man. ‘This is our house!’ the mob cried. They had been given no reason to think otherwise. The hallucinations of leader and mob – abetted, until 6 January, by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the Republican leadership – fed on each other over the last four years in a spiral of nativism, white supremacy and conspiracy theory.
But the fantasy of the ‘stolen election’, which Trump had promoted even before the election took place, was not the only fantasy on display in DC last Wednesday. There was also the fantasy of an American innocence sullied by ‘insurrectionists’ and ‘terrorists’, a fantasy shared by Republicans, Democrats and a press with an inexhaustible supply of exotic analogies for America’s long-running civil wars.
‘Violence never wins,’ Mike Pence announced when the House reconvened on the evening of 6 January. ‘Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.’ The vice president was followed by other Republicans keen to distance themselves from Trump and the ‘basket of deplorables’ with whom they’d made common cause since his inauguration, and to recast themselves as defenders of republican virtue. ‘If the election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side,’ McConnell had said that morning, omitting his own complicity in creating this crisis, ‘our democracy would enter a death spiral … The United States Senate has a higher calling than an endless spiral of partisan vengeance.’ No one has stoked the spirit of partisan vengeance with less scruple, or more effectiveness, than McConnell, who, in spite of his personal distaste for Trump, took advantage of his presidency to pass regressive tax legislation and to reshape the federal judiciary – now a redoubt of reaction. It was McConnell who pushed for the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, within days of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. But Trump and the mob were now liabilities. So he cut his losses and covered himself in the ennobling rhetoric of constitutionalism. So did his wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s secretary of transportation, who tendered her resignation along with other administration officials ‘shocked’ by the storming of the Capitol and Trump’s incitement of it.
Among the most vapid, but also the most telling, of the Republican speeches after the House reconvened was given by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Sasse, a self-described ‘history nerd’ who has a PhD from Yale, admitted that ‘it was ugly today’:
But you know what? It turns out that when something is ugly talking about beauty isn’t just permissible, talking about beauty is obligatory at a time like that. Why? Why would we talk about beauty after the ugliness of today? Because our kids need to know that this isn’t what America is … Generations of our forefathers and our foremothers – probably not a word – our ancestors have spilled blood to defend the glories of this republic. Why would they do that? Because America is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, and because the constitution is the greatest political document that’s ever been written.
To his credit, Joe Biden pointed out that if the rioters in DC had been Black, they would have been treated very differently. But he, too, portrayed the violence as ‘un-American’: ‘the scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect true America, do not represent who we are.’ Although the Democrats in the House have fought to remove Trump from power by invoking the 25th Amendment or by impeachment, they, too, have trafficked in soothing, this-is-not-who-we-are rhetoric, and in the sacralisation of the American republic. When Chuck Schumer – soon to become Senate majority leader – reached for an analogy, it was the ‘day of infamy’ of Pearl Harbor, an attack by a foreign power.
The American media have largely echoed this language. The storming of the Capitol, we were told, was something that happened in a ‘banana republic’, not in America. (No mention of the fact that the ‘banana republics’ of Latin America were corrupt and authoritarian in part thanks to American meddling.) The presence of raucous, overwhelmingly white militants armed with guns stirred comparisons with Nazi Germany, Afghanistan and Syria, as if the many available and suitable comparisons from American history had been declared off-limits, threats to our amour propre. What to call the mob provoked a great discussion – ‘protesters’? ‘dissidents’? ‘insurrectionists’? – until, finally, much of the liberal press settled on describing them as ‘terrorists’, the word we reserve for all that is evil and un-American, and usually Middle Eastern. The use of the T-word represented a belated recognition of how dangerous a threat the far right has become. But it was also a consoling flight from realities that Americans still find so difficult to face: a pretext instead for another war on terror, rallying Americans behind the flag against an extremist fringe. Never mind that more than seventy million Americans voted for the man who engineered the outrage of 6 January, or that nearly half of them continue to believe that the election results were false, above all those in what Trump calls ‘Democrat-run cities’ – i.e. cities with large Black populations. (In all, 139 members of the House of Representatives and eight senators voted against the certification of Biden’s victory.) A war on terror isn’t likely to be any more effective in extinguishing the fires of racism, anti-democratic sentiment and conspiratorial politics than it has been in fighting jihadism abroad.
Black American commentators – who can’t draw comfort from fables of American innocence – were more candid about the roots of 6 January. ‘We brought this hell upon ourselves,’ Senator Cory Booker said in a short and powerful speech that night. Rather than Pearl Harbor, he spoke about the Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy which, since Trump came to power, determined to undo everything that Barack Obama achieved, has become increasingly conspicuous, and not just in the South. For Black Americans, the spectacle of violent Confederate nostalgists in the Capitol building is less likely to recall Japanese fighter planes than the campaign of racist terror that followed the defeat of Reconstruction: more than six thousand Black people were lynched between 1865 and 1950. And they have good reason to fear the language of ‘reconciliation’, which has often been a euphemism for bipartisanship among whites, at the expense of Black people. As C. Vann Woodward wrote in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), ‘just as the Negro gained his emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of white men.’
Such a reconciliation, fortunately, will be much harder to achieve today than it was during the Jim Crow era, thanks to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. America’s demographics have also changed, which is another reason for the intensifying fury of white nationalism: though hardly a spent force, it faces the impending disappearance of a white majority. But perhaps the most significant political development of the last few years has been the rise of Black women, who now comprise the cutting edge of Democratic Party politics, and, one could argue, the saviours of the republic.
While 6 January marked the gruesome conclusion of Trump’s four-year assault on the institutions of American democracy, it also marked the culmination of another campaign: Stacey Abrams’s ten-year effort to flip the state of Georgia. Led by Abrams, an heir of the great civil rights leaders Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, political organisers worked slowly and patiently to get out the vote, especially among Black people. Some Democratic insiders were sceptical but Abrams insisted that Georgia was changing. Thanks to the reverse migration of Black people from the North, she noted, the Black population was now a third of the electorate; Georgia also had an increasing number of Latino and Asian voters who, along with liberal whites, could form a Democratic majority. In 2018 she came close to winning the gubernatorial election, and would probably have prevailed had it not been for voter suppression. (Her opponent, Brian Kemp, had presided as secretary of state over the cancellation of 1.4 million voter registrations between 2010 and 2018.) Standing aside but refusing formally to concede, she pressed on, devoting herself to the campaigns of two US Senate candidates: Raphael Warnock, a pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr had preached, and Jon Ossoff, who had interned with the Georgia civil rights hero, John Lewis, who died last July. (Warnock presided at Lewis’s funeral.) And on the morning of 6 January, both Warnock and Ossoff were declared victors in the Georgia run-offs, allowing the Democratic Party to take back the Senate.
Warnock’s victory was especially striking, because he is an unapologetic progressive, a prophetic left-wing Christian in the King tradition who has excoriated American foreign policy and the country’s ‘narcissism’ and ‘mindless consumerist impulses’ – including among ‘the burgeoning Black middle class’. The campaign of his opponent, Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbent, did its best to vilify him with the usual racist tactics: darkening his skin in photographs, depicting him as an antisemite, accusing him of spousal abuse. And still, he won, in a Southern state that has never had a Black Democratic senator. Will ‘purple’ Georgia become a blue state? Could Texas be next? Is this the dawn of a new South? It is much too early to say, but the success of Abrams’s imaginative and tireless organising – a Gramscian ‘war of position’ that has borne extraordinary fruit after a decade of work – was as shocking, and no doubt more alarming, to McConnell and Lindsey Graham, than the chaotic jacquerie in the Capitol. Their abandonment of Trump and the mob is infinitely cynical, but it also reflects the shifting balance of power. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election, but the moment belongs to Abrams.