Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Attack On the Capitol Building


Wednesday, January 6 (2021) will be remembered as a seminal catastrophic moment in American politics, much like how history views 9/11 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The foundations of US democracy—both symbolically and literally—were invaded and attacked. Hundreds of crazed Trump supporters, stirred up by President Trump and other elected Republican officials and aggrieved by Trump’s election defeat, attacked the Capitol building—the very seat of America’s legislature, and arguably the most iconic building in the US—in the most destructive attack on the Capitol in roughly two hundred years. Windows were smashed, offices were vandalized and ransacked, and fights and gun battles erupted, resulting in the deaths of five people, including US Capitol officer Brian Sicknick, and more than 50 injured. At this point, almost 100 attackers have been arrested and more will surely suffer the same fate in the coming days.

Presumably, Trump’s goons believed that by storming the Capitol, they could unleash a series of moves that would prevent Joe Biden’s electoral win from becoming official and enable Trump to retain the presidency. The Trump putsch failed, of course, as police, after a few hours, were able to clear and secure the Capitol and push the mob of people away from the building. Still, US democracy suffered a near-fatal blow, and it’s no overstatement to say that it could take generations for Americans to fully reckon with and recover from the Trump years and Wednesday’s attack in particular.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised by the course of events. Back in late September, on this blog, I described the decrepit state of US democracy, US politics, and the potential for post-election violence. “What will Trump do on Election Day and beyond? My guess is that he will declare victory, no matter if he's in the lead or not election night. He'll gin up his base, working them up into a frenzy in his speeches on his Twitter page. He’ll use all sorts of vague and coded language, encouraging his supporters to “stay vigilant” and “not let the Democrats steal the election,” and so on. Then he'll try to get a GOP-leaning Supreme Court, assuming Amy Coney Barrett takes a seat before November, to toss out thousands of ballots in battleground states, with the hopes of overturning the election. I mean, it's crystal clear what he intends to do. During the debate, he admitted he sees the Supreme Court playing a role in adjudicating the election. If the courts rule against him, trouble could still loom. All of the people Trump ginned up will seek an outlet to release their pent up frustrations and anger. And at that point, there’s the very real prospect of armed pro-Trump groups taking to the streets.” It was easy to forecast the coming catastrophe, as Trump himself signaled his intentions to hold on to power through any means necessary, even if that meant bending the rule of law to his whim and inciting his followers to commit heinous acts. And that’s exactly what happened.

Surely, Trump deserves his share of blame. And he’s deservingly getting it—from the mainstream media, academics and policy wonks, some Republicans, and Democrats, who plan on bringing forth a second round of impeachment charges very soon. For years, dating back to the start of his political campaign in 2015, Trump has mainstreamed far-right political extremism by peddling xenophobic, racist, violent, and lawless rhetoric. And he’s cozied up to white nationalists and Neo-Nazis, refused to distance himself from QAnon and other conspiracy theorists, and embraced a wide swath of homegrown and international political fanatics—exactly the types of people who attacked the Capitol. Over the years, Trump’s supporters have responded accordingly by engaging in or threatening to carry out various hate crimes, terror plots, and assassinations in his name. In short, then, it’s not as if the Capitol building attack is something out of the blue for the extremist, fringe element of Trump’s base.

The proximate cause for Wednesday’s mayhem traces back to Trump’s November election loss. He has recklessly claimed the election was rigged and stolen from him, buttressing his claims with a steady stream of lies and conspiracy theories. On Twitter, in public statements, and at campaign rallies since Election Day, Trump has encouraged his supporters to resist the election results and prevent the election from being stolen from him. And on Wednesday, at the “Save America Rally,” spoke for an hour, instigating the crowd “to stand strong,” “to fight,” “to get tougher,” and “telling supporters to ‘stop the steal’ of the election, urging them to head to the Capitol to demonstrate against Congress certifying President-elect Joe Biden's victory.” Many believe these words incited the mob, only minutes after Trump spoke, to storm the Capitol.  

But Trump isn’t the only one to blame for the attacks. The extremists and insurrectionists who carried out Wednesday’s putsch clearly also share blame. These are the people who’ve been radicalized—by Trump, by other radicals, by radical media outlets—to attack the Capitol, fantastically believing that this would save America’s democracy. And for the past four years, they have slavishly and cultishly devoted themselves to Trump and his pet causes—hanging on his every word, turning out in droves to his political rallies, buying Trump hats and memorabilia, serving as an Internet troll army, and causing death and destruction in Charlottesville, among other things. In the end, they were duped by Trump to serve his personal ends and left with little more than red hats, lots of anger, and a raging pandemic.   

The Republican Party also shares some blame. Almost across the board—except for Mitt Romney and Justin Amash (who later left the Republican Party)—the GOP has failed to provide effective guardrails on Trump. Instead, they’ve been perfectly fine with coasting on Trump’s political coattails, drafting on his popularity within the party, to gain and hold political power. The GOP’s coddling of Trump has aided and abetted his repeated efforts to subvert America’s democracy, the spike in white nationalist violence, and the radicalization of the political right in the US.   

Lastly, the far right-wing echo chamber of television, radio, and social media has played an important role in stirring up trouble in the US. While Fox News and Fox News personalities, like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, still dominate the right-wing and far right political discourse, they are no longer the hegemon, as OANN, Newsmax, Gab, Parler, and other radical Internet sites and message boards have grown in popularity. All too frequently these actors serve as veritable mouthpieces for Trump and his administration, parroting his views, his conspiracy theories, and his outright lies. Moreover, at times, they independently act to advance Trump’s cause, creating their own narratives and storylines—sometimes based in fact, but frequently not—to bolster Trump’s agenda and undermine the Democrats’ policies and political power. The far right wing mediasphere, much like Trump, plays a pivotal role in radicalizing Americans, telling them what they want to hear, creating fictitious enemies, glorifying Trump and the GOP, and ginning them up to be perpetually angry and aggrieved. In fact, the far right-wing media has helped to foster a cult-like atmosphere in which Trump is treated as a savior, heaven-sent to solve America’s problems and to beat back the Democrats and other undesirables. And that, in turn, has spawned the deification and considerable iconography of Trump (hats, t-shirts, flags, etc.).

Now, the insurrection is terrible, and the roles the aforementioned players played in causing or provoking the Capitol attack is also terrible. But as bad as those things are, there’s an even bigger problem. Trump, the GOP, and the far right-wing mediasphere have created a monster they can no longer control. The Capitol attackers were not simply lawbreakers, they were an incredibly violent group. They possessed materials for napalm, assault weapons, bombs, nooses, zip-ties, and so on. This wasn’t a situation in which peaceful protesters showed up to Washington, DC, on Wednesday to voice their political views and things suddenly and accidentally got out of control. No, this was a pre-planned event, according to online chatter, and the attackers were well-prepared to use violent tools if necessary. We’re lucky the attack only resulted in five deaths, as it easily could’ve resulted in a very bloody mass-casualty event.  

Additionally, the Trump mob is angrier than ever, seeking revenge not only against Democrats but against any Republican who, in their view, has turned on Trump. For instance, according to a report, members of the crazed mob were looking for Vice President Mike Pence, hoping to find him and execute him for his “crimes” of recording the Electoral College results. Despite years of yeoman’s work of supporting Trump, Lindsey Graham’s recent declaration to “count him out” has made him, like Pence, an enemy of hardcore Trumpers. I expect the enemies list to grow as more Republicans actively denounce Trump and distance themselves from him in the waning days of his tenure.

Furthermore, just because the violent attackers have now went home, and some have been arrested, that doesn’t mean they’re done. They’re riding a major high right now. The Trump mob believes they scored a victory. They managed to breach Capitol security and get into the building, scared the hell out of Congress, received days of free media time, and create political chaos. As a result, the MAGA insurrectionists are emboldened; they are all-in in their continued fight to defend Trump, dethrone the Democrats, and cause further bedlam.

Attempts to cope with the fallout and implications of the Capitol attack cannot come only from the political left in the US. Both parties, in a united front, must attack the ongoing scourge on US democracy. America cannot leave far right violent mobs any political space and freedom to operate. While a comprehensive plan to deal with the ongoing political extremism and strife is beyond the scope of this post, I can offer a brief list of items that politicians on the right and left should consider. In particular, bipartisan efforts should made to: tone down the political rhetoric; condemn violent, seditious political acts; discourage violent, seditious acts; make it abundantly clear that the rules, norms, and laws apply equally to far left radicals; work with social media companies, helping them to create sensible and transparent--rather than ad hoc and reactive--policies that effectively balance free speech protections and the safety of Americans; and ostracize and punish Congresspersons who endorse/are complicit with extremist language and political acts.

Finally, I also think Congress—and politicians in general, at the state and local levels—needs to up the fight against Covid-19. Covid is a separate but related issue to the political struggles America now faces. The fact that so many Americans are sick, have died, and are out of work has raised the political temperature by several degrees in the US over the last 12 months. The faster the Biden administration can make major in-roads in beating back the virus, the quicker Americans can return to their normal work, school, religious and entertainment environments. And that will help in dialing down the rage of people who despise being confined and the restrictions on their personal freedoms.  

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