What Just Happened?
And Where Do We Go Now?
I’m not sure the enormity of last week’s events has truly sunk in yet.
A sitting president, the clear and unambiguous loser in November’s election, whipped up a mob of his supporters to attack the nation’s legislators as they were attempting to carry out the peaceful transfer of power. That mob then broke into the Capitol building. A matter of seconds, bought by a single Capitol Police officer holding off large numbers of intruders by himself, separated the mob from seizing senators and representatives en masse. In the course of their assault, the mob bludgeoned a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher and ransacked the building. One member of the crowd was shot and killed. Several others died and dozens were injured, including police charged with suppressing the riot. It was a violent insurrection, an act of political violence.
None of this was a secret. Most of it had been planned ahead of time, in full view of God and everybody, despite the protestations from law enforcement that they had “no intelligence” about what the mob had planned. The president called for it; so did his proxies and people in his orbit; and sitting senators and members of the House of Representatives supported the absolutely spurious calls for mob action.
Though there were white supremacists, militia extremists, and professional conspiracy-peddlers among the crowd, these were not the actions of a lunatic fringe. Now that law enforcement has gotten around to identifying some of those responsible for Wednesday’s insurrection, we see small-business owners like Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran shot and killed inside the Capitol; military officers like Larry Brock, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who wore tactical gear and carried zip ties; and West Virginia legislator Derrick Evans. Others identified among the mob include marketing executives, active-duty members of the military, prosperous stay-at-home dads, the owner of a manufactured housing business, the vice-chairwoman of the Young Republicans of Oregon, New York firefighters, and two members of the Seattle Police Department. These were normal people whose political views led them to extreme actions.
I’m frankly shocked by the amount of surprise I’ve seen among the media and commentators at the demographic profile of the rioters. “How could these upstanding members of society take part in such a shocking act of violence,” they ask?
Pinning the blame for political violence on the lunatic fringe, rather than ordinary members of society, is a comforting lie folks tell themselves to avoid the reality of our political situation, how we’ve gotten to this point, and the possible futures leading forward from here.
It is absolutely essential that we understand it’s a lie. Perfectly normal people - business owners, farmers, factory workers, shopkeepers, and decorated military veterans - have been the willing and enthusiastic footsoldiers of every fascist, authoritarian, and genocidal regime in history. For every bearded miscreant wearing a sweatshirt celebrating the Holocaust in that crowd, there were a dozen firefighters, cops, masonry workers, and business owners. It’s an unfortunate fact that people who have done or who are willing to do even the worst things don’t wear signs around their necks advertising it.
All of the participants, from those on the ground in the Capitol to the representatives and senators who supported their violent takeover to the president himself, have to be held accountable for their actions. They have to be held accountable now. If we wait, if we try to “heal” and “move on” from this series of events, we’re in for much worse. Whatever taboos we have around the open application of force in the political process will be obliterated once and for all.
This isn’t over. This wasn’t the climax or the end of the story. In fact, it’s just starting. The question now is how much worse it’s going to get.
The gallows erected outside the Capitol wasn’t a joke. The crowd wasn’t cosplaying or LARPing. They committed an act of insurrection, threatened the lives of legislators, attacked the agents of the state who stood in their way, and attempted to stop the transfer of power between presidential administrations. This wasn’t a spontaneous demonstration; they were set in motion by the president and his supporters in Congress and elsewhere, who spent weeks promulgating and reinforcing an utterly false narrative about a stolen election. Law enforcement failed to stop them, either out of sheer incompetence or because they intentionally decided not to seriously respond to the ongoing threat.
Nor was this an isolated event. Last Wednesday’s violence followed after “Stop the Steal” rioting led to multiple stabbings and injuries at the hands of right-wing agitators in Washington, DC in December. It happened the same day as rioters breached the grounds of the state of Washington’s governor’s mansion, one of many planned demonstrations nationwide that coincided with the march on the Capitol.
There’s a broader pattern of growing political violence at play here, and it’s not restricted to white nationalists, militia extremists, and professional conspiracy theorists. If we fail to process that fact, if we treat the Capitol insurrection and everything that led up to it as odd aberrations rather than fully mainstream phenomena, then it’s going to get much worse than it has to.
If we re-draw the line now, and enforce it as fully as possible, then perhaps the coming violence will be restricted to that extremist fringe. If we don’t draw that line, the line will cease to exist. Political violence and those responsible for perpetrating it will become part of the normal course of doing politics in the United States. Now is the time to put this outside the pale of acceptability, once and for all: not in a couple of weeks, not in a few months. Now.
It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking through some historical parallels for our present moment. These are the two key points I keep coming back to:
1) No violent political event happens in isolation. Something like what happened last Wednesday is always part of a broader trend or pattern, with both direct antecedents and successors. In other words, something happened before to make it possible, and it will lead to something else afterward.
This sounds basic, and it is, but bear with me for a moment. We have a strong tendency to understand events unfolding as a story, a narrative, with all the structural beats we expect from a story: beginning, rising action, climax, resolution. Even as we’re consciously aware that there will be a tomorrow, a next week, and a next year, it’s hard to avoid treating the most recent big thing - in this case, the riot on the Capitol - as either the end or beginning of one particular story.
Narrative is how we process information and give the world some shape and meaning. But it’s deeply misleading as an attempt to understand the complex interactions between past and present that define a political system.
What happened last Wednesday was the result of weeks of screaming lies from Republican elected officials and media figures, not least the president; years of increasingly positive rhetoric around political violence, and the dehumanization of political opponents, from many of those same figures; the lack of crackdowns on far-right violence and instigation going back to clashes in Portland, Berkeley, Charlottesville, and before; the coalescence of a specific form of American nationalism rooted in property ownership, firearms, whiteness, and the unstinting belief that only they embody the true American nation; the growing strength of the militia movement during the Obama and Clinton presidencies; and deeply rooted traditions of American political violence before that, going back to Reconstruction and the foundational acts of rebellion that separated the colonies from Great Britain. Those are just a few things, not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, and we could go on and on.
By that same token, the insurrection at the Capitol is just a brick in another wall, another step on the road to something else. Some of those who participated or observed will be disgusted and abandon the cause. Others will retain their affiliations, even if they never do anything like it again. But for some, it will be seen as a triumph, a signal that they’ll be able to get away with far more extreme actions in the future. It will radicalize some of those seemingly normal folks and align them with their more violent compatriots.
2) The same cast of characters will show up again and again. This ties directly into the last point: The people involved don’t go away afterward. They stick around, becoming key cogs in the next thing, and the thing after that.
The Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler’s first failed attempt to bring the Nazis to power in 1923, was a failure. Sixteen Nazis died, the rest abjectly surrendered, and most of the plotters went to prison, Hitler included. But before long, Hitler was out of prison, so were his associates, and they went on to build the groundwork for the eventual Nazi takeover of Germany. Look at the list of the people involved: Hitler himself, but also Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess. Ernst Röhm, the future leader of the SA and a driver of the vicious street battles that helped bring the Nazis to power before his execution during the Night of the Long Knives, was another plotter. That’s to say nothing of more than two thousands rank-and-file participants, a list studded with dozens of future soldiers and functionaries within the Nazi regime.
People with experience in the last thing usually take part in the next. That’s one of the key takeaways from my fellow history podcaster Mike Duncan’s lovely book The Storm Before the Storm, on the opening phases of the downfall of the Roman Republic: It’s the same people, over and over again. Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, the three members of the First Triumvirate, were all heavily involved in the prior round of civil wars and disturbances; Crassus led troops for Sulla, Pompey first gained fame as Sulla’s “teenaged butcher,” and Marius, Sulla’s great rival, was Caesar’s uncle. Old grudges carried forward; one line crossed led to another, from the executions of senators to massacres in Rome itself, until finally only the Rubicon was left. We know what happened next.
Or think about the Civil War and its aftermath, the Reconstruction Era. Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864, became one of the central figures leading the first Ku Klux Klan, and actively participated in the national Democratic Party after the war. Similarly, the ex-Confederates who terrorized Black would-be voters across the South through paramilitary organizations like the Klan, White League, and Red Shirts became the “Redeemers” who re-took political power after 1877. Violence - these groups killed thousands of people across the South between 1868 and 1877 - was their tool for restoring a white supremacist racial and political order.
Let’s stick around the United States for a moment. Have you ever seen a photograph of a lynching?
Lynchings were quite often public events, impromptu executions designed not so much to provide justice as to remind everyone of what the social order meant and who stood where. The participants weren’t ashamed to be photographed; quite the opposite. Sometimes the photos even became postcards.
When you look at these pictures, the most striking thing is how normal the people in the crowd look. They’re just everyday folks. Sometimes they’re even smiling.
As much as we’d like to think that terrible actions demand an equally terrible frame of mind, that’s not the case. These people went on about their lives afterward. They went back to work, back to their homes. Their children went back to school. They voted in elections, married, had children, and passed on their values.
Accountability. Consequences. If we don’t want what happened last Wednesday to become a permanent part of our political culture, then now is the time to demand action. If we don’t want to experience far worse moving forward, then now is the time to excise these cancers from the body politic.
We have to be crystal-clear about one thing, though: This cat is already out of the bag.
Even if we succeed in expelling the elected officials who egged this on from Congress, even if we succeed in censuring or impeaching the president who sought to benefit from it, even if every person who broke into the Capitol is arrested, this stain will be with us forever. It’s now a formative event in our political culture. Regardless of what we do next, it’s going to be fodder for extremists, who are already feeling emboldened, ready to try something more brazen and violent next time. I don’t know what that will be; maybe they’ll go after a governor again, maybe it will be something with the inauguration, maybe it’ll be something bigger or smaller. It’s almost certainly going to happen; we have millions of radicalized people, tons of guns and destructive devices, and plenty of flashpoints.
The only thing that matters now is whether we allow this to become normal, part of the cost of doing business, or whether we re-draw the lines to emphasize that it’s completely unacceptable. If violent extremists want to be violent extremists, they’ll find ways, but we can make those would attempt to benefit from their violence pay the price for their allegiance. The craven, cynical political calculations that people like Hawley and Cruz made, that maybe they could siphon off some support without risk to their precious careers, have to be made untenable. Never again.
If there’s a lesson to draw from history here, it’s that only consequences - visible and serious consequences - will contain the damage.