How seriously should we take the storming of the Capitol?

Notes on the meaning of what we just saw in Washington.

Hello friends,

This edition of the newsletter has a 4 to 5 minute read time, and has one item: Six thoughts attempting to make sense of what we saw during the storming of the Capitol this week.

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6 thoughts on the storming of the Capitol

1. Was this a coup?

Was a violent mob of Trump supporters taking over the Capitol an attempted coup? The experts say no. Naunihal Singh, a scholar at the US Naval War College who studies coups worldwide, said that he did not feel that the term coup was appropriate since Trump was “operating as the head of a movement rather than the head of a state” and that he did not deploy state security forces to aid his supporters. He argued that if the militants who took over the building were so large in number that they overwhelmed law local enforcement capacity and the military declined to step in and uphold the law — as has happened in coups across the world, historically — that would have the makings of a coup.

Erica de Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton College who studies coups, has also declined to use the term. She said that while the group used a frequent tactic of coup plotters, the fact that they did not attempt to "actually seize control of the levers of state power” and there was no serious effort by Trump or his supporters to “recruit within the state apparatus” during the takeover of the building means it doesn’t meet the threshold of attempted coup.

2. So what exactly did we see?

There are many terms and analytic categories being floated: tantrum, riot, mob, parade, protest, sedition, pro-wrestling-style spectacle for the alt right, cosplay, “part insurrection, part happy hour,” live-action role playing.

These terms are not mutually exclusive, and many hold truth and are useful. But I want to propose characterizing what the Trump supporters did as a specific subset of protest: direct action.

Direct action is a mode of activism most often associated with the left — for example, someone chaining themselves to the doors of a mental health clinic they want to prevent the government from tearing down, or a sit-in at a segregated restaurant to demand integration. But of course it can be wielded by people of any ideological inclination. Direct action doesn’t have one consensus definition, but it generally involves people embodying their grievances and taking political action into their own hands rather than appealing to authority, calling for change, or negotiating.

Direct action operates on many levels:

(a) Literally intervening in a situation and using noncompliance or acting out the desired goal to obstruct the functioning of the designated opponent and/or solve a perceived problem.

(b) Inspiring others to join your cause and believe in it.

(c) Prompting key decision-makers and elites to take notice of your zeal and adjust their behavior in response to it.

A lot of people are insisting that the Trump supporters had no plan once they entered the building, roaming around unsure of what to do. But the reality is they articulated one very clear grievance and achieved one very clear goal: they claimed the election was stolen and then halted the congressional certification of the presidential election. The fact that they were disorganized, rowdy and sometimes ridiculous-looking while doing it doesn’t change the fact that they threw a wrench in a democratic transfer of power by violently breaking into the legislature and threatening lawmakers. (The video here suggests it might have gotten worse than just threats.)

Now direct action is a pretty broad umbrella term for a set of protest tactics and is not mutually exclusive with other terms, but my intention is to draw attention to the fact that this was not “pure spectacle” but an actual intervention, and also to insist on understanding participants as rational —even if misguided and conspiracy theory-laden and ideologically abhorrent — actors.

As readers of the newsletter know, I generally think that trying to discern the meaning of crowds and and pay attention to what they’re trying to tell us better equips us to understand their origins and potential consequences.

Here’s what I think we saw: a band of militant white nationalists assaulting the democratic process — and serving as potential signposts of a more militant, less astroturfed, and more disinformation-addicted reincarnation of the Tea Party in the Biden era.

3. How seriously should we take these people?

Video footage of the event had a deeply surreal quality to it. A lot of people found themselves alternating between frowning and laughing while watching social media clips and news coverage of the riot, and as a result were conflicted about whether the ragtag group should be laughed off or cause for legitimate concern. (This is not meant to be flippant about the fact that people died of course; viewers were laughing at the circus-like dress and behavior of the group.)

My take: some of the costumes and antics were indeed funny, but that doesn’t mean that the group shouldn’t be taken seriously. Trumpism has always operated in a comic register. Irony, camp, and ludicrous showmanship are a big part of how Trump appeals to his audience of citizens, and it provides a constant veneer of plausible deniability to his most heinous beliefs, because he can always claim to be joking and his intentions are impossible to pin down. I think the same applies a lot of his movement.

The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie also has a good thread on why silly and serious aren’t mutually exclusive when thinking about the history of reactionary politics (click the tweet to see the thread.)

It’s going to be a while — months, at least — before we have a sense of how much the white nationalist movement that Trump has unleashed will remain mobilized. A lot of it will likely hinge on Trump, and I’m quite hesitant to prognosticate on what his post-presidency will look like, not because I doubt his thirst for attention, but because it’s unclear if he will fade from public attention if he, for example, gets kicked off Facebook and Twitter permanently and Fox News continues to try to distance itself from him. But I wouldn’t take the carnivalesque nature of his movement as reason to dismiss it.

4. What the hell happened with the police?

There’s been a lot of commentary about viral clips showing police who appear sympathetic to the protestors, and that likely played a significant role in how easily the Capitol was overrun.

But it’s worth noting that several reports indicate that there was also a serious deployment issue, and thus a question of institutional will. (We already know, for example, that the U.S Capitol Police turned down National Guard assistance from the Pentagon and FBI assistance from DOJ despite an abundance of intelligence that there was going to be militant gathering at the Capitol, egged on by the president.)

The point here is that the big questions people are asking about the contrast between the use of force against Black Lives Matter protestors in DC this summer and the gentle welcome shown to the Capitol rioters in January goes well beyond the ideological affinities of individual officers. Leaders of law enforcement organizations are quite clearly showing bias with their threat assessments and cues for rules of engagement.

As far as there’s a constant debate about how much poor policing can be attributed to “bad apples” or systems, there seems to be signs of both in this situation so far.

5. Trump’s disinformation campaigns are a potent weapon

Trump’s final attempt to overturn the election results failed. The thousands of Trump supporters that stormed the Capitol were disbanded, and Congress ratified Joe Biden’s election victory. But in another respect, the episode was a success. The event was a culmination of one of Trump’s most effective political projects — the use of disinformation to undermine a shared empirical reality and unleash will-to-power politics. 

Trump’s success in manufacturing an alternative reality includes convincing most of his supporters that he won the election; winning public backing for objecting to the legitimacy of the election from an astonishingly large portion of Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate and at the state level; a massive migration to the alternative social media app Parler; a rage-filled reactionary movement; and a few 2024 hopefuls (Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz) who have decided to embrace his worldview and try to institutionalize his brand of disinformation.

The takeaway is that Trump’s disinformation isn't just noise or distraction or another source of polarization. Disinformation wielded by an authoritarian is a weapon with the capacity to reshape political life and give license to the subversion of democracy. Entirely invented realities can move people — and create new political realities which outlive those who manufacture them.

Also note that this is the second time Trump has architected a mythology that undermines the legitimacy of a Democratic president upon their arrival in the White House. The first one, of course, was the racist use of birtherism against Barack Obama.

6. This is America

Many political leaders, especially on the right, attempted to disassociate themselves from the chaos by deeming it un-American or offering platitudes like, “This is not who we are.”

Well, if it’s happening here, it is who we are. You don’t get to take the unsightly parts of your culture and then somehow attribute it to another culture you’ve deemed barbaric. This is very much First World proto-fascism, and if you’re an unrepentant member of a party that has encouraged this social movement for months and years, then you should own the ugliness that accompanies the political tradition you adhere to.

This remarkable passage from Andrew McCormick’s on-the-ground report for The Nation might provide Mr. Rubio with some insight into the very native kind of entitlement that fueled the riot: “‘This is not America,’ a [Trump-supporting] woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. ‘They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot [Black Lives Matter], but they’re shooting the patriots.’”


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