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Two months ago, we published a series of reports on the growing threat of a coup attempt, wondering why it wasn’t being taken more seriously by Democrats and the media. We were scoffed at and eye-rolled, as if such things could never happen in America.
Nobody is scoffing or eye-rolling anymore, after Wednesday’s events at the US Capitol. There, insurrectionists stormed the building and halted the certification of the national election, as security forces allowed them to breach the Senate chamber and shut down the proceedings. There was a notable difference in the way federal security forces met last year’s Black Lives Matter protests with a show of force, and the way they allowed the Capitol to be overrun by right-wing authoritarians that they knew were coming.
About a decade ago, I wrote a book called The Uprising, which described how we were entering an era of chaos in which right-wing groups would try to seize power under the guise of populism. Clearly, that has been happening — we saw it speed up during the Tea Party backlash, and it was further accelerated by Donald Trump, who is a unique president in his willingness to use the White House megaphone to foment and destabilize.
Wednesday’s events were the result of all that incitement. It was a culmination that happened inside a culture of total impunity— and it is worth considering five points of context to understand what we’re really dealing with here, because it will likely continue after Trump leaves the White House.
- We have long known that the far right — and specifically many Trump supporters — are hostile to democracy. Polling data from Monmouth University in 2019 found that about one-third of the strongest supporters of Trump scored in the highest ratings for authoritarian tendencies. In all, Democracy Fund data show that roughly one-third of Americans “say that an authoritarian alternative to democracy would be favorable.” That’s what was on display Wednesday.
- While Trump has tried to blame violence on the Left, his administration has been trying to downplay the threat of right-wing authoritarianism and white supremacy. In a whistleblower complaint, a former top Homeland Security official alleged that Trump officials ordered him to modify an agency report’s section “on white supremacy in a manner that made the threat appear less severe.” Politico reported earlier this year that Homeland Security officials have “waged a years-long internal struggle to get the White House to pay attention to the threat of violent domestic extremists” — but they gave up because Trump wasn’t interested. Instead, federal security forces were focusing on deporting immigrants and investigating environmental activists.
- The Capitol Police have a $460 million budget and 2,300 personnel to guard the US Capitol complex. For comparison, that is twice the size of the budget of my own city’s police department, which is used to secure an entire metropolis. Somehow, this army of Capitol security forces was unable — or unwilling — to stop insurrectionists from breaching the building and taking over the floor of the US Senate. And it’s not like they were caught by surprise — they had advance warning of the potential for unrest. So it’s almost as if they weren’t trying to stop the mayhem.
- Washington mayor Muriel Bowser’s request to send National Guard reinforcements to the Capitol was initially rejected by the Defense Department — the same department whose leadership was recently purged and then replaced with Trump loyalists. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence, considering Trump initially refused to call for the insurrectionists to disperse.
- The insurrection clearly fed off months of misinformation by Republican Party officials who continued to push the lie that the national election was plagued by fraud. Those lies spread: a survey last month found that three-quarters of Republican voters believe the election was fraudulent. Even though nobody has produced evidence of systemic fraud, Republican lawmakers in Washington continued to fuel the conspiracy theories, ultimately pressing Congress to overturn the national election. One photo caught Missouri senator Josh Hawley raising a fist to the oncoming insurrectionists as he headed to the Capitol to try to halt the certification of the election.
As I wrote earlier this week, the Republican Party officials who fueled and abetted this insurrection did so because they assume they will experience no political, social, or legal consequences for their behavior. On the contrary, they will likely be rewarded with higher approval ratings and support from many Republican voters. And if the Look Forward Not Backward™ crowd gets its way and makes sure there are no legal consequences for any of Trump’s many crimes, then these Republicans will know they have a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card for their own extremist behavior.
After all of this, if nothing changes, then I tend to agree with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s aide Dan Riffle, who today said that “it always — even in moments like this — can get worse. If recent history is any guide, it almost certainly will.”
But things can still change — and they must.
In The Uprising, I argued that the best way to counter the rise of right-wing populism and to prevent it from proliferating is for an opposition movement and party to not just issue vague paeans to democracy and the soul of the nation. The opposition must also deliver tangible, material gains for working people — rather than continuing to be an elite and effete caretaker of a let-them-eat-cake establishment that right-wing provocateurs can forever burn in effigy.
The New Deal delivering such gains to the working class helped tamp down the outbreak of right-wing fascism in America. Nearly a century later, the Georgia elections this week proved the same point. There, two right-wing Republican authoritarians were defeated by the black reverend who runs Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s church and by a Jewish guy — and the Democratic duo won by relentlessly campaigning on a simple promise to deliver $2,000 checks to millions of Georgians facing eviction, starvation, and bankruptcy.
Of course, no matter what Democrats might deliver — survival checks, a higher minimum wage, guaranteed medical care, massive investments in job creation, a crackdown on abusive corporations — there will always be a right-wing authoritarian movement in America willing to weaponize racism and illiberalism for its cause.
So it’s not simple: there is not a straightforward one-to-one relationship between enacting policies that improve people’s lives and instantly snuffing out the kind of fascism that reared its head at the Capitol on Wednesday. But delivering for millions of people who’ve been economically pulverized for generations is the best and probably only way to try to halt fascism’s wider spread to more of the general population over the long haul.
That work must begin now.
Not tomorrow. Not in a few months.