by Jarrod Shanahan, Hard Crackers, Jan 7th, 2021
On January 6th a determined mob from across the United States descended on Washington, D.C. They rumbled with police, overturned barricades, breached the perimeter of the United States Capitol, and smashed their way into the building itself – all while both houses were in session. Inside, the insurgents played cat and mouse with police and federal agents, gleefully traipsing the evacuated halls of Congress and the Senate, and marauded through the offices of high-level politicians, who escaped a direct confrontation by a matter of minutes. The scene at the Capitol was replicated in miniature across the US, with large crowds menacing state houses in Washington state, Georgia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and others. But nothing compared to the spectacle playing out in the nation’s capital.
Mike Davis aptly cites the surrealist dictum that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” In fact, many of the images emerging from the Capitol render the word “surreal” banal. “Where’s Pence,” shouted a shirtless man clad in furs topped with Viking horns from atop the dais of the United States Senate. “Show yourself!” Elsewhere a grinning man put his feet up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office while others ransacked Pelosi’s and other offices, snapping selfies and livestreaming all the while. Another man clad in furs, and a bullet proof vest and riot shield taken from police rested on a wooden staff looking bewildered and bereft of a plan, before simply taking a seat on an ornate leather bench. In some scenes, the insurgents appear as spectators in the Capitol’s halls, respecting the velvet rope stanchions installed to marshal guided tours, while one waved at the camera, grinning ear to ear while attempting to loot the lectern of the House of Representatives.
Davis, however, is too quick to dismiss the occupier, who he claims “didn’t have a clue.” For each absurd or risible image we can cite to write off the insurgents, there is another that demonstrates tactical militancy and seriousness of purpose. An armed demonstrator in military fatigues and tactical gear stormed the floor of Congress with zip ties, indicating intent to take hostages or even perform summary executions akin to a foiled plot in Michigan late last year. The breech itself required a serious fight in multiple locations, with participants clearly equipped for street confrontations, and many appearing to be armed. At some point within the Capitol a small crowd attempted to smash through a barricade, and the first over the hill was shot and killed, thirty-five year old Ashli Babbitt, a veteran of the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ardent supporter of Trump and the Q Anon conspiracy theory movement. Babbitt who traveled from San Diego to engage in violent direct action. “Nothing will stop us,” she tweeted the previous day, “….they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”
Babbitt met death doing exactly what she came to D.C. for. The siege had been planned for weeks in tandem with a large pro-Trump rally, promoted by the President himself. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6,” Trump tweeted in mid-December. “Be there, be wild!” Heeding the call for another revolution in the vein of 1776, armed rightists traveled from across the United States to stop the certification of Biden’s electoral victory by any means. Trump himself headlined a massive rally outside the White House, whipping up his supporters for a march on the Capitol he falsely claimed he would personally lead, before vanishing back into the White House, not interested in physically leading a coup after all. But it turned out the crowd didn’t need him to find its way to the Capitol. In a sign of things to come, Trump’s involvement became largely irrelevant, as the movement that has operated in his shadow took on a life of its own in the streets.
Violent revolution was a consistent theme throughout the day’s events. A reporter for Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV bragged of his participation in “the current revolution” in a since-deleted tweet claiming: “I am inside Nancy Pelosi’s office with the thousands of revolutionaries who have stormed the building.” Trump may not have been serious about an armed coup – allegedly he has long given up on retaining power, and is simply keeping his base fired up and his name in the news. But plenty of his followers were deadly serious. Chants of “storm the Capitol” and “1776” echoed before the march even arrived at the building. A hanging scaffold, complete with a noose, was erected outside the Capitol, and pipe bombs were planted outside the offices of the Republican and Democratic parties.
While Biden’s victory was ultimately certified amid a barrage of maudlin platitudes, the siege of the US Capitol was nonetheless a massive victory for the insurgent far-right in the US, akin to the siege of the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis that helped catalyze and set the militant anti-cop tone of the George Floyd Rebellion last summer. The militancy of the siege is a bellwether of the changes that the US far-right has undergone in the five years since the Trump movement gave it renewed life. The siege also provides the movement a much needed opportunity for self-clarification, which will unfold in the coming weeks and months among the ragtag movement of US rightists who have hitched their wagon to Trump’s falling star. Above all, at the risk of engaging in the “crystal ball” thinking Davis rightly warns us against, when the history of this period is written, the siege of the Capitol is likely to mark the beginning of a new chapter in the US far-right.
Back in the halcyon days of 2015, the alt-right rose to prominence on the back of the Trump electoral campaign, using media savvy to carve out an oversized role for itself in the national discourse, as Trump rallies and related street battles brought a variety of young reactionaries off the Internet and into the streets. The alt-right’s major strength was the zone of indistinction the Trump movement created between the mainstream conservative movement and its fascist fringes, which enabled alt-righters to operate in broader conservative circles and pull so-called normies toward their emergent brand of fascism. This strength was also the movement’s weakness, however, as the alt-right was itself indistinct, and never achieved sufficient clarity about whether it was system-loyal or system-oppositional, to use the helpful framework furnished by Three-Way Fight. Led by Richard Spencer, alt-right leaders pursued a strategy of militant reformism, seeking to mainstream white nationalist views within civil society as a means of transforming it. Setting aside their ghastly view for how society should run, they didn’t have much of a clue how to get there besides convincing white people to support them and running candidates for office.
For the most part, alt-right politics were eclectic and held together by mutually-held enmity, not a clear political analysis or vision. This was a product of the movement’s novelty, but was not sufficiently overcome. Even when the Proud Boys sought out violent encounters with anti-fascists and were often arrested, they swore allegiance to the US police and branded antifascists “terrorists” who must be fought in the name of the country they love. In early 2017, I watched Proud Boy leader of yore Sal Cipolla carted off by NYPD for attacking a journalist. The Proud Boys made no moves to resist or antagonize the cops, and Cipolla gushed to the arresting officers over and over that he supported them! In another telling scene, a frequent co-host of The Right Stuff’s flagship program The Daily Shoah, the Chapo Trap House of the alt-right, pranked his comrades by calling the show and asking: if the United States is controlled by the Jews, why do you support it? The hosts were completely stumped! After an awkward silence the joke was revealed, and amid nervous laughter the program continued, never returning to a question they weren’t prepared to answer.
The alt-right didn’t have much more time in the sun to think the question over. The public relations disaster of Charlottesville was meant to “unite the right” in the alt-right’s favor and solidify their entry into mainstream conservatism, but turned instead into what some fascists called “the Altamont of the alt-right.” While heaps of public scorn, infighting, and a crippling lawsuit contributed greatly to the movement’s demise, the decisive factor was its inability to choose between a movement of respectable law-abiding citizens, and a movement of political violence – in other words, it remained stymied at the crossroads between system-loyalty and system-opposition. Without a clear sense of what they were, they buckled under the pressure. It’s no coincidence that the only group to see its star rise in the aftermath of Charlottesville was the Proud Boys, who were at peace with their pursuit of political violence and had sufficient clarity among themselves to persevere beyond Charlottesville, while dodging accusations of white supremacism thanks to prominent non-white members.
The Proud Boys style of street violence survived Charlottesville and fused with similar groups like the neo-fascist Patriot Prayer, and emissaries of the decades-long US militia movement like the Three Percenters. These groups helped engender a culture of carnivalesque brawls in Berkeley, Portland, and other cities, nurturing a street fighting culture among right-wingers and fringe weirdos dedicated to political violence and/or bored and craving the next adrenaline rush. Fighting the antifascists who dutifully counter-mobilized became something of an extreme sport, the way summit-hopping was for leftists of the alter-globalization movement. “The thing that happened today [at the Capitol] was a part of a trajectory of right wing street actions that have been happening since 2017 in Berkeley,” wrote journalist Shane Bauer. “A bunch of the same people. Same stupid costumes. Same worldview.”
Open conflict with police, however, was never part of these rightists’ horizon. In fact, these rallies often demonstrated considerable overlap with police organizations under the banner of Blue Lives Matter, especially after the George Floyd Rebellion. We must never forget how Kenosha killer Kyle Rittenhouse, a celebrated product of this rightist milieu, was encouraged by the police before the shooting, and subsequently allowed to leave. This same milieu also produced “anti-lockdown” protests against public health measures taken in the face of Covid, which in turn dovetailed into pro-Trump rallies, motorcades, boat parades, and finally “Stop the Steal” rallies against the purported theft of the election. All of these rallies had a strong component of support for the US police, whose unions had overwhelmingly – and singularly, among US unions – thrown in their support behind Trump.
In the weeks leading up to the Capitol siege, however, this began to change. Proud Boys antagonized the cops at their “Million MAGA March,” a previous D.C. romp, demanding to be let through a police line separating them from a much smaller detachment of antifascists. A large group of rightists subsequently attacked symbols of Black Lives Matter, including burning a banner stolen off a historical black church. In late December, rightists in the orbit of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys attacked the State House in Salem, Oregon, clashing with police in the process, including spraying cops with chemical irritants. In early January, the scene was repeated in the streets of Salem, which saw some rightists make a big show of stomping on a Thin Blue Line flag. The night before the January 6th rally, police and rightists openly clashed for control of the streets of D.C. Thus a movement that had built itself in large part as supporters of US police against BLM and antifa began planning for armed encounters with not antifa or the Democrats, but the cops themselves. This profound ambiguity is best captured by the storming of a police line in D.C. by an insurgent waving a Thin Blue Line flag.
This is not to say there haven’t been small pockets of revolutionary rightists all along, especially in the militia movement or isolated and largely stuck online. There certainly have been, but emphasis must be placed on small, isolated, and effective only at lone-wolf style attacks. By contrast, the mayhem in D.C. demonstrates that a considerable segment of US rightists are beginning to unambiguously embrace a system-oppositional framework. In doing so they are aided in no small part by Trump himself, who has spent the better part of the last two months crowing that the government is not legitimate and its laws are therefore not to be respected. But this is also due to the working out of contradictions in their own theory and practice through struggle, toward an extra-parliamentary fascism, the same way moving beyond reformism is an essential for a leftists’ coming to political maturity, and is often achieved only through concrete engagement.
Ironically, Trump’s departure leaves the wind at the backs of US fascists to a degree unparalleled since his arrival. There’s no longer an incumbent to wring hands over supporting; it’s back to the joys of being the deposed opposition. And this coming on the eve of a Democratic presidency that even mainstream Republicans do not consider legitimate is a massive boon for the coming years of rightist organizing. The comrades at Three-Way Fight are correct to point out that the way the state responds to these rightists in the coming months will play a large part in whether an anti-police common sense ossifies. Seen through the lens of the siege of the Capitol, which left a wildly careless trail of digital evidence, it is hard to imagine the coming months will see anything but a widespread crackdown that splits the system-loyal and system-oppositional rightists in an enduring way, helping to outline the contours of the movement post-Trump. Chief among the dividing issues will be the role of the police: friend, or foe?
Most commentary so far has been limited to the eternal stating of the obvious that right-wing white men have a comparative easy time with the police, which functionally amounts to a plea for the proportional use of brutal state violence against everyone. And while the right-wing conspiracy theory mill is already claiming the insurgents were antifascists in disguise, the garden variety leftist analyses aren’t much better. A single video showing some cops abandoning a barricade without a fight has been circulated alongside a clip of some bemused cops inside the Capitol taking selfies with the insurgents, to support the conspiracy theory that the Capitol police let this happen on purpose. It won’t matter that the journalist who shot the former video has claimed it is being portrayed all wrong. It seems that no amount of footage of hot conflict between police and rightists, including scenes of great courage that many leftists would hesitate to imitate, matters to those determined to lean on this analysis. And this is not to say that cooperation on an individual or even concerted level between the rightists and the cops is outside the realm of possibilities, or that the Capitol was equally equipped for an assault as it would be, had the rally been leftist. But the burden of proof for people making claims of conspiracy, presently almost nonexistent, must be raised exponentially.
More broadly, such conspiracy narratives are preferable to confronting the fact that an explicitly revolutionary rightist tendency is very likely enjoying an auspicious moment of recomposition, unafraid of meting out violence or meeting it, even to the point of death, and should therefore be respected as formidable foes, equally capable as leftists of opposing the US state, or worse yet, appearing as the only visible alternative to neoliberalism, as Trump did in the 2016 election. Now, with Donald Trump quickly fading to irrelevance, what we are seeing is almost certainly the birth of something new coming into existence that we’ll be contending with for years to come, defined by the experience of the Capitol siege, and the ideological and practical lines it will both expose and draw. Moreover, the conspiracy narrative allows people to sidestep facing the challenge that a comparatively small, focused, and courageous group of people can do a whole lot once it lets go of its fear and preoccupations with appeasing polite society or stepping on the toes of anyone who claims to represent large groups of people.
In a country where the majority of eligible citizens do not vote, rampant interpersonal violence, addiction, routines mass shootings, and suicide epidemics testify to a profound hopelessness that anything can be done to improve daily life. The nonsensical, logic-proof theories of QAnon don’t demonstrate the stupidity of their adherents as much as the desperation people feel for communal belonging, to find a theory that makes sense of the desperation and misery of their lives, and to take actions into their own hands, acting in concert. Collective actions like the siege of the Capitol, no matter how ephemeral, register in the minds of millions of people the idea that drastic measures can be taken by ordinary people. Forget how risible or horrific it may seem to professional pundits or social media celebrities who shed tears for the sanctity of the “hallowed halls” where imperialist wars and austerity programs are hatched. The sight of gatecrashers angrily storming the Senate demanding Mike Pence reveal himself, a man clad in ordinary proletarian dress with his feet up on a desk in the office of the multi-millionaire powerbroker Nancy Pelosi, and the perverse fun most of them seemed to be having doing it, furnish powerful political images that speak to the widespread disgust with US life that’s just about the only thing everyone agrees on.
What is our alternative?