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The Meaning of January 6, 2021

A long history suggests that while the crisis of the moment dictates directing the state’s security resources and personnel toward the Right, this focus will, inevitably, shift back to the Left.

Pro-Trump supporters at the US Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum / Getty Images)

Trump’s troops, summoned by the Líder Máximo, assembled in Washington, DC, their minds mangled by an ideological fusillade of conspiratorial tripe about frauds, stolen elections, and political betrayal. The Commander-in-Chief appeared with others at the Washington rally. He and his entourage did not disappoint the crowd, pillorying the “radical socialist” Democrats and Republican renegades, excoriating those who would grant Joe Biden the presidency on the basis of an electoral travesty.

There was talk of “patriots kicking ass,” and exhortations to “Fight, fight, fight!” Trump wept tears of rage, tears of grief, reminiscent of Bob Dylan and The Band’s lyrics from Music from Big Pink (1967–68): “We carried you in our arms on Independence Day / And now you’d throw us all aside and put us all away / Oh, what dear daughter ’neath the sun could treat a father so? / To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him, ‘No.’”

The Motley Crew

The election, Trump claimed, was stolen from him and, by extension, from them, his loyal subjects. They were a motley crew: overwhelmingly white, the old and not-quite-so-old, if not too many who were young. Donning the colors of the Proud Boys, biker gangs, and white supremacists, many were the kinds of human material it is easy to loathe, including neofascistic combatants trained in the paramilitary wing of the far right.

But there were undoubtedly marginalized and poor people among the Trumpers as well. Unemployed or reduced to the most precarious of livelihoods, these men and women are guilty of much, including stupidity, but given their lack of political representation, and the absence of a genuine voice addressing their needs, the illusions Trump promotes nurture a false consciousness that is truly tragic.

Others among the “Fight for Trump” crowd, buying into the “Wild Time” promised by the presidential twitter feed, were independent contractors, self-employed professionals, the pettiest of the petty bourgeoisie. And there were fundamentalist Christians rubbing shoulders with nihilistic grifters. These were the shock troops, ready to rock.

Some notables, like Rudy Giuliani, shared the outdoor stage with Trump, speaking from behind the plexiglass-protected dais, calling for “Trial by Combat.” Brave talk that would not, of course, be followed by the walk. Like Giuliani, the speculative and parasitic elements of capital that sustain Trumpism materially were not likely to take their politics to the streets; they watched the proceedings from afar.  Nonetheless, such billionaires are decisive in sustaining the Trump coalition, as the likes of Ted Cruz and his co-objectors appreciate so well.

The Diabolical Dance of Dissent

Calling on his followers to be strong, to never concede defeat, and to march on the Biden confirmation proceedings, Trump said he would join the procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, only to disappear into the White House, partake of a nice lunch, and watch the televised spectacle unfold. As Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “When you play the fiddle at the top of the state, what else is to be expected but that those down below dance.”

Forty thousand in number, the Trump throng assembled under the flags of the United States, the Klan’s conception of the Confederacy, and the Tea Party’s favored Colonel Christopher Gadsden standard (designed during the American Revolution, a coiled rattlesnake poised on a yellow background over the words “Don’t Tread on Me”). But the day’s banner of choice was simply emblazoned “TRUMP.”

The angry crowd soon surrounded and then overwhelmed the Capitol, seat of the deliberative branch of the US government. Members of the Senate and their counterparts in the House of Representatives, going through the ritual of formally constituting the composition of the Electoral College that would establish Biden as the president-elect, were blithely unaware of what was happening outside of their sanctuary.

The most bellicose of Trump’s ragtag brigade no doubt wanted to confront Mike Pence, their contempt for what they regarded as his Judas-like act of betrayal in overseeing Biden’s coronation ramped up by Trump’s escalating petulance. Some among them constructed a mock gallows, from which was suspended a menacing noose. Among this contingent of the crowd the chant of choice was, “Hang Mike Pence!”

Skirmishes ensued and soon a significant number of the Never Bideners entered the Capitol building, backing police into corridors, and taking over hallways, offices, and eventually forcing the presidential confirmation proceedings into retreat. The good men and women of the Congress took to the aisle floors, donning gas masks, or were evacuated to shelter and safety.

As the Trump supporters broke windows and battered doors, they gained entry to a number of chambers, including the Senate. One protester, sporting his COVID-19 mask and clowning around for the cameras, took Vice President Pence’s usual seat, his fist raised in defiant salute.

Capitol Punishment

Law enforcement personnel seemed not quite able to get themselves on the same page. At times battalions of police battled the determined demonstrators. Contingents of cops in full riot gear were crushed by the advancing wall of Trump’s supporters, who were clearly in no mood to be stopped. There were, however, other scenes, less confrontational, more chummy. Some officers gave up the apparent ghost of guardianship rather quickly and easily, shunting metal fencing aside to let the crowd flow through or stepping away from a barricaded door and, essentially, abandoning their posts.

A thirty-five-year old woman, Air Force veteran, QAnon ideologue, and financially-troubled small business owner, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed as she attempted to crash through a window leading to an area that the protesters had not breached. A fellow Wilder declared in shocked awe: “They are supposed to shoot BLM [Black Lives Matter], but now they are shooting patriots.”

Three others died of “medical emergencies” such as heart attacks (memo to my fellow out-of-shape older, white men: don’t put yourself in the position of being a battering ram for reaction) and dozens of police were hurt. One US Capitol officer, Brian Sicknick, succumbed to injuries apparently sustained when struck in the head with a fire extinguisher.

Alabama GOP Congressman Mo Brooks, whose ultra-inflammatory speech to the Trump rally egged the crowd on to protest at the Capitol, now hails the fallen policeman as a hero, calling for death penalty retribution. As with everything Trumpite, hypocrisy overwhelms reason.

Eventually, after a few hours that saw the declaration of a 6 PM curfew and the arrival of massive police and National Guard reserves, the Capitol was cleared, the Electoral College hearings reconvened, and Biden confirmed.  Democracy prevailed; the insurrection was over.

The Surge of Sanctimony

All of this was broadcast in real time on all major television networks. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate waxed eloquent about the cherished history of this citadel on a hill, this edifice that enshrines the dream that is American Democracy. A sacred place had been desecrated.

It had not faced such an invasion of the barbarians since the War of 1812. Thugs and rioters invaded the hallowed halls of the world’s “perfect union,” where Congress conducts “the People’s Business.” Media commentators vied with politicos in speeches of disbelief and indignant condemnation, a saccharine rhetoric of American self-satisfaction uniting liberals and conservatives alike.

The complacent assumption that the ideal of American democracy is not only real, but the beacon to which all progressive and advanced nations aspire, dripped from the mouths of those shocked and stunned by the threatening protest. That this “anarchy,” as it was called by television pundits of the Right and the liberal mainstream, was unleashed by the transparent barrage of disinformation emanating from the White House administration, rather than from the scapegoated, vilified forces of Antifa, only added to the incredulity.

It was not long before the more deranged voices of Trumpism, like Congressmen Brooks, Paul Gosar, and Matt Gaetz, intimated that left-wing, Black Bloc provocateurs were indeed involved in the violence, claims supported by no evidence whatsoever. Trump soon jumped on this bandwagon of balderdash.

No one dared speak truth to an apparently ideologically unassailable democracy, whose history is hardly one of unblemished good. Questioning the revered record of what has happened within the blessed walls of the Capitol was most decidedly not done in the face of the bad manners, audacious raucousness, intimidating violence, and brazen display of far-right ugliness evident among Trump’s riotous advocates.

Claims now abound that among some in the crowd the intent was to kidnap, put on trial, and physically harm office-holding traitors to Trump, like Pence, or hated Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi. Whether such fears of what the rampaging elements of Trump’s rally turned riotous intended to do would have been borne out had the crowd not been contained will never be known.

What is certain is that the frightening situation on January 6 suffocated acknowledgement that the American state and its seemingly democratic institutions cry out to be interrogated and scrutinized critically. Whatever the circumstances, the job of the Left is never to whitewash the history of bourgeois democracy and the sins states commit in its name.

The Capitol Building is where the nation state has sanctified slavery and segregation. Within its walls the pockets of the rich have historically been lined with all kinds of “honest graft,” of which the modern tax cut is only the tip of an iceberg of largesse. Legislation drafted there has criminalized the poor and forced austerity measures down their constricted throats, established pernicious racist immigration exclusions, proclaimed and bankrolled wars, kept women in their subordinate domestic place, thwarted workers’ struggles, and restricted the rights of the people to health and welfare. Democracy, American-style, has long backed dictators around the world and engineered coups in the name of “regime change.”

Sacrilege and the Modern State

Religion may well remain an opiate of the people. It certainly found a particular niche in the Trump crowd’s politics of grievance. One prominent modern-day Know-Nothing placard proclaimed, “Pelosi is the Devil,” while a religious-like demonization of communism could be read on other signboards. Interspersed between “Trump Is President” banners were simple declarations that “Jesus Saves.” Exactly what was not clear.

Trump? Truth? The electoral process? Or America’s privileged place in the world economy? Not people dying by the hundreds of thousands of COVID-19. Not the homeless in New York, Calcutta, or Sao Paulo. Not refugees and jailed dissidents and those whose jobs and lives have been declared redundant in the proliferating crises that scar the landscape of modern capitalism.

Yet in the outpouring of resentment and shocked indignation at the temerity and travesty of trashing the Capitol, another opiate surfaced as the drug of choice in an obvious legitimation crisis. A religiously constructed veneration of the ceremonial trappings and ideological obfuscations of American democracy belied the critical truth that after two-and-a-half centuries United States experience still manages to confirm, on an almost daily basis, that some black lives do not matter, that the rich benefit from everything, including pandemic crisis, and the poor take it in the neck.

Sacrilege in the modern state is not so much a heretical pronouncement that God has fallen or is fallible. Rather, the mere suggestion that bourgeois democratic governance, and its material structures, are not to be worshipped adoringly — this is the blasphemy of America’s national chauvinism.

Insurrection as Hyperbole

Sedition! Insurrection! Domestic Terrorism! were the thus the words of the hour. January 6 was a day that would live in the history of the United States as one of infamy, likened in its ignominy and dishonor to Pearl Harbor. Hyperbole flowed as the trail of tears grew to a tidal wave.

George W. Bush and almost all other mainstream commentators likened the events of January 6 to “banana republic” coups. This gives banana republics and the politics of insurrection within them a bad name. No self-respecting attempted coup d’etat against a dictatorial regime in the developing world would have been willing to settle, as did the so-called insurgents of the Siege of the Capitol, 01/06/21, for a flurry of mayhem, a walk back to the hotel, and a comradely drink and sociable cigarette.

Yet Trump’s patriot phalanx, some of whom urinated on the Capitol’s floors and spread feces on is walls was satisfied with this as its particular day’s work. The denouement of a few hours of domestic terror, seditious conspiracy, and violent insurrection was perhaps an indication less of what happened than of what did not.

The Capitol riot that has sparked such vehement condemnation among liberal commentators and sitting members of the United States Congress was certainly troubling, given the prominent place of white nationalist, fascistic elements within it. But it was no insurrection.

Most of the crowd was not armed, there was no public display of long guns, and bear spray and flag poles were the weapons of choice in battles with the police, hardly the kind of firepower needed to bring the state down. No concerted effort had been made to coordinate a riotous demonstration against a symbol of state power, with actual insurrectionary intent among the military, sections of the media, or many other spheres where power is concentrated and perpetuated.

A pro-Trump mob confronts the US Capitol Police outside the Senate chamber of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

What happened on January 6 was orchestrated chaos, to be sure. It was certainly characterized by violence and determination, as well as a bizarre theater of the absurd, most ostentatiously on display in the person of the horn-sporting, raccoon-skin draped, Jacob Chansley/Jake Ageli, his face painted in the red, white, and blue that matched his chants of “USA! USA! USA!” Dubbed the QAnon “shaman,” Chansley/Ageli suggests how lacking in anything approximating leadership or a coherent governing alternative the tumult of 01/06/21 was prerequisites of any insurrection worth the name. Like so many others who invaded the Capitol building, a flag-carrying Jake justified his presence in the protest by stating that he had been summoned to Washington by Donald Trump.

Trump to the Barricades?

An insurrection with Trump at its head is surely destined to derail before a booked tee time or a sumptuous dinner. And it largely did. Trump, who at first reveled in the riot, pushed his sycophants in Congress to use the chaos to derail Biden’s confirmation. He stalled when pressed to mobilize the National Guard to clear the Capitol of rioters, instead praising them as patriots whose deeds would not be forgotten, declaring his love for them. Ivanka Trump was, at first, of a like mind.

A day later, Trump’s tune changed. Allegations of treason and anguished announcements of former supporters that Trump had finally gone too far, prompted lawyers, aides, and advisors (and almost certainly the inner circle of nepotism so influential in the Oval Office) to insist that the president look after his own interests, protect himself from legal liability for the violence, and backtrack. Conceding an orderly transition to power, and throwing his supporters under the proverbial bus, a seemingly chastened Trump called for those guilty of violent acts to feel the full prosecutorial brunt of the law.

Right-wing social media like Parler and 4chan blew up in contradictory messaging: While some railed against Trump’s perfidy, anguishing that they had been sold out, others kept the faith. QAnon nodded knowingly that Trump would never desert the cause, and his public repudiation of the assault on the Capitol was another bit of deep state fakery, or perhaps a hacked hoax perpetrated by Chinese Communists.

Many Trump supporters entwined in the loose knot of a socially constructed seditious conspiracy saw what a non-insurrection they had been whipped up to stage. They departed Washington, less with a bang, than with an audible whimper. Some of them, foolish enough to kindly provide the state with their videos of the events, are now being tracked down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Marshals, and the Department of Justice.

They face a slew of charges: criminal trespass, assaulting police, disorderly conduct, theft of government property, illegal possession of a firearm, and many other transgressions, including possibly sedition, conspiracy, and murder. Those charged well deserve whatever fate awaits them at the hands of the criminal justice system, responsible as they are for their actions and the repugnant dog’s breakfast of motivations that animated them.

Certainly, there were some among the crowd’s most prepared and well-trained combatants who are committed cadre of the extreme politics of reaction and willing participants in a raging war of hate and retribution. This dangerous militia-like presence in the Trump crowd no doubt provided a good part of its discipline and preparedness. Unlike their cell-phone touting ballast, these types might well avoid being collateral damage in Trump’s insatiable appetite for adoration, refusing to be casualties in a sociopath’s sense of entitlement. They will live to fight another day, a dangerous soldiery poisoned by the politics of toxic reaction.

The Uses of Seditious Insurrection

If the riot at the Capitol buildings was sedition, it was truly a bizarre variant of this high crime against the state. No plan animated Trump’s supporters other than to slap down, momentarily, his successor and nemesis. Sedition surely demands something more than a frenzied crowd and some capable militia-like figures willing to scale walls. To actually crown the actions of 01/06/21 a seditious insurrection is, of course, to structure them in ways that further deepens faith in the staying power of a socio-economic order fraying at its capitalist seams.

The defenders of this crisis-ridden system of exploitation and oppression, having seen an ostensible armed assault on its political caretakers handily put down, can proclaim themselves resilient and redoubtable, as did so many puffed up members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. They now have a platform from which to endlessly proclaim the Republic a bastion of righteousness encompassing liberty and espousing just values, able to vanquish an insurgent challenge with alacrity.

Licencing the Right

A different assessment is possible. Indeed, the story of this insurrection that wasn’t is how the vanguard of Trump’s marauders were able to walk up steps of the Capitol Building largely unimpeded, ascend its walls with impunity, fly their flags from scaffolding, breach police barricades, and take over a seat of US government for a time, however brief.

The indignant invasion of the Capitol would never have gotten within a Molotov cocktail’s throw of the building’s stately stairways had it been a left-wing protest. Those of us who have seen a few marches on Washington, or Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill in Canada, for that matter, know full well that the armed might of the state seldom goes to sleep the way it did on January 6.

This insurgency would have been stopped in its tracks before it ever got near the Biden confirmation hearings, if it was mobilized by those actually challenging power rather than hoping to sustain one particularly nefarious variant of it. That unique expression of politics — Trumpism — is an ideological edifice which sections of the “law and order” industry gravitate to instinctually.

Overpolicing the Left

Left-wing protest, if it threatens constituted authority in any way, has historically been met with unambiguous police force and often brutal repression. Generally, it is the cops that lose their cool in such situations, not the protesters.

This is what happened at the August 1968 anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the Democratic Party’s National Convention. The entire twelve-thousand-member Chicago police force was placed on rotating twelve-hour shifts; the US Army mobilized six thousand troops to “protect” the city, taking their place alongside six thousand National Guards (with an additional five thousand on standby alert), and two thousand Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service agents.

As the respective forces of peaceniks and state troopers clashed, protesters were pushed through hotel plateglass windows by police, who beat the young demonstrators as they lay sprawled on broken glass. Six hundred arrests ensued; hundreds of injuries were sustained, not only by the dissidents but also by the gendarmes. In the end, the consensus of inquiries into what happened in this 1968 protest is that the police, not the demonstrators, rioted. But you could never say that the cops were not prepared, or that they assembled in insufficient numbers to protect property and the business of politics as usual.

1968’s repression was matched by a similar ruthless resolve in 1971. An attempt to shut down the District of Columbia on May Day, 1971, when tens of thousands of anti-war leftists massed at a number of sites to engage in civil disobedience aimed at calling attention to the imperialist carnage in Vietnam, was met with a decisive show of force.

Richard M. Nixon’s not-yet-disgraced attorney general, John Mitchell, unleashed thousands of Army troops, marines, and national guards to supplement the Capitol police, the Washington police, and reserves drawn from near and far. With Washington Post reporter Nicholas von Hoffman describing the nation’s capital as a “simulated Saigon,” the city’s traffic circles were designated battle zones, pitting combative protesters against the cops; teargas hung thickly in the air like a rainforest fog; and many a “Mayday Tribe” demonstrator had their shins and backs slapped with truncheons, and worse.

Ridden down by police horses, tossed into paddy wagons with abandon, twelve thousand were arrested, hauled off without due process, and incarcerated twenty to a two-person cell. Washington’s jails soon overflowed, necessitating transporting those in police custody to makeshift detention camps.

At the “Battle of the Bicentennial” in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, protesters gathered to declare an end to colonialism, and a “Rich Off Our Backs — July 4th Coalition” mobilized thousands to demand Puerto Rico’s independence and defend the dispossessed of all colors from attack, marching through the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.

We did not get much love from Philly’s police: I recall filing past a park and seeing hundreds of police lining a hilltop, batons menacingly thudding on their riot shields. One of these civic-minded officers turned his back on us, dropped his pants — all of them — and offered us a very unappealing full moon. I suppose this was a gesture preferable to a crack upside the head, but it did not express a lot of regard.

WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999. (Wikimedia Commons)

More recently many have witnessed rampaging police violence at anti–World Trade Organization Summit protests in Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, and Quebec City, or Ontario Coalition of Poverty marches on provincial and federal legislatures in Toronto and Ottawa. The armed might of the state has not been shy in establishing fenced perimeters, pepper spraying demonstrators, kettling protesters, riding down marchers with horses, or corralling them with bicycles, and beating mercilessly on anyone who stepped out of what the police considered a proper line.

Police and “intelligence agencies” often infiltrate left-wing groups organizing protests, sometimes arresting “ringleaders” before the actual demonstrations occur. Those who ostensibly incite riot with their words are seldom given a pass, and many have been arrested and put through the wringer of costly and time-consuming trials.

Trump’s Blue Wall of Shame

None of this was evident on January 6. The Capitol Police treated the Trump rally as a legitimate expression of right-thinking dissent. Offers of police reinforcements apparently fell on deaf ears.  In spite of more than ample evidence that Trump’s supporters were coming to Washington to raise wild hell and possibly worse, there were apparently no special provisions made, no attempt to put in place the kind of security personnel and protocols that are standard operating procedure in the playbook of state responses to left-wing protests.

That the American security state somehow missed the signs on extremist, right-wing social media sites of what was coming down on 01/06/21 is, simply, incomprehensible. Mother Jones has reported that in the month leading up to the Trump rally, the phrase, “Storm the Capitol,” was used 100,000 times on websites and platforms frequented by the far right.  Quite a few people in a lot of particular places inside the state apparatus and the agencies of policing let Trump’s bidding be done by an archetypal “Church and King” mob.

The result was that when the Trump crowd proceeded to the Capitol, it had something of a cakewalk. A few metal barricades were in place, and a modest contingent of police “guarded” the Capitol building’s entrances.  When the crowd proved unruly and determined to break its way into the legislative chambers, there was simply no stopping it. Indeed, cops moved fencing aside so protesters could enter the Capitol. Even after Ms. Babbitt was shot (one cop or secret security agent obviously did not get the message to handle Trump’s troops with kid gloves) an accommodating police escort, menacing in his black helmet, riot suit, and protective body shield, gallantly held the hand of an elderly female Trumper as she sidestepped her way down the Capitol stairs. The tough love the left has come to expect from police at demonstrations was, in the Washington invaded by Trumpists, long on the love and rather short on the tough.

This is not surprising. Officials at the Capitol and the higher-ups responsible for policing and calling out the National Guard, not to mention many, many cops, are themselves part of Trump’s base of support. Police associations, all the more so in a climate of antagonism to the brutality and killing that has made Black Lives Matter into a public watchword, are often committed to Trump’s agenda.

The cops eat up Trump’s ratcheted-up rhetoric of coming down hard on urban violence, always coded in racialized terms. They clearly enjoy the President’s mockery of a liberal establishment regarded as far too soft on crime and cosmopolitan decay. Police forces in Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, and smaller cities and towns are now acting on tips identifying off-duty cops from their ranks involved in the riotous activities inside the Capitol Building.

It is not surprising, then, that the messaging among the protesters and within broad swaths of the police was that this demonstration was to be given a certain license of a kind that a left-led initiative would never have been granted. Both sides — cops and those storming the Capitol — were perhaps captive of Trump’s capacity to foster illusion. People died as a consequence.

Trump’s Troops Get a Pass

The failures of the police are now subject to denunciation from politicians and pundits. Heads have already rolled; resignations of people in positions of responsibility are trotted out daily. Mainstream liberal commentary rightly points out that if the protesters had been associated with Black Lives Matter they would have been handled far more roughly.

Largely peaceful BLM protesters were arrested and manhandled, tear-gassed, fired on with rubber bullets, and bounced off sidewalks for simply looking askance at the police. Trump’s rampaging crowd, in contrast, was at times given a wink and a nod. If some cops were forced to fight, and even appeared to have gotten the worst of it, there were police inside the Capitol and on its steps who clearly had little appetite for battling back the protest.

It is not wrong to make this comparison between the unequal treatment of blacks and whites. But it is now so self-righteously commonplace that it veers toward the myopic. Nancy Pelosi has declared that the insurrectionists chose “their whiteness over democracy.” Joy Reid, an MSNBC newscaster, insisted that the Trump throng enjoyed and indeed consciously exploited their white privilege.

The danger with this kind of interpretation, as the scholar Adolph Reed would point out, is that it obscures as much as it illuminates. That white supremacy was at work among those rallying to Trump and assailing those who would deny his false claims on the presidency is undeniable. That this was the entirety of what happened on January 6 is, however, unconvincing. It misses important dimensions of what was going on.

What privileged the Trump crowd in the eyes of many cops was less the color of the protesters’ skin — as white as they undoubtedly were — and more their politics of right-wing indignation and demand for redress of a plethora of grievances. Race was undoubtedly an important component of this political disaffection, but a lot more was also swirling in the witch’s brew on which the Trump crowd was drunk and disorderly. It was the totality of this concoction that softened up some of the cops.

Many white protesters have found themselves on the wrong, and occasionally lethal, side of law’s vengeance. From the time of the execution of the Haymarket martyrs of 1886 and before, whiteness has not bought class struggle militants of the Left a pass as they challenge the power of capital and the state. Militant working-class revolutionaries, such as the members of the Industrial Workers of the World — white, black, immigrant, Mexican-American, and of mixed ancestry such as Frank Little — were tarred and feathered, castrated, hung from bridge trestles, and run out of town.

Not all whites enjoy the privilege of their skin color when confronting police or the retribution of extra-legal posses and menacing night riders. Striking men and women aspiring to establish and sustain trade unions have been shot down by cops, punctuating the struggle for collective bargaining rights with blood. Left demonstrations, their ranks composed of a multiethnic, multiracial coalition of dissenters, have routinely been brutalized by police, as many veterans of the 1930s, the 1960s, and activists of more recent years well know.

Forgetting this formidable and ongoing history is something more than merely a reflection of the short and limiting memory of television newscasters and mainstream politicians, who generally have the historical attention span of a two-year-old. What it signifies is the capacity of a liberal mainstream to soapbox on the political terrain that it sees as respectable and justified, defending a politics of racial inclusion (which no leftist would oppose) that is nonetheless presented in ways that obliterates both the history of a left-wing politics of challenge and the state’s universally heavy-handed response to this.

The state and its considerable apparatus of repression responded to Trump’s supporters with an incoherence bred of ambivalence. Trump’s legions seemed to some in positions of power and to many rank-and-file Capitol police and others as sympatico with their generalized belief system, which of course contains unhealthy doses of racism as well as a melange of other reactionary ideological vices. The result was that a riot that could easily have been contained was not. This, too, serves specific interests.

Finding an Insurrection

It now suits a ruling order confronting a Trump who has clearly gone too far to designate January 6, 2021 an insurrection. Labelling the Capitol riot in this way makes it almost impossible for Trump to retain his hold on the entirety of the Republican Party, insures that there are amped up justifications for his displacement, and reinforces the likelihood that, his utility now exhausted, he can be marginalized, relegated to the chat rooms of the conspiracy-driven fringe right.

Trump, of course, may well rise again, Phoenix-like, from the detritus of conflagrations of his own making. He has done this before. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that his finest hour, if it can be described as such, has long passed. That said, we shouldn’t be spreading his ashes just yet.

The sad and tragic reality is that it is our ashes that are being scattered. Caught in the vice grip of a pandemic and a ravaged economy, impaled on racial divides that seem too enduring, too wide, and too fraught to breach, the political tea leaves can only be read with difficulty, lost as they are in the dark swirl of events. The landscape of the future, to the extent that it can be glimpsed at all, looks barren and bleak. For whatever Trump’s fate, Trumpism and worse is not going away.

President Donald Trump addresses a crowd at the Fayetteville Regional Airport on September 19, 2020 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Melissa (Sue Gerrits / Getty Images)

The rise of the organized extreme right, from groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys to the Traditionalist Worker Party, Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, shows no sign of abating. Trump has legitimized such ugliness, and the Capitol riot will only further embolden militarized expressions of American fascism, racism, antisemitism, and the most extreme right-wing embrace of capital’s ideology of acquisitive individualism.

To rely on the Democratic Party of Joe Biden to move us out of the current crisis is no less illusory than the irrational faith Trump’s legions of combatants place in their chief. It is likely to end in the same disappointment, disillusionment, and despair.

As for the mainstream embrace of security forces and counterterrorism as the guardians of stability, let us not forget that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), established in 1938 on the eve of World War II to investigate disloyalty, subversive activities, and organizations with ostensible fascist or communist ties, spent an obligatory, metaphorical few hours addressing the far right, and then trained its sights, for decades, on the Left.

The Smith Act of the early 1940s set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the US government, and Communist leader Earl Browder provided the prosecution of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ leaders and their Socialist Workers Party comrades with affidavits calling for the jailing of “a Trotskyite Fifth Column.” Less than a decade later, the Smith Act would be used to repeatedly bring to trial and sentence to jail over a hundred thirty communists, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Eugene Dennis, and Claudia Jones.

The FBI now tracking down as many of the Capitol rioters as it can identify has a long history of concentrating its fire power on the Left and giving the Right a pass. The Bureau had a less than exemplary record of taking on the White Citizens’ Council and Klan members, some of whom were cops, who terrorized and killed civil rights campaigners and Congress of Racial Equality Freedom Riders like Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1963–64.

J. Edgar Hoover was always more interested in Martin Luther King’s and Bayard Rustin’s sex lives, or Abbie Hoffman’s and David Dellinger’s so-called conspiracies, which the Bureau always linked to the ubiquitous threat of communism. This was more important than putting the likes of Byron De La Beckwith, well-known to have murdered Evers, in jail.

If the situation is now different in 2021, Trump has so hollowed out the “security and intelligence” apparatus of the state, which has been directed to concentrate its energies on foreign terrorists, that it remains to be seen just what will be done about right-wing extremists. A long history suggests that while the crisis of the moment dictates directing the state’s security resources and personnel toward the Right, this focus will, inevitably, shift back to the Left.

One thing only is certain. Unless there is a substantive organized left response to the contemporary impasse in bourgeois politics — decidedly lacking in our present conjuncture — nothing good can come of where we are now. January 6, 2021 has made this clear, at the same time as it has given liberal emissaries privileged ground on which to make their stand in defense of capitalism and its ostensibly democratic order.