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A Year After the Capitol Riot, Nothing Useful Has Been Done

After the January 6 violence at the Capitol, Americans got a bigger national security state. What they didn’t get was solutions to any of the underlying forces that helped bolster right-wing extremism.

Pro-Trump protesters gather outside the US Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

It’s been a year since the Capitol riot, when Donald Trump supporters, whipped into a frenzy, ransacked governmental buildings, led directly to several deaths, and caused millions to worry about the future of American democracy. And in that entire year very little has been done to put American democracy on firmer footing.

As when we talk about any crime, from a neighborhood shooting to a terrorist attack, trying to understand the various, swirling factors that lead people to make bad decisions doesn’t justify their actions. But it is telling how few mainstream commentators seem interested in what drew Trump’s base toward extremism and how that trend can be undercut, as opposed to just condemned.

The Trumpers were hardly the most economically squeezed people in the country. But it’s significant, for example, as the Washington Post reported shortly after the incident, that nearly two-thirds of those arrested for taking part in the riot had histories of financial troubles, from bankruptcies and unpaid taxes to evictions and foreclosures. It’s significant that, as University of Chicago researchers found, the vast, vast majority of those arrested were unaffiliated with right-wing militias, were older, and told authorities and journalists they were simply following their president. It’s significant that, as even the liberal news outlets most bullish on the coup narrative reported, they believed in a host of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories before they got to Trump’s election fraud lie, and that they genuinely believed the nonsense spouted by their president, in whom they invested an overwhelmingly loyalty.

It’s significant that this foundational piece of disinformation about election fraud was, as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center determined, “largely led by political elites and the mass media,” meaning corporate-controlled cable and local news outlets. It’s significant that the spread of that lie, the rally that led to the breach, and the politicians who worked to overturn the election result, were all financed by oligarch money.

It’s significant that former and even active-duty military and law enforcement were an important cohort among those who attended. And it’s significant that, based on what we know now, the actual plan to overturn the election didn’t involve an armed takeover by a band of yahoos, but elected, sometimes long-serving Republicans exploiting the arcane legal intricacies of the US political system to prevent an orderly transfer of power, similar to how they had done back in 2000.

We Didn’t Fix It

A year on, there’s been no attempt to address almost any of this. Democrats and corporate liberals have destroyed a right-wing social media competitor and banned Trump and others from tech platforms, but done nothing about the role of corporate television news. The closest has been some idle talk about getting Fox and Newsmax dropped from cable providers, but anything concrete to address the issue looks dead in the water, since — to avoid being simply a partisan move to silence a competing faction’s own corporate loudspeaker — any serious effort would require taking on the corporatized news industry across the political spectrum.

At least some of the cops who were involved in the riot have been arrested and charged, but there’s been no investigation of or measures to rein in law enforcement’s infiltration of and collusion with the Far Right, even though we know for a fact both are extensive. In fact, it was in the wake of January 6 that we learned that the leader of the Proud Boys was a longtime police informant, and more information about such collusion has popped up. No matter. Like much of Joe Biden’s agenda, the president and his party simply quietly stopped talking the paltry police reform they’d promised, and have instead funneled more money and resources to the police to help them fight terrorism — however they define that.

Apart from more threats of investigation, impeachment, expulsion, and prosecution, the elite Republicans who were doing the actual work of trying to overturn the election are unscathed. In fact, their efforts have only advanced, as they pass laws and maneuver loyalists in place around the country to do it again in two years, this time properly.

The big companies that pledged to stop funding these “insurrectionists” have reopened the money tap now that the cameras have stopped rolling. They can do so, because neither Congress nor the president has even bothered to attempt to curb the poisonous influence on money in the US political system, nor was that ever on the table. How could it be, when both parties rely on the very same system of corruption for their own political success?

Meanwhile, despite what seemed like a promising start, Biden and the Democrats have left untouched the deeply exploitative and unfair political economy that’s reigned for decades, and which the great mass voters have been rebelling against in various ways for the past decade and a half at least. The minimum wage is still nowhere near $15, the superrich still barely pay taxes, health care is still a dysfunctional mess, and the average American is still crushed under a phalanx of ruthless creditors. While worker militancy is growing, aided by the unique conditions of the pandemic and the expired forms of government support Biden can’t or refuses to extend, the precarious financial picture hasn’t fundamentally changed for most Americans.

What we’ve gotten instead is the one thing — the only thing — that the Washington establishment and, depressingly, many rank-and-file liberals clearly still believe the country is capable of doing: ramping up the national security state. In response to the Capitol riot, the Capitol police have become a national, un-FOIABLE anti-terrorism squad, the FBI has doubled the number of its domestic counterterror agents (and consequently, its domestic terrorism caseload), an explosion of anti-protest laws, and there’s talk of more security state expansion to come. All this, even though none of it would have prevented either the breach of the Capitol (which happened despite copious foreknowledge of what was going to happen among authorities) or the GOP’s attempts to prevent the certification of the election in Congress.

Try and find a clearer example of modern liberalism’s haplessness and inability to respond to structural crises, or its anti-populist strain in action. All the underlying issues that led to January 6 have been left to keep festering, and low-level, rank-and-file Capitol rioters who were accused of little more than trespassing in a government building have been severely dealt with (it would be no good, after all, if failing to punish them ended up inspiring a mass protest that wasnt centered on bullshit, like universal health care, poverty, or climate change). Meanwhile, the politicians and entities that quite consciously manipulated them have faced next to no consequences or constraints in their power, all just in time for round two in 2024.

For all of Biden’s warmed over platitudes about never counting America out and the like, the last year’s worth of responses to the Capitol riot have embodied not just the continuing decline of liberalism, but the wheezing death of any ambition it had left. Many have pushed hard to turn January 6, an event where all but one of the five people who died on the day were the actual “terrorists,” into a second 9/11, a tacit admission that the horizon of political possibility is now purely limited to more arrests, more jails, more cops, more bureaucrats snooping through your private things.

By contrast, even as an event magnitudes deadlier and more impactful than 9/11 — the pandemic — was happening at the same time, the army of Democrat-aligned politicians, lobbyists, and media figures has been unable to translate more than eight hundred thousand deaths into even piecemeal reforms to a health system on the brink, let alone a “war on terror”–style government expansion and reorientation of national priorities centered on health. The latter isn’t even an option any of them can imagine.

Whether it comes in the form of another riot of deluded Trump supporters, another GOP effort to institutionalize election theft, or both, another January 6 is entirely in the cards, since substantially nothing has been done about the structural factors that made it possible. It’s much easier to throw a few boors in jail and call it a day, after all.