In spite of the media’s pearl clutching over Wednesday’s events on Capitol Hill, let’s not forget that America began in a revolution. America’s Founders deliberately risked their “lives, fortune, and sacred honor” to make the United States a free and independent republic.
After the new nation was established, things alternated between long periods of stability which were punctuated by brief periods of political violence. The Civil War, the labor violence of the Robber Baron era, and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s stand out as notable examples. Each moment, in its own way, ushered in a new era. Each also was marked by talk of illegitimacy, revolution, and political violence.
Stolen Elections Remove a Government’s Legitimacy
It is clear that a lot of Republicans, and possibly President Trump himself, are mouthing the words “stolen election,” without fully appreciating their impact. For those who sincerely believe the November election was plagued with fraud, it means the government is wholly illegitimate. It is to be obeyed not out of the old respect for the Constitution and the “consent of the governed,” but only out of a prudent concern for self-preservation and a hopeful restoration of legal and democratic norms.
There has also been a lot of murmuring during the Trump years about a new civil war. While this is hard to fully accept, the events of January 6 give some more weight to the possibility.
A sizable cohort of the American Right believes the recent election was stolen, that the government has become loosened from democratic accountability in the form of the deep state, and that the courts have denied millions of Trump voters a proper forum in which to make their case for election fraud. These procedural irregularities have happened amid a long year of hostility to American norms in the name of fighting the coronavirus.
In theory, if ever there was a possible justification for political violence, the combination of bad and hostile governance and a stolen election would loom large.
Looking abroad, this was the basis of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Stolen elections have led to extended protests and violence in Venezuela and Iran. After many years of supporting a decrepit aristocracy, the French Revolution ushered in a long and bloody era of instability and violence, which was only arrested by the rise of Napoleon as emperor.
On Good and Bad Tactics
Is the brief occupation of the U.S. Capitol “bad optics?” Certainly in the short term. But there is no reason to believe any right-wing political activity that accomplishes anything will ever be given a fair shake in the “optics” department.
Remember, the Tea Party movement was also condemned as a collection of “terrorists,” and the lawfully elected President Trump was dismissed as illegitimate even before he took office. Excessive concern for optics is a fool’s errand.
But this does not justify wasteful and costly efforts. One problem with recent events is that they are the right-wing equivalent of the “guerilla theater” that the Left has employed since the 1960s. The reason this is a good tactic for the Left and a bad one for the Right is that the Left finds institutional support from the media, big business, and other institutions of power. Theatrical political violence does not work unless it finds such support.
We know the media and the establishment selectively condemn violence and political activity—even elections—based on their results and their goals. There’s a reason the brief occupation of the U.S. Capitol will be treated as something far worse than, say, the murder of five Dallas police officers in the name of Black Lives Matter.
One wonders what the plan was with these protests? It appears to be something like: get lots of people to D.C. . . . something, something . . . Trump gets elected?!? Congress will now go about its business and allow the Electoral College to select Biden. Questions about the election will now be intertwined with the actions of the cast of characters who stormed the U.S. Capitol. Trump worked his supporters into a frenzy and then sat back at the White House after promising to march with them. He (or possibly Vice President Pence) eventually called in the National Guard to go after his own supporters.
Violence, justified or not, is risky. Antifa at least has the good sense to wear masks. Right-wing protestors were taking selfies. One expects some of the exuberant protesters and trespassers will be given prison sentences. A young lady, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed. This is not a game—it’s serious business. But it’s being treated like street theater, even though, unlike the denizens of CHAZ in Seattle and the rioters in Minneapolis, everyone involved can expect the book to be thrown at them.
One gets the sense that all the BLM protests over the summer were designed to encourage some right-wing maniac to go on a shooting spree. Then that would be the story and the justification for repression and, retroactively, for the riots themselves. The Right, for the most part, steered clear. This was a wise choice.
If President Trump really believed that the election could be stolen, and if he really believed he had the law and right behind him to maintain his office by force, he should have organized the elements of national power at his disposal, including the military and even the militia, in advance of these events. He did not do so. He, and the Right generally, lack a robust, organized political apparatus, nor do they have significant instruments of organized power.
If the Trump Right is engaging in ways that are ineffective, the NeverTrump and establishment Republican Party is living in a fantasyland, whereby they can return to business as usual, focusing on tax cuts and the like. Those fantasies should have been dashed by the dual Senate election defeats in Georgia.
In the near term, a useful focus of right-wing activism would be election integrity and possibly the creation of a new party. Trump could do something useful in the next four years if he threw his prestige and resources behind this.
Action and activism require planning, logistics, a chain of command, and communications. The January 6 protests were an expression of rage and frustration—mostly peaceful, as the media likes to say, and in almost all respects understandable. They also expressed the disorganized and chaotic nature of the political Right. These protests were in no sense a well-considered means of achieving the desired result. Ultimately, as I have written elsewhere, we must change “our lifestyles and efforts in ways that achieve maximum personal independence, mutual support, and tangible results.”
The January 6 Capitol Hill protest was, in the words of Talleyrand, “worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”