Outrage over Trump’s failed insurrection at Capitol Hill even as the United States glosses over its own history of inciting coups worldwide

Print edition : January 29, 2021

President Donald Trump at a rally near the White House on January 6. He asked his supporters to march to the Capitol to protest against the U.S.’ ratification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

After clashing with police and security forces, hundreds of Trump supporters invaded the inauguration platform at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6. The demonstrators then went on to breach security and enter the Capitol building as Congress was debating the certification of the presidential election. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

A Trump supporter inside the office of Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Speaker of the House. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

There is high-minded outrage at what happened in Washington, D.C., but no self-awareness that this kind of insurrection is precisely what the United States instigates outside its borders.

They announced that they would be in Washington, D.C., on January 6. This had been made clear months beforehand. They said that they were coming because the Democratic Party had stolen the United States presidential election of 2020 from their President Donald Trump. They carried large signs that said: “Trump Is Our President.” The U.S. Congress was slated to ratify the results of the 2020 election, which, by all accounts, Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, had won. Appetite to overturn the mandate seemed to have fizzled out inside the Republican Party, whose leadership has now come to terms with its defeat. But Trump’s army refused to accept the reality. They said that they would descend on the U.S. Capitol, the building where the legislature meets, and they would not allow it to deliver the election to Biden.

Two days before the melee, Muriel Bowser, Washington, D.C.’s Mayor, who has openly shown her disdain for Trump, asked for a limited National Guard presence alongside the D.C. police. She asked residents to avoid the area around the Capitol since she said that Trump’s army would be “looking for a fight”. D.C. acting police Chief Robert Contee said: “There are people intent on coming to our city armed.” There was no extra security apparent and little evidence of any blockades to stop Trump’s army from advancing towards the Capitol; roads were not sealed off, nor were water cannons and noise blasters that are within sight of other protests at the ready. At her press conference, Muriel Bowser had said: “We will not allow people to incite violence, intimidate our residents or cause destruction in our city.” With insufficient police presence, there was no indication of how the city would “not allow” this violence.
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Trump’s army marched into the city and into the Capitol, which they then ransacked after the mildest police attempt to stop them from entering the legislature. It appeared as if the police had been instructed to simply let them in and do what they wanted to do; there was none of the brutality that one typically sees even when non-violent protesters such as CodePink activists try to make their views heard in congressional hearings. Hidden behind their riot gear, fully armed with truncheons and guns, the police made a show of defence and then opened the barricades to the horde. These men and women—some wearing the black and yellow colours of the openly fascistic Proud Boys—proceeded into the legislature, intimidated elected officials and their staff, and created mayhem for several hours before they were escorted, but not arrested, from the premises. It was a holiday outing for Trump’s army.

In denial

Long before the November 2020 presidential election, Trump began to say that the Democrats would conduct widespread fraud and steal the vote. This has been a signature theme of the hard Right globally, a mechanism to whip up anti-institutional sentiment amongst people who feel disconnected from the systems that govern them. The mass base of this kind of hard Right politics is comprised of those of money, those with access to money, and those whose impoverishment is enriched by deep wells of discontent directed towards social minorities, the oppressed and the Left (one of Trump’s soldiers at the takeover of the Capitol held a poster with an image of a decapitated Karl Marx). Trump, like other hard Right politicians, shows open disdain for the traditions of the system, including for the electoral process.

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In early September 2020, Trump went to Winston-Salem (North Carolina) and warned that the Democrats would steal the election. This was one of his many such speeches. “Gotta be careful with those ballots. Watch those ballots. I don’t like them….Watch it. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.” This attitude, which started as the mail-in ballots showed high levels of participation (a trend that favours Democrats), continued right up to election day and then afterwards. Trump refused to accept the results as they came in and delegated his loyalists to challenge them in the States (particularly in Pennsylvania).

Over the course of the past two months, Trump has taken to Twitter and to mass rallies to indicate his dissatisfaction with the result and to say that he would fight it right until the ratification by Congress and until inauguration day, January 20. In November 2020, about 15,000 people gathered near the White House; Trump drove by them and waved from his limousine. The next month, a smaller group of Trump’s army—but with a harder set, including the Proud Boys—took over the National Mall; Trump flew over them in his helicopter. He egged them on with his statements about fraud and the need to challenge the institutions at all costs. Trump’s lawsuits against the election results only served to rile up his army more, with erosion of trust in the system general amongst these ranks. It did not matter to them one jot that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said, on November 12, that there was “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised”.

Trump’s team of lawyers led by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani accused the financier George Soros, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (who died in 2013) and the Communist Party of China of having tampered with the election. In 2016, the Democratic Party accused Trump of being in cahoots with the Russian government and WikiLeaks to fix the election result; the Democrats even tried to have Trump impeached for so-called “Russian interference”. The bizarre accusations then and the bizarre accusations now together—from both sides of the political aisle—eroded basic confidence in the electoral system. Democrats believed that the 2016 election was stolen, while large numbers of Republicans believe that the 2020 election has been stolen. The facts are irrelevant; the sentiment is everything. This extreme polarisation is the real lesson here, not the integrity of the election process itself.

Neo-fascist violence

It is hard to forget that the election being certified was not, after all, won by a total landslide. Biden won 81 million votes, or 51.3 per cent of the popular vote, while Trump won 74 million votes, or 46.9 per cent. Owing to the peculiarities of the U.S. system, Biden won 306 electoral college votes to Trump’s 232. In this regard, the election was “not even close”, as Republican leader Mitch McConnell said. The Electoral College was set up as a mechanism to undermine radical democracy and to maintain the disenfranchisement of people of African descent who had been enslaved. This horrendous past of the Electoral College should have led to its being reformed, but a religious attitude to the U.S. Constitution has prevented any real change in the system. It is for this reason that even in a relatively close election, the margin of victory in the Electoral College can be great.

Also read: Imperfect relief for Americans as Joe Biden wins the presidential election

Fanatic attachment to Trump

No one contests the fact that Trump won 74 million votes. Many of those who voted for him have a fanatic attachment to his person, to the kind of attitude Trump shows to the institutions of the U.S. and to his casual racism and sexism. One section of these followers, who comprise the most militant of Trump’s army, are the Proud Boys. They are a neo-fascist militia formed in 2016 to defend the rights of men and of whites, fused together in a curious amalgam of resentment and arrogance, held together by testosterone and the desire to use violence to force their aims. Their enemy is familiar: communism, feminism, multiculturalism, anti-racism, Black Lives Matter, and so on. They would like to live in a muscular world of racist hierarchy and gender segregation, the kind of world familiar to neo-fascists globally.

The night before the melee on Washington, Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, was arrested in Washington for burning a Black Lives Matter banner that belonged to a black church. He had in his possession two high-capacity firearm magazines. Nearby, his Proud Boys, and their cognates, went on a rampage, attacking the police and bystanders. City officials said that eight police officers were hurt and four people were stabbed. The lack of serious attention to that violence—just the night before the attack on the Capitol—shows the state’s lackadaisical attitude towards these neo-fascists.

During the presidential debate on September 29, 2020, Biden asked Trump to condemn “white supremacists and militia groups”, specifically mentioning the Proud Boys. Trump’s reply is instructive and important. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the Left because this is not a right-wing problem.” That phrase—stand back and stand by—became a motto of the Proud Boys. It was taken to mean that the Proud Boys, as the shock troops of Trump’s army, must prepare and get ready for action. It is the slogan of their violence in Washington.

Institutional rot

Trump called the Secretary of State for Georgia to change the vote counts from that State; he instructed Vice President Mike Pence to block the count in the chamber. None of this worked. The establishment began to coalesce around the idea that a smooth transition was necessary. Pence, who was loyal to Trump until January 6, released a statement that said: “My oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral vote should be counted and which should not.” Republicans one after the other came to the view that the transition must take place even as news came from Georgia that the Republican Party would likely lose control of the U.S. Senate.

Trump did what Trump does, which is to complain that he is being betrayed by his associates (including his former Attorney General William Barr) and by those who he appointed to the Supreme Court. There is a touch of megalomania in his statements, the sense that he had the power to lift these people from obscurity and now they have betrayed him when he needed them. His associates are “ungrateful” and they “don’t give a damn”; such is his attitude towards those around him that the whiff of failure and gunpowder is filling the White House.

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Biden’s statement was that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was a great violation of the principles of the U.S. News came just short of the attack that Biden would likely bring Victoria Nuland into his administration. When she was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in the Barack Obama-Biden administration, she participated in the U.S. interference in Ukrainian affairs. At that time, the cognates of the U.S. Proud Boys had pushed an agenda to overthrow the government of Ukraine and pressure nearby Russia into a confrontation. What Victoria Nuland did in Ukraine is what the U.S., including under Biden’s watch alongside Obama, did to a host of countries (including China, namely, Hong Kong, and Venezuela). They encouraged neo-fascist mobs to overrun legislatures and undermine the institutions of the country. Biden’s administration has said that it would continue to use this policy instrument against those that the U.S. sees as its adversaries.

There is high-minded outrage at what happened in Washington, D.C., but no self-awareness that this kind of insurrection is precisely what the U.S. instigates outside its borders. As Malcolm X said decades ago: “The chickens come home to roost.”

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