By Nicholas Toloudis
Editor's note: Nicholas Toloudis is a political science professor at the College of New Jersey who holds master’s degrees and a doctorate from Columbia University. He is also the author of the book “Teaching Marianne and Uncle Sam: Public Education, State Centralization, and Teacher Unionism in France and the United States.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Jan. 6, 2021, a partisan mob forced its way into a political chamber held sacred by millions who value constitutional democracy. The fallout from this grievous act of political vandalism has evoked an outpouring of anger, sorrow, and recrimination. As we learn more about who participated in the insurrection, the scale of the violence done to people and property, and how close the country came to a mass slaughter of our elected officials, the more horrifying the events of that day now seem. It was terrible…and it could have been even worse.
The mob violence of that day was the consequence of several factors coming together. First, a cowardly, racist, and incompetent chief executive called for his supporters to march on the Capitol the day that Congress met to certify the electoral college vote. For months, the president of the United States had sought to cast doubt on the integrity of the 2020 election results, through tweets, speeches, and lawsuits. Long-established social networks and white supremacist organizations facilitated the mobilization of thousands of Trump supporters to be on hand, to heed the president’s call.
Many of those supporters broadcast their white supremacist bonda fides on their clothing, on their flags, or on their bodies. Meanwhile, law enforcement’s response could scarcely have been more disheartening. Neither DC nor Capitol police demonstrated sufficient preparedness, particularly given how many signals of the troubles to come had existed. To make matters worse, some police officers actively facilitated the mob, posing for selfies with insurrectionists, giving others directions to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office, and otherwise providing encouragement. The National Guard, having been given a narrowly defined and procedurally insufficient mandate to address the situation, was slow to respond to the unfolding events. The combination of these circumstances produced last week’s disaster.
What does it all mean? We can begin by isolating three responses to the debacle that have appeared in the press and on the tongues of politicians that do not hold up to scrutiny: first, that what happened on Jan. 6 is an anomaly unrepresentative of the United States; second, that these protesters represented the voices of the voiceless citizens, angry about voter fraud; and third, that these events lend credence to the claim that fascist politics are in ascendance.
To suggest that “this is not us” is to imply that reactionary racist violence, encouraged by political officeholders, has no history in the United States. But it does. When a dozen senators, led by Ted Cruz, invoked the 1877 Compromise to justify the appointment of an election commission to “audit…the election returns in disputed states,” they tell on themselves. That Compromise brought an end to Reconstruction and the removal of Union soldiers from the South after the Civil War, inaugurating the Jim Crow era. For the next eighty years, lynch-mob terror and the oppressions and indignities of Jim Crow enforced white supremacy in American politics and society.
To suggest that the infiltrators of the Capitol building are good Americans, frustrated with electoral irregularities, who simply got carried away—or whose righteous battle was derailed by some bad apples—is to lend tacit support to conspiratorial fear-mongering. There is no evidence of voter fraud, and the invocation of fraud to disenfranchise Black Americans has a long history. Meanwhile, voter suppression of Black Americans has a comparably long history, and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act has opened the door to its intensification. There is no evidence that any of the “Stop the Steal” participants concern themselves with such matters. Indeed, the brandishing of the Confederate Flag in the Capitol provides of evidence of a very different mindset.
Finally, to suggest that the events of Jan. 6 constitute evidence of fascist triumphalism is to lend more gravitas to the president’s bungling than the evidence warrants. The same president that encouraged the insurrection did not show up to lead his followers, as he told them he would, but instead vacated the premises and told them to peacefully remove themselves from the scene. "You're very special,” he told them. “I know how you feel." These are the words of a parent to a child, not a fascist ruler to his followers.
Then, on the evening of the 7th, he abandoned them altogether, publicly accepting the election results for the first time. If fascist politics is about the “triumph of the will,” what we saw on the 6th and 7th is evidence of defeat. More defeats followed. In the week since, many of Trump’s cabinet members resigned, ten GOP House members have voted to impeach him for a second time, he’s been banned from Twitter, and Republican Party donors are pledging to withdraw funds from GOPers that do not cut off their connections to him. If the word “fascist” truly characterizes Trump, as some commentators have claimed, then it must come with important qualifiers: disorganized, weak-spirited, cowardly, and incompetent.
If these three claims do not hold up under scrutiny, what claims do? We should be clear that enormous damage was done to American democracy on Jan. 6, 2021, that the insurrection constitutes a clear manifestation of white supremacy’s durability, and that Trump’s encouragement of anti-democratic racists has made the US a more dangerous place for non-White Americans to live.
While political scientists disagree about certain facets of democracy, there is general agreement that collective violence perpetrated by one group of citizens against another is an impediment to it. Physically attacking a core decision-making institution, for the purpose of preventing elected officials from carrying out a transition of power, is about as clear an attack on democracy as there can be. The fewer the consequences perpetrators face, the greater the damage done. The enormous failure of law enforcement to prevent the Capitol from being invaded by the “Wild Protesters” underpins the racist foundations of public order in the United States.
The Capitol building has been the site of protests over the murder of George Floyd, environmental sustainability, disability rights, and more since Trump came to power and, in each case, some segment of protesters were arrested. That the FBI is only now making substantial arrests of Stop the Steal insurrectionists is cold comfort. The insurrection fueled an already-pronounced lack of trust in our public institutions. Finally, the willingness of one of the two major American political parties to turn a blind eye—or even excuse—acts of violence committed in defense of the party’s leader signal dysfunction. In a two-party system, it is imperative that both parties be committed to respecting the results of fairly fought electoral contests. The Republican Party has signaled that it has abandoned that commitment, and its on-line supporters have gone even further in their collective decision to physically harm those who disagree with them.
White supremacy is perhaps the most enduring power structure in the United States. Political scientists have explored the racist underpinnings of the welfare state, the war on drugs, the politics of public education, and suffrage expansion, among other things. The preponderance of scholarship has shown the way these endeavors have disempowered racial minorities, exacerbated durable inequalities, and otherwise demonstrated the pervasiveness of white privilege. Scholars of protest policing, meanwhile, have explored the phenomenon of “protesting while black,” wherein Black Americans are more likely to attract police presence—who are in turn more likely to make arrests and exert violence—than White Americans. The insurrection has also demonstrated the pervasive truth that White Americans have greater leeway to leverage their own anger for public political action than Black Americans.
We might synthesize these claims in the following way: the events of Jan. 6 constitute resistance against democratization. America’s commitment to institutionalized autocracy only ended about half a century ago. The losers of the democratization battles of the 1960s and 1970s—the same constituency that first propelled Richard Nixon to power, then Ronald Reagan—demanded recognition, which Trump gave to them. In so doing, he proved himself incapable of governing a country, failed to overcome the divisions of the party that backed him, and did enormous damage to the United States. The last four years, up to and including the events of Jan. 6 and 7 demonstrate that democratization is a process that ebbs and flows. It is non-linear and always reversible. Political scientists have been writing for decades about different manifestations of de-democratization—breakdown, hollowing out, backsliding—not only in the more recently democratized countries of Latin American and Eastern Europe, but in the so-called “advanced industrialized democracies” as well. The US is not insulated from these developments.
Whether recent events betoken a long-term slide further away from democracy and toward autocracy depends on many factors, one of which is us. However necessary free and fair elections are for democracy to function, they are insufficient for it to exist. They are insufficient precisely because they cannot adjudicate between contested understandings of who we are. The images of a white mob pushing its way into the Capitol drive home how profoundly those competing claims impact the willingness of some Americans to accept the results of elections, which inescapably involve winners and losers. This is not to suggest that privileged racist bigots should in any way be appeased; their losses are America’s gain. Rather, it suggests the need for a recommitment to veracity and truth-telling in public discourse, whether on-line, in print, or in person. Such a recommitment will not solve all our problems. But it might facilitate the long-term process of rebuilding public trust, in our government and in each other. Without such trust, democracy will remain enfeebled and under threat.