Make no mistake about the storming of the US Capitol Building; much like the Charlottesville riots of 2017, this was a practice run for the growing far-right.
The events of January 6th 2021 were almost impossible to ignore. Thousands of supporters of the sitting president of the United States of America gathered in cities across the nation to protest his loss in the 2020 presidential election. The events in Washington D.C. were the real focus, however. At the heart of the self-proclaimed global leaders of democracy and freedom, armed fascists rushed into the legislative branch of the US government, some making it as far as entering the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. All those present in the building were urged to “seek cover” from the intruders, whilst some sought to protect electoral college ballots, in fear that the mob would have destroyed them given the opportunity. The police were notably ineffectual, one caught on camera taking a selfie with a rioter. Many noted the difference in police response between BLM protests and an anti-democracy invasions of government buildings, rightly pointing out how institutional police racism has played out in crystal clear fashion. Without doubt, this was a dark day for American democracy after a year dogged by spurious allegations of election fraud, but few expected something as bluntly outrageous as this, which begs the question: where did this all come from?
There are two answers to this question, one quite obvious, and the other a little more complex. It is plain to see that months of Trump and his acolytes casting doubt on the veracity of the election results led us to this point, whipping up his most dedicated supporters into a QANON conspiracy-fuelled frenzy. The far-right core of the days events were self-evident. Many present displayed other far-right iconography, such as the ‘thin blue line’ flag, a white supremacist, pro-police reinterpretation of the US flag popularised in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, whilst pro-Trump flags were impossible to miss. Trump’s incessant calls on his supporters to “fight” would suggest that this is a top-down reaction, one inspired and abetted by right-wing media and authority figures, met by a groundswell of radicalised and discontented rioters. This goes beyond Trump, however. Any assumption that his leaving office will slow this movement down misses completely the lessons of the last five years.
One attendee, fleeing from the Captiol building having been sprayed with mace by police, claimed “It’s a revolution”, which has two layers of significance. On the surface, it is a tacit admission that this was no simple protest, but a concerted, if utterly botched effort to overthrow the government, but this much was obvious.
Beneath this slightly absurd claim lies a more insidious indication. Trump and the American right have galvanised something beyond their control, something that will likely be able to sustain itself, regroup and come back stronger. The US now has an active, violent fascist movement, and not one content with play-acting their revolutionary fantasy through protesting the removal of confederate monuments. Be they Boogaloos, Proud Boys, or part of the increasingly popular Blue Lives Matter movement, this largely decentralised network of fascists is growing bolder and more explicit in its aims, and if we fail to take it seriously, this pattern will continue.
Instead, CNBC called them ‘anarchists’, a distinct failure to diagnose the most basic fact about the storming of the capital: that the perpetrators were right wing. This isn’t an issue of splitting hairs over a misplaced word, either. Instead, it demonstrates the mainstream media’s alarming political illiteracy, and inability to properly report far-right violence, echoed by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who called the invasion of the Capitol a ‘scuffle’. This is in contrast to the discovery that many attendees were in possession of molotov cocktails, pipe bombs and other weapons.
By underplaying the destructive reality of the riot, and labelling fascists as left-wing-associated ‘anarchists’, the media risk creating a grey area that can be further exploited by the right. This failure to simply name the events of the 6th for what they were – a fascist coup attempt – allows the far right to run with the ‘anarchist’ misnomer, blaming the violence on others, and manipulating ambiguity to cast doubt over their own actions.
We’ve seen this happen before at the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally in August 2017. Violent, overt fascism was spun by political figureheads, rationalising the actions of the far right, whilst claiming the left was equally responsible. Many of the Unite the Right organisers fell away from the public eye, distanced themselves from the riot, but continued to support the general movement, such as Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Many assumed that the abject humiliation and horror of Charlottesville would expose the alt-right as a toxic neo-Nazi cesspit, and cause it to be promptly dropped by the mainstream right. Instead, just three years after the protest which saw an attendee kill 1 and injure 19 counter protesters, the fascist right have reorganised, consolidated mainstream support, and gone for a bigger target. Unless real, concrete action is taken to stamp out the forces that drove the events of January 6th, we may well see another incident of similar scale sooner rather than later.
It is important to emphasise that many of those that attended the protest in Washington D.C. are not irredeemable political outcasts that need to be locked up and have the key thrown away. The far right prays on the disenfranchised and dejected elements of society, luring them in with meticulously crafted propaganda, and their supporters end up where they are due to a litany of economic and social pressures. Fascist organisers speak to those left behind by a society which has overseen jobs sent abroad, wages stagnate, and the rich grow extortionately more wealthy whilst nothing trickles down to those at the bottom, blaming these things on foreigners, immigrants, and Jewish people. We cannot blindly blame people for falling for propaganda designed explicitly to play on their insecurities, handing them a convenient yet plainly incorrect list of groups to blame for their economic abandonment. This isn’t just about not tolerating fascism, and stamping it out in whatever form it rears its head in, but also remedying these root issues: inequality, social alienation and poor education, all of which provide fertile ground for fascist recruitment.
The most important takeaway from all of this, however, is that this is not a freak outburst, an oddity to be forgotten when Biden assumes office. The far-right has failed before, but this was a single battle, not a war that will be ended by Trump leaving office. Fascism is especially adept at regrouping, reorganising, rebranding and coming back with new tactics and catchphrases. Biden’s appeals to ‘national healing’ without concrete policy commitments mean nothing in the face of what the US is dealing with. No concessions on immigration, no centrist bashing of ‘cancel culture’ or tone-policing of Black Lives Matter will put the lid back on Pandora’s box. You cannot beat the far-right by conceding to its talking points, nor can you assume it’ll just go away. Trump was not the first, and he will not be the last, and no doubt there will be a number of candidates for the Republican presidential nominee seeking to run on Trump’s legacy in 2024. We need to learn, adapt, and most importantly remain incredibly vigilant – the next riot may not be so easily put down, the next election not so simple to win. The next targets of violence and unrest may not be politicians in the capital city, but vulnerable minorities in localised outbursts.
This was just a practice run. We’d do well to keep that in mind going forward.