Why the storming of the Capitol is just the beginning

The events of January 6, more than a last-minute attempt to save the Trump presidency, signal the beginning of a violent and turbulent period in US history.

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The shocking events did not come out of the blue. Weeks before, Trump had made an appeal to his supporters in a series of tweets to come and demonstrate on January 6. In one of those tweets not much was left to the imagination: “Be there, will be wild!”


By the end of December, it was already clear that radical supporters were planning a large and violent protest to prevent the certification of Joe Biden's election victory. The armed, neo-fascist group Proud Boys booked hotels in Washington weeks in advance. In encrypted forums there was talk of arms smuggling and the setting up of an “armed encampment”. Many of the rioters appear to have links or to be members of far-right militias. Among those arrested was a retired Air Force lieutenant.


An hour and a half before storming the Capitol, Trump incited his supporters via twitter: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.” At a protest rally that day in Washington, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani called on the crowd to settle the election dispute by “trial by combat”.


In retrospect, it is surprising that there were not many more rioters. This uprising is the culmination of four years of escalating far-right violence, ranging from torch-bearing marchers in Charlottesville, chanting against blacks and Jews, heavily armed militias demonstrating against the lockdown, to plans to kidnap and possibly kill the Michigan Governor.


It is estimated that today there are hundreds of paramilitary groups in the US. Some are heavily armed. Together they number an estimated 50,000 members. Experts mark a troubling shift from displaying weapons to showing a willingness to use them.


Last summer there were nearly 500 incidents of intimidation or violence by armed civilians. White supremacists and other right-wing extremists were responsible for two-thirds of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots in 2020. At least half of that violence was directed against protesters. It is reminiscent of the fascist thugs in the 1930s.


Remarkable police action


That the rioters were able to get into these heavily guarded buildings is most remarkable. First of all, these buildings should have been more heavily guarded. Past demonstrations show that taking the Capitol is next to impossible. The tame police action contrasts with previous demonstrations near the Capitol. Edward Luce of the Financial Times is blunt: “Had African American protesters tried to storm Capitol Hill, or the White House, there can be little doubt that bullets would have been used.”


The Trump supporters encountered little resistance from the security agents. Apparently, they could count on their sympathy. Some officers were spotted letting rioters through the barriers of the Capitol. Others even happily posed together for a selfie with Trump supporters. It is known that at least a quarter of far-right militias in the US consists of active or former military and police officers.


The security services were perfectly aware in advance that there would possibly be serious riots. For example, the parliamentarians present were well briefed beforehand about the threat and were advised to have overnight bags.


In total, barely 26 people were arrested in the buildings afterwards, while another 43 people were arrested outside. In a peaceful demonstration in 2018 at the same location, 600 people were arrested. They were left-wing protesters.


Republican support


With his incitement and support for the insurgents, Trump was not alone. Even after storming Congress, about 70 per cent of Republicans in the House of Representatives and a quarter in the Senate refused to certify at least parts of the election result.


Lauren Boebert, a Republican MP shouted during the session: “I have constituents outside this building right now - I promised to be their voice”. In recent days, she was seen in a video of herself carrying a Glock pistol around Washington.

Ivanka Trump, Trump's eldest daughter, described the rioters as “patriots”. Quite a few Republican leaders condemned the attack but did not blame Trump. Nearly half of the Republican supporters are behind the invasion of the Capitol.


The breeding ground


Despite his vulgarity, total incompetence and disastrous policies on the coronavirus, Trump can count on a very large following. In the last presidential election, he had 74 million voters behind him, the second highest number in US history. There are several reasons for this.


Since the 1970s, the US has experienced a relative economic decline. From the 1990s, this was accompanied by a de-industrialization of entire regions of the country. Together with anti-social austerity policies, this has translated into far-reaching social degradation.


Today 58 percent of citizens live from paycheck to paycheck. Often one has to take on two to three jobs to avoid ending up in poverty. Over the last 40 years, the median wage of white unskilled workers has fallen by more than 20 percent, a decrease that was particularly sharp after the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, the mortality rate of the white adult population rose. The gap between rich and poor kept widening. Nowhere in the Western world is that gap as wide as in the US. The 0.1 percent very wealthy people possess as much wealth as the 90 percent at the bottom.


The social fabric weakened along with the social decline. Civil society organizations, religious institutions and trade unions saw their membership numbers shrink significantly. In 1970, 27 percent of employees were still unionized, today there are no more than 10 percent. Society has become atomized and is vulnerable. On the political front, a lot of people could no longer count on the Democratic party. Just like the centrist and social democratic parties in Europe, the party was the driving force behind neoliberal policies under Clinton and Obama. The Democrats hardly took into account the many grievances of large sections of the (white) voters.


The social base on which Trump relies primarily groups low-educated people, mainly from the white population. But his far-right and ultra-nationalist ideology also attracts segments from the middle and upper classes.


Exploiting fear and anger


A dangerous social and political vacuum has developed. Many people feel ignored and excluded by those who hold political and economic power. They also see the world as a threatening and hostile place.


Trump cleverly plays on the distrust for the establishment by presenting himself as an outsider. Coming from the upper echelons of society, he presents himself as anti-establishment and rails against the political caste, the media, scientists and intellectuals. His tough and vulgar language fits in perfectly with that.


Like other far-right leaders in other countries, Trump is particularly adept at exploiting the fear and anger of broad sections of the population. He uses a toxic discourse that combines national chauvinism with hostility towards migrants and minorities. He condemns intellectuals and experts as traitors to the people. This strikes a chord with people who feel excluded. He also makes people feel like he is listening to their grievances and like he takes care of them, unlike other political leaders.


In uncertain times, people look for simple answers and a strong leader. Trump's authoritarian and far-right views are resonating with a radicalized constituency. In 2017, about a quarter of the population thought that a military takeover would be justified if there was widespread corruption or crime. The large electoral support Trump can count on is boosting far-right paramilitary groups and makes them bolder.


Support from the establishment


At the start of his term, Trump could count on the support of the vast majority of the economic elite thanks to a significant tax cut. His trade wars, fickle policies and ties to the far right eroded that support. His anti-immigration policy was not supported by a lot of employers. Still, Trump could rely on capitalists from sectors such as energy, agribusiness, transportation and construction.


The capitalist class prefers to choose willing and predictable political leaders. But if there is no alternative, it does not hesitate to offer a lifeline to the most brutal or incalculable buffoon, as long as its interests are defended. This is what the history of 20th century fascism and Third World dictatorships teaches us.


Media and social media are increasingly decisive in elections. According to Berkman Klein Center, the 2020 presidential election was an elite-driven mass-media led process. As in 2016, Trump could count on a lot of support from the media. Rupert Murdoch, the powerful media tycoon who owns, among other things, the most popular TV channel Fox, played an important role in Trump's election victory in 2016. He remained very loyal to the president until his election defeat. The systematic disinformation campaign that Trump launched during the election was adopted and reinforced by many traditional media outlets.


The influence of social media is even greater. Digital propaganda was the secret behind Donald Trump's first election victory, as well as that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. On Twitter, Trump had 89 million followers, on Facebook 35 million. Even now that he has been thrown off twitter, he can continue to spread his message on supposedly alternative platforms or sites, such as Gab, Telegram, TheDonald.win, Quillette, Spiked, etc. These are often sponsored by wealthy sponsors. It is such ‘social’ media that normalize racism and help spread far-right ideology widely, including in our own regions.


Lasting legacy


During his tenure, Trump has managed to build a solid social base. In the last election, he had 47 per cent of the electorate behind him and after his defeat, 90 per cent of Republicans continued to support him. He will continue to be able to count on a very powerful propaganda machine, both through the media and through the (alternative) social media. He has also appointed many conservative judges and turned the Supreme Court into a conservative bastion.


In four years, Trump has managed to completely control the Republican party. Many of the parliamentarians, governors and mayors are loyal acolytes. Many party members who disagree with him are afraid to open their mouths. They are afraid of being tackled by social media or being outflanked on the right by a challenger aligned with Trump. Some fear for their lives if they vote against him. That is why so few Republicans have spoken out against the so-called election fraud or blame Trump for the storming. Less than 5 percent of Republicans voted for his impeachment.


An extremely polarized country


Trump's incessant stirring for years has left its mark. The legitimacy and stability of the entire political system has been severely eroded. Joe Biden will be the first president since Abraham Lincoln in 1861 a large part of the country views as illegitimate before he is sworn in.


The new president will have to deal with an extremely polarized country. For Trump's radical supporters the events of January 6 are a major victory. The great media attention has given them a boost and will enable them to recruit members and strengthen the rank and file.


Experts fear the deadly riots could be the beginning of an escalation in violence, rather than a last-ditch effort to save Trump's presidency. There will likely be more similar raids in the next few weeks and the radical constituency will probably resort to even more intimidation and the use of violence in racial, social or labor conflicts. Jorge Dávila, CNN political analyst, warns of a “civil war of low intensity”.


Trumpism is here to stay


Trump’s future itself is unclear. Will he be impeached or deposed? Will he be prosecuted? Or will he be able to run again in the next election in four years, as he plans to do? A recent poll of the Republicans showed that he is the party's overwhelming favorite to be nominated for 2024. He is followed by Vice President Mike Pence and after that Donald Trump Jr.


Even if he is not a candidate himself, given his considerable influence on the conservative base, he will be a kingmaker. There is no shortage of candidates. For example, Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State, or Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Senator. As the Financial Times puts it, they “are harder-line versions of him without the caprice”.


Samuel Farber of Jacobin sums it up well: “Whatever the fate of Donald Trump in the coming years, Trumpism as a political mood and state of mind, and even as a movement, is more likely to endure than Trump himself”. In Europe we see similar currents and the same dangerous tendencies. What if in the next parliamentary elections in the North of Belgium the extreme right-wing Vlaams Belang together with the very right-wing NVA get a majority of the votes? Will that political impasse be resolved peacefully? In any case, the events of the past few days are a wake-up call for all of us.


Socialism or barbarism


In order to turn the tide, the paramilitary militias must first be curbed. This will have to be accompanied by a screening and purging of the police services and the army, as well as a reform of the gun laws.


But that is not enough. These militias are a malignant cancer in a sick body. To cure that body and to remove the breeding ground for the extreme right, a new social contract of some sort is needed, based upon fair taxation, universal healthcare, increased (minimum) wages and pensions, and cheaper higher education. Massive investments are also required in infrastructure, healthcare and green technology. Finally, the political system needs a thorough reset.


Until this happens, the loss of prosperity, the gap between rich and poor, insecurity, lack of prospects and mistrust of politicians and the establishment together form an explosive cocktail that could lead to another Trump or worse.


That said, it is encouraging that in recent years left-wing ideas have regained strong acceptance among the population, and especially among young people. A Gallup poll showed that 51 percent of young people between 18 and 29 years old are positive about socialism. For the entire population this is 37 percent. Also hopeful is the fact that outspoken left-wing candidates, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib were elected to Congress.


Electoral processes are very important, but it is more important to patiently work at the grassroots: raising awareness, organizing and mobilizing people for a sustainable progressive project. Bernie Sanders has changed the party-political landscape of the US. In the past electoral campaigns, a new promising movement has started. It faces major challenges. Rosa Luxemburg's slogan 'socialism or barbarism' holds true more now than ever.


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