Question of the Month, January: The Attack on the U.S. Capitol Building

David Prior's picture

No doubt many scholars are concerned and have strong opinions about the recent attack in Washington, D.C. I wanted to offer some preliminary questions and reactions, in a scholarly tone, with the reminder upfront that these are open for informed debate. The world is sorely starved for balanced academic discussion, and H-Nationalism is a forum for that. All comments, as per usual, are moderated before publication.


What did we witness yesterday (Jan. 6)?

A coup is a deliberate attempt to overthrow a government. A riot is something else--surely the two terms aren’t synonyms, even if they aren’t mutually exclusive. If this was a coup, it looks like it failed miserably, and in fact hamstrung those congressional Republicans seeking to prevent the certification of Biden’s electoral victory. One of the most remarkable features of the standoff was that the DC and Capitol police seemed so under-staffed—a subject that is already prompting public debate. The police departments in the area regularly manage much larger protests and marches. My impression is that the spectacle of gun-loving Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol building was just that. The the crowd was large enough to overwhelm the small police force present, but not to hold ground against the combined police forces of D.C. and its suburbs in Maryland and northern Virginia. Most members of the mob appear to have been unarmed, in line with the city’s laws--although several police officers did sustain injuries. In short, as menacing as the mob was, it had no chance of successfully occupying the U.S. government. That isn’t to say, of course, that they haven’t done lasting harm. Public discourse seems to have settled on the term “insurrection,” which recognizes the rebellious intent without affording the mob organizational skills or programmatic clarity.


If it was a coup, how could it have succeeded?

At the start of the assault, Donald Trump seemed ready to march on the Capitol building itself. But what would this have accomplished? Perhaps there is a reason why the rioters-and/or-insurrectionists did not force themselves in numbers into the main congressional chambers. They certainly could have, but what would they have done once they were there? There has been much media and internet chatter about the prospect of Donald Trump refusing to leave the White House. It is worth noting that residing in the White House does not make a person the president. It’s hard to govern without a bureaucracy. In the most dramatic, nightmarish version of the attack imaginable, it is still difficult to imagine how Trump would have held any administrative authority in two weeks.


Does populism explain this?

Some evidentiary sifting will be necessary before its clear to what extent the mob was a ragtag assemblage of diehard Trump supporters or a pre-meditated meeting of organized extremists. My initial impression from news outlets is that it was a combination of these, although even the organized extremists seem not to have thought through their actions beyond the initial confrontation. Of course, for populism as an ideology to be relevant to the situation, the pro-Trump forces only need to have believed that they were acting in the name of the people. But to the extent that many extremists conceive of themselves as part of a radical, persecuted ideological minority, there is room to doubt whether they should be deemed populists. What is more, some members of far right groups may have been using Republican claims that the election was illegitimate as cover to attack a symbol of democratic governance for their own ideological ends. Either way, I suspect there is a tipping point—or at least a potential one—at which public opposition to the attack becomes sufficiently pervasive that the fiction of the mob representing the concerns of a “silent majority” breaks down. That is to say, perhaps the attack on the Capitol Building will limit Trump’s or his political successors’ abilities to manage the ideological tensions inherent in populism.


Is the Democratic Party now the standard bearer for patriotism in the United States?

For complex reasons, U.S. politics has long been under the shadow of the Vietnam War, and the Cold War more generally. In this context, the Left has often been on the rhetorical backfoot in discussions of patriotic loyalty. There has been a popular—but not universal or ultimately persuasive—assumption in the United States that national devotion has its home in the Republican Party. One would think that the images of a mob of people, obviously unrepresentative of the nation’s diversity, attacking one of the three branches of government in the name of an elected official from the self-styled conservative party would invert that longstanding belief. Will the United State's elusive political center continue to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt on this front moving forward? 


Was the event representative of U.S. political traditions or an aberration? 

No doubt both. While the footage was shocking, there is a long tradition in the United States of its citizens--often enraged white supremacists--attacking symbols of governmental authority. The firing on Ft. Sumter, ex-Confederate violence against African American Union soldiers and federal officials in the post-Civil War South, and the 1898 attack on the household of federal postmaster Frazier Baker in South Carolina would be examples. Likewise the 1995 terrorist attack against the federal building in Oklahoma City. The racist dynamics of this anti-government tradition are well documented. Indeed, some far-right groups claim such acts as part of their own lineages.  

Thanks David
Incredible, if not entirely unanticipated, scenes! In response to some of your questions I have the following thoughts offered as a non-expert on US politics:
The invasion of the US Capitol doesn't seem to have been a coup, which would imply organisation and coordination of a higher standard than was on display. If disruption is the zeitgeist, then this was a disruptive event rather than an insurrection, which implies a sustained, and usually armed, uprising.
Using the prism of nationalism to analyse the ideas and ideologies that motivated the invasion of the Capitol can be illuminating. If nationalist 'moments' are the product of contingent alliances between elite projects and popular grievances with articulations of the nation being the hinge that links disparate groups for a political end, then Trumpism is nationalism as much as populism (although we should not treat the two as separate). It seems to me that Trumpism is linked to several traditions in US nationalism, but mostly it is a combination of foundational myth 'don't tread on me/liberty or death' narratives aligned with a more recent anti-'big government' ideology with its rejection of state intervention in (domestic) politics and civil society.
The aberration is the cult of personality that seems to have grown up around Trump, although non-Tea Party republicans seem to reject this and align themselves with a conservative constitutionalism. Trumpism may split the Republican party, although this party is nothing of not resilient and the two-party system provides lots of incentives to stick together. It is an interesting question to see if the Democrats will become the home of patriotism now. I was struck by the campaign slogan 'Battle for the Soul of the Nation' with its bellicose and religious content (put that in the mouth of a Trump supporter and it takes on different connotations). In other places that I am more familiar with (England), the left has missed an opportunity to stake claims to be a patriotic party, if only to deny that ground to its political opponents. Of course this is not easy and pulls against the instincts of some of its tertiary educated and urban support bases. But nationalism exists to unify groups within putative nations who have few interests in common otherwise, so perhaps now is the moment for the articulation of a centre-left vision of the US nation in all its diversity. This would align with other US national traditions.