When I first learned that Trump supporters had gathered to surround the Capitol building, I was at my school submitting students’ attendance for the day. In the main office, we turned on CNN; I could hear the school safety officer in the lobby talking about the protests with custodial staff.
The reaction from my coworkers was immediate and unanimous: if these were Black Lives Matter protesters, they would already have been brutalised, probably shot at. The police were treating these right-wingers with kid gloves as they set out to steal the election.
That was around 2 PM, still early in the day’s events. As the evening wore on, the pro-Trump mobilisation only escalated in their mission to stop Congress from certifying the presidential election results. They pushed past barriers, brandishing guns, shields, and Confederate flags; smashed windows to climb into the Capitol, and strode into an empty Congress. Congresspeople had been evacuated with gas masks in hand. Police later reported finding pipe bombs.
Throughout the ordeal, police displayed a shocking lack of resistance. Videos showed them opening barriers to allow protesters further into Capitol grounds. One video showed a lone black officer pushed steadily up Capitol stairs by dozens of white protesters, with no backup in sight. In a confusing roundabout, the National Guard initially appeared to deny requests to deploy, then belatedly conceded.
News coverage emphasised how “unprepared” and “overwhelmed” law enforcement was; they “couldn’t have expected” this. But the same National Guard prepared in striking force to confront Black Lives Matter protestors over the summer. As the hours progressed, the cold fact that working people can’t rely on police or the armed forces to defend democracy was confirmed: we need to organise ourselves instead.
It would be easy to watch Congress reconvene to embark on sanctimonious speeches about the importance of their own chamber and conclude that all is well; our democracy is safe and we can shrug off this episode. But yesterday’s events only gave us more reason to worry about the half-life of popular democracy in the United States.
The far-right has clearly evolved from an impotent internet phenomenon into a well-organised, tactically and ideologically radicalised street force. The police and armed forces were more pliable in the face of an organised attempt to initiate a coup than we’d like to think.
The rejection of that coup by the same GOP congressmen who spent the last few months egging on conspiracy theories of election fraud likely has more to do with a section of capital being ready to be rid of the instability caused by Trump, and discovering, upon being barricaded in the chamber themselves, that they ultimately identify more with their well-paid colleagues than with the rabble.
The MAGA shock troops might look clownish, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters are also morons. But once their interests aligned with those of powerful people, and were set against a steadily weakened Brazilian democracy, they were able to wreak havoc. When dangerous people cross a line, it’s important to mount a forceful repudiation.
Popular mobilisation has been vital for checking the worst aspects of the Trump administration and disorganising the far-right. The Muslim Ban protests were one of the best examples; in addition to stopping the policy in its tracks, it succeeded in drawing in mass layers of working people, sparking an Uber drivers’ strike and inspiring unprecedented actions, like occupations of the same airports that had been heavily militarised and surveilled since 9/11.
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests is another example; if it weren’t for their explosion onto the national scene, the grinding effects of Covid-19 and lockdown may well have resulted in a permanent state of paralysis and pessimism among the working class and the broader Left.
Popular mobilisation has been indispensable for stopping or slowing the goals of the Right, and re-imposing an image in the American consciousness of the broad, multiracial working class as protagonists of democracy. When that image recedes from view, we’re in danger.
The Battle to Impeach
Mobilisation is also important for pushing Congress to invoke the 25th Amendment to impeach Trump, and for the expulsion of GOP members from Congress who incited the attack. Right now, they’re just toying with these ideas. We should force them to follow through.
For the bulk of the last four years, impeachment served as a distracting folly for Democrats, a way to look busy while avoiding the task of advancing a positive programme. But circumstances have changed, not least because it’s new, left-wing electeds like Cori Bush leading the charge.
Invalidating Trump’s presidency could suddenly make more fundamental democratic reforms, like abolishing the Electoral College, appear more possible. Some unions have got on board with impeachment—and the Left should welcome and build up this politicisation of the labour movement.
We know that structurally anti-democratic features of our government like the Electoral College and the Supreme Court are barriers to our substantive goals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. If this moment opens up a broader discussion about the nature of American democracy, with popular sentiment on our side, we should take it.
The Left also needs to lead the popular response so that we can advance our analysis of how to fight the Right over the liberal one. In the aftermath, speeches on the floor of Congress painted a parochial picture of the United States as an orderly democracy rudely interrupted by the aberration of Trumpism.
Oblivious references to “banana republics” abound—Jake Tapper mused on CNN mused that “I feel like I’m talking to a correspondent reporting from, you know, Bogotá.” Mainstream news has incessantly covered the national security angle, bringing on ex-intelligence officers and security “experts” to offer their perspective.
We need to lead the popular response so that we can project our alternative analysis of why this happened and how to fight the Right. That will also put us in a better position going into a Biden administration to set the tone and agenda.
The Left will be under pressure to disavow a whole array of militant tactics and disavow the more radical aspects of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, in order to prove we’re “not like the Right.”
We need to be unequivocal that mobilising in protest of the indiscriminate murder of black civilians and the refusal of government to fulfil the basic needs of working people is not the same as mobilising to override democratic election results and install an authoritarian president.
It might be time for the Left in America to take lessons from other countries which have had to experience right-wing political violence and coup attempts.
As liberals offered insulting platitudes about “banana republics,” Bolivian president Evo Morales tweeted a message of solidarity to the American people: “The Trump government has attempted an auto-coup to stay in power. The same as they do in Bolivia, promote racist and fascist violence and democracy doesn’t interest them. Our solidarity with the people of the United States.”
The rise of Trump was a major factor in empowering a far-right resurgence across Latin America, from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the US-legitimised coup in Bolivia last year. Morales’ subsequent return from exile and back to the presidency showed the power of working-class mobilisation to repudiate the authoritarian Right.
What we do now will affect not just the politics of the United States, but the trajectory of democracy and prospects of left-wing forces internationally. It’s important that the US Left acts like it.