By Silvio Waisbord
What happened is terrorism – the use of violence to achieve political ends.
After Trump’s triumph in 2016, many of us speculated that violent mobs, reminiscent of fascist shock groups, would parade through the streets of Washington. Skeptics denied that possibility, invoking versions of the title of Sinclair Lewis’s prophetic novel, “It can’t happen here.” Brown shirts? In the United States?
Last week’s popular putsch, stirred by President Donald Trump, showed that violence and hatred parade through the streets in a country that is considered the cradle of democracy, the lighthouse of the world and other old-fashioned myths. While differing in their wardrobe and hairstyles from their peers from past fascism, the terrorists who stormed the Capitol continue the American tradition of armed militias that glorify the use of violence and brandish racism.
What happened is not surprising. In fact, gangs like Proud Boys, QAnon and other conspiratorial, racist and misogynistic elements tried to break into the State capitol in Michigan weeks ago. Organized in a decentralized way on the internet, they operate in coordination and are defined by a tangle of symbols and gestures. In the previous weeks, newspaper reports, and intelligence information showed that these groups discussed the use of violence to enter the U.S. Capitol during the confirmation of Joe Biden. To people who wear shirts that read “civil war”, there is no need to ask “Excuse me, what are your intentions?” It is surprising that it is surprising
Street violence was expected in skirmishes with the police and opposition groups, as it had occurred in recent Trumpism marches. What was unthinkable was that the hordes would indeed take over the Capitol amid notable security weaknesses in a highly protected and inaccessible site. Instead, the level of security in Washington was overwhelming during marches against racism and police violence last year. The center of the city appeared to be under a state of siege. Fences and formations of robocops from different jurisdictions, armed as if they had disembarked in a war scene, prevented free movements in the streets and parks.
None of this happened during the assault on the Capitol. There were no strong police presence, officers with batons controlling the crowd, no heavy ammunition, no tear gas, no mass arrests, no helicopters flying over a city lately under constant surveillance. There was no tight control of public space or brutal repression, as happened during the marches of the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond the initial skirmishes with a few officers, the Capitol police appeared to be ready for a picnic. They only needed to distribute maps and audio-guides for the Trumpistas to tour the facilities.
It is difficult to predict what will happen until Biden’s inauguration on January 20. It is an eternity. There is no clear scenario in a country where politics used to be perfectly mapped. Where predictability and boredom were badges of honor, uncertainty reigns today. The Democrat-controlled Congress has moved to impeach Trump. Vice President Mike Pence has declared that he will not use the 25th Amendment that allows the president to be removed.
It is not known what will happen, in large part, because Trump is the leading figure in the Republican party and his behavior is unpredictable. He won more than 74 million votes, created a cult of personality, dominates social media (until his recent removal), and has enormous power to raise money for election campaigns. Trump is responsible for what happened, supported by the crowd of Republican politicians and reactionary media who supported and defended his policy of hatred and irrationality. Republicans have no Plan B – be a party without Trump or his extremism.
What happened in the Capitol has enormous symbolic weight. It is a wound on the country’s most beloved myths – an outrage at the sanctification of democracy and its iconic sites. The flag of the Confederacy walking through the Capitol flies in the face of the official story of the triumph of the “best angels” of the nation, as Abraham Lincoln put it. On the other hand, for the mobs that participated, the assault was a day of glory: they entered the heart of the democratic system without hindrance. Such episodes are moments of glory for fascist movements – foundational events that sustain the mystique of the struggle.
What happened is terrorism – the use of violence to achieve political ends. It is the dark side that the United States historically had troubles recognizing. It is the bare face of force and hatred as core elements of the country’s political and social history. The slave flag that was paraded through the solemn galleries is the same flag that, every day, flies in houses and roads a few kilometers from Washington.
The insurrection should once again force the United States to revise its glorious myths and confront the tradition of violence, white terrorism, and hatred for those who are different. It is an essential trend that goes back to the origins of the country, with faces covered and unmasked, as were the insurgents “so special”, as Trump classified them, who strolled through corridors and rooms with astonishing comfort. It is painfully clear that they are ready to act again when the leader and his chorus of hypocrites summon them again.