It started long before January 6.
A terrorist cell with more than a dozen active participants was mere days from an attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer when they were arrested by the FBI on October 8, 2020. Rather than congratulate law enforcement for their success, the former President responded by attacking the Governor repeatedly, both on Twitter and at his rallies. At least one Michigan Sheriff defended the group, justifying their plans as a “citizen’s arrest” necessary to prosecute a “felony.”
The bust was a big win for the FBI after a long string of failures against white terrorists, failures caused in large part by interference from the Administration. Trump cultivated a campaign of stochastic terrorism, whipping up hate and hostility toward targets he wants to intimidate, including Whitmer, then distancing himself when terrorists respond to his appeals. While homegrown terrorism bloomed, Trump officials blocked efforts to improve law enforcement coordination against those terrorists. An anti-terrorism plan promised years ago by the Administration was stalled under pressure from Trump appointees, while their boss told terrorists from the debate stage to “Stand back and stand-by.”
White nationalist terrorism has been escalating for years with very little media coverage. On April 11, 2020, police arrested Boogaloo Boi, Aaron Swenson. He was driving around Texarkana, live-streaming his search for a police officer to murder.
May 30, police arrested three white supremacists who had originally planned to destroy an electrical substation, then pivoted to initiate violence to start a riot at a George Floyd protest. All three were military veterans.
September 1, two terrorists from Missouri were arrested by FBI agents in Wisconsin with an arsenal of weapons, prepared to “to loot and possibly ‘pick people off.’” They attended a Trump rally in Kenosha on August 31 before the FBI caught up with them.
Alan Viarengo was arrested last August in California for stalking and threatening Santa Clara County public health workers over COVID mandates. Police found over a hundred firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home. These are just a few examples of the build-up in white nationalist terrorism in 2020, which comes on the heels of 2019, the worst year for domestic terrorism since the Oklahoma City bombing.
Then, of course, there was January 6th. The former President called out his ragtag militia and they showed up, with millions of dollars of help from Trump donors. In the blink of an eye, the Blue Lives Matter crowd was assaulting cops. People who justify police murders of unarmed black suspects with “they should have just followed orders” were smashing windows and throwing fire extinguishers at officers.
Though they succeeded in delaying the election’s final result, poor coordination, incoherent objectives and general stupidity thwarted their attempted coup. A handful of Republicans took a stand against this attempt to end the republic. They’ll be swiftly ushered out of the party. Even Mike Pence, who the coup plotters threatened to execute, would only mumble a few words about the unseemliness of it all before continuing to pander for white nationalist votes.
White supremacy has lost its power to bind a critical mass of Americans together. However as we move through this inchoate period in which no new mythology has emerged to unite us, white supremacy holds a special power, animating the largest political bloc of Americans. For Republicans, who represent the minority of Americans unwilling to confront a post-white order there is only one hope for the future – replacing a broad based liberal democracy with a white nationalist electoral autocracy, in which only whites and their collaborators retain access to political participation.
Thanks to an influx of white Southerners over the final quarter of the 20th century, Republicans are now the party of white nationalism. They have no interest in law, legitimacy or democracy. None.
No one who challenges racism or white nationalism can thrive in the GOP. Black politicians like Tim Scott and Allen West earn their paycheck by reinforcing white supremacy and white nationalism. Republicans will happily discard democratic legitimacy to maintain the special status of our dominant castes, resorting to authoritarian violence without a twinge of discomfort.
Democracy will not survive in the US unless the Republican Party is destroyed. There is no purely peaceful path to a peaceful, just American democracy. The left’s fantasies of non-violent transformation are as bafflingly tragic as the right’s delusions of white racial and cultural superiority. The sooner we come to terms with the necessity of force in the replacement of white supremacy, the fewer people will die in the coming wave of violence.
A certainty of violence doesn’t mean we’re headed for a “civil war,” the way we tend to understand it. We aren’t going to see another Gettysburg. The winner in this fight will likely never field an “army” on anything that resembles a battlefield. War isn’t what it used to be. Just ask the good folks who found themselves queuing for gasoline in the Carolinas.
Violence is just one of the three main channels of political power, along with persuasion and authority. No human society has ever existed without it, as it is an indispensable element of the natural world. There is more violence in less healthy societies than in the most successful civilizations, but rest assured, police in the happy, democratic socialist paradise of Denmark are using coercion right now to restrain someone. Physical force, violence, is an indispensable element of politics always and everywhere.
Thanks to the collapse of our unifying mythology, we are an unhealthy society on our way becoming even sicker before we get better. Violence will accompany that process. Mastering the careful use of violence will be one of the keys to the success of the victors.
Most of the violence in this conflict will probably look so much like the violence we’re already experiencing that we might hardly notice it at all. Bombings or shootings at local Democratic offices hardly make the news in a country experiencing more than a hundred mass shootings per quarter. Don’t believe me? It’s already happening and nobody blinks an eye. It happens again. And again.
Why are Democrats so averse to any suggestion of violence? Why are Republicans so enthusiastic about violence? And what role would violence likely play in the eventual replacement of white supremacy with a more just mythology?
Much of the revulsion Democrats feel over the use of force in almost any context is a reaction to the enthusiastic celebration of violence in white supremacist mythology. To be an anti-racist in any real way in this country means exposing oneself to the constant threat of violence. Life in America leaves one with little imagination for how force might be used to create a just order.
White supremacists engage in a kind of uncoordinated, spontaneous terrorism not for any strategic reason, but because it has always been central to their mythology. It’s a problem much broader than ostensibly race-related murders. America consistently maintains a murder rate competitive with countries undergoing civil wars, but our racial mass killings maintain a special place in this already bloody culture. Terrorism carried out by white men is an almost ritual, religious performance, a righteous expression of the authority of white men over the bodies of women, people of other races, and race traitors. In white supremacist mythology, violence is a sacrament.
Most of the ostensibly white supremacist violence we see is carried out by lower caste, expendable whites, the stereotypical angry loners. They get their inspiration from higher caste whites who identify enemy targets, then they sacrifice themselves in a kind of ritual glorification. Bill O’Reilly had George Tiller murdered. The guy who pulled the trigger went to prison while O’Reilly continued to amass his fortune. Donald Trump inspired the mass murder of Hispanics at an El Paso WalMart, along with innumerable other incidents.
In the past, those who carried out this violence could be sheltered from consequences. Now they are expendables who are punished by the wider culture while earning an exalted place in an underground priesthood of social losers. Like any other terrorist organization, that unofficial priesthood aggressively recruits novices from the discarded misfits of white society.
Along with that terrorist army, high caste whites enjoy the use of officially legitimate violence leveraged by police to support white nationalism. Thanks to our innate System 1 programming, police are almost hypnotized into a skewed threat assessment that favors whites. Almost anyone raised in a white supremacist society sees greater threat in non-whites than in whites. High caste whites are, by default within this system, non-criminals no matter what outrages they commit. Even when they engage in spectacular thefts, rapes or murders, they enjoy the privileges of their caste.
When a Eric Garner is caught selling loose cigarettes the police murder him. When Kyle Rittenhouse showed up to a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha with an AR-15, then shot three people, police let him walk away. Police have our caste code so deeply embedded in their minds and their training that they cannot accurately assess a white threat. That broken threat assessment allowed white terrorists to storm the US Capitol. Meanwhile, police can’t be counted on to protect anti-racists, coding them as a threat no matter how tightly they cling to ordered, non-violent resistance.
Higher caste whites can leverage an army of disposable, if erratic, drones to rain terror on the enemies of white nationalism. Backing up those drones is the thin blue line of the police, who leverage violence under color of law to punish anyone who challenges white supremacy. Those twin pillars of violence don’t just discourage resistance, they reinforce the mythology of white supremacy, demonstrating the power of white castes over non-white bodies or dissidents. Everyone absorbs the civic theology that violence belongs to the white man, an expression of white supremacy.
The ritual celebration of violence embedded in white supremacist mythology inspires a counter-mythology of anti-racist non-violence, an almost religious aversion to one of the three essential pillars of political power. One of the ways white supremacy has survived is by projecting the notion that legitimate violence is the exclusive domain of the white man. Without the effective use of violence alongside the other two critical pillars of power, persuasion and authority, the move to destroy white supremacy will simply topple our democracy without without replacing it.
A smart, sophisticated, well-organized and humane unifying mythology can reduce the need for violence, even during a conflict over control of our political system, but it cannot replace violence entirely. There is no non-violent path to a post-racial order. Total non-violence is a great way to fail.
Strip away the blinders of our racial mythology, and any average person’s mental vision of an appropriate response to the January 6th coup might look like a scene from Blackhawk Down. Raving cultists storm the Capitol threatening to murder the Vice President, overturn the results of an election, and install a mad dictator. It would be appropriate, even patriotic, to call out any and all available force to stop them. Whatever it takes. We would make heroes of the brave men and women who held the line to protect democracy from dangerous fanatics.
If the January 6th attackers had been black their bodies would have piled up on the Capitol steps. When the attackers are white they aren’t terrorists battling to destroy democracy, but an “unruly” collection, perhaps a “mob.” Language describing them in media reports roughly equates to descriptions of rioting after a football game. In the context of white supremacy, hesitance by police and the military to protect us from the collapse of democracy seems measured and reasonable.
What’s the best first step in stripping away our white supremacist hangover and placing the use of violence in its proper perspective? Get comfortable with this idea. Say it over and over again like a mantra. Ashli Babbit, the traitor shot by police during the attempted coup, deserved what happened to her. Every other traitor who mounted those steps that day deserved the same end. The only tragedy in that incident is that she was the only attacker killed.
No, her death wasn’t “unfortunate,” any more than every death of every living thing is unfortunate. Violence used to protect our most fundamental institutions was necessary, just, and in the service of a brighter future. Babbit’s death deserves just as much regret or discomfort as the death of one of the 9/11 plotters or some random Nazi. The loss of any life is regrettable and also often necessary.
If we cannot embrace what happened to Ashli Babbit, and make sure it happens to others like her, we will very soon live in a post-democratic, disintegrating former nation. We don’t have to celebrate or ritualize violence in order to acknowledge its necessity and leverage it when needed.
Violence to protect the rights of everyone to live under a democracy is good in much the same way that other things we don’t enjoy are good. We often describe abortion as a procedure which should be safe, legal and rare. But no one loves to get an abortion. It’s not a trip to DisneyWorld. Abortion is necessary and important, if unpleasant, like prisons or funerals. Or chemotherapy. You don’t have to celebrate something as a fundamental good to recognize its importance. Just because something is unpleasant and unwelcome doesn’t mean we can pretend it’s unnecessary.
This is where Democrats want to roll out Martin Luther King to defend the purity of non-violence. King didn’t defeat segregation with non-violence. Jim Crow died at the sharp end of a bayonet. If Southern sheriffs and Governors didn’t worry about provoking a coercive response from the Federal government, King would have been murdered before any of us could learn his name.
Non-violence did not place James Meredith in a classroom at Ole Miss. Truckloads of US soldiers did that, deploying in overwhelming force to defeat violent resistance. King’s genius was that he, and his followers, had the discipline, determination, and intelligence to refrain from wielding those bayonets themselves, a move which would have initiated their instantaneous destruction. That wise use of organized non-violent resistance to trigger the coercive intervention of the Federal government is how King took his place as a latter-day Founding Father.
Losing track of the violence that propelled the Civil Rights Movement to victory obscures its lessons. Violence is an indispensable tool of power. We ignore it at our peril.
What form will violence take in defeating white nationalism? It’s hard to predict with precision. What will be the rain chances on the afternoon of June 29, 2023? We can identify some looming flashpoints, along with general principles of effective use of violence.
Republicans in control of state governments intend to invalidate unfavorable election results. Georgia is the place this is most likely to boil over, perhaps as soon as the ‘22 Senate Elections. Damage done to the legitimacy of the state by these moves will make violence almost inevitable, but there are hundreds of other potential flashpoints, most beyond prediction. What specific responses might be appropriate in any of these scenarios is impossible to guess.
Any successful use of violence outside of formal, legal structures will have these traits. It will be: organized, purposeful, accountable, and terminable. Lose any of those traits and you just have a mob or a terrorist group, wreaking havoc unconnected to any desired outcome. The necessity of these constraints helps explain why violence is such a difficult element of power to leverage successfully outside of government.
Organization means that there are leaders, or at least structures, that can set the movement on a course, or purpose. That purpose must be attainable and concrete. Accountability means that a structure exists to hold participants responsible for their behavior. Lose the capacity to discipline members and the movement becomes a magnet for sociopaths looking to use the gloss of a political cause to engage in violence they would have been committing anyway. All of these traits together give the movement the capacity to end its violence after achieving a goal, an essential trait if the effort is to produce anything beyond a perpetual spiral of carnage.
As you can probably see, it’s very difficult to create these constraints outside of government. That’s not an accident. Governments were invented to deliver effective violence.
If we’re lucky, violence might play only a very small part in the replacement of white supremacy as our unifying mythology. Destroying white supremacy means creating a new mythology with so much momentum, physical force and financial clout that only the craziest, most isolated or dysfunctional of white supremacy’s adherents will risk an open fight. When they do, as they did on January 6th, they’ll be so outclassed in terms of money, organizational infrastructure and persuasive power that their objectives fail, and their adherents are swept into irrelevance. This could happen with a minimum of force. Ideally, elements of our existing government, likely the military, would take the lead in finishing off our white supremacists. That would be a happy scenario and Democrats should make peace with it.
Assembling a new unifying mythology does not mean convincing Marjorie Taylor Greene or Mike Pence to embrace a post-racial liberal democracy. It doesn’t mean joining hands with them in a new unifying mythology in which they are persuaded to acknowledge the damage done by white supremacy and celebrate the full human rights of people they’ve been trying to destroy. It means defeating them, with or ideally without coercion.
Regarding those 74m Trump voters, or even the total 155m who voted in 2020, don’t overestimate their relevance. It’s not necessary to address this mass of voters in any particular manner to defeat white nationalism.
People who follow politics have an almost comic tendency to imagine that other people follow politics. They don’t. The “informed voter” is a hilariously silly concept. All politics is identity politics. When the benefits of assuming one identity over another shifts, the overwhelming bulk of people will follow to reap those rewards. The primary political interest of most voters, red or blue, is to be left alone to get on with their lives. They’ll embrace, or acquiesce to, whatever prevailing order appears inevitable. In politics, who you admire may be less important than who you fear.
America had a thriving Fascist movement in the years leading up to World War 2. The German American Bund held Nazi youth camps. Radio star, Father Charles Coughlin, told his adoring followers that the Jews were responsible for Kristallnacht. Charles Lindbergh accepted a medal from Hermann Goering, then went on a speaking tour of the US drumming up support for the Nazis. By 1941, he was drawing audiences in the tens of thousands for his speeches, blaming Jews for the buildup to war and insinuating that Jews in the media were undermining national security.
What happened to all of this after Pearl Harbor? America’s Nazis shut up and faded from sight. Lindbergh attempted to join the military. His commission was blocked by the White House, but he served in a civilian advisory role and never again openly promoted Fascism. Nazi groups fell into disarray as their former members fled from scrutiny. What changed? America had a clear new enemy, a revised definition of “us” which targeted a new “them.” Very few of these summer Nazis were ready risk their place in society for that ideology. Don’t assume that all of Trump’s voters, even the noisiest ones, will stick with the GOP when that identity becomes costly.
What percentage of the 155m people who voted in the 2020 Election could name either of the VPs on the ballot? Not many. Most voters absorb the bulk of what they know about politics through pop culture. Tucker Carlson has the most watched cable news show in America. Saturday Night Live has three times his audience. After a major 2020 surge, The New York Times hit more than 7 million subscribers. People Magazine reaches almost 100m people. People don’t care about politics. How many Americans regularly vote, and also regularly participate actively in politics? It’s consistently about 1%. When the winds change the overwhelming majority of Americans will adjust their ostensible political alignments as needed to sustain the benefits of membership in the most valuable tribes.
This means that a big, bitter, or even violent fight over politics is unlikely to gain the attention of more than a few million Americans. In raw numbers, that’s a lot of people, but when you’re thinking about the political implications of ostracizing half of them, it’s not very meaningful. If, by some magic, every single current Republican officeholder, party official, precinct chairman and campaign volunteer lost their right to run for office, you’d have impacted a population smaller than Reno, NV.
Once the fur stops flying and a new mythology begins consolidating its hold, the bulk of former Trump voters will either selectively forget they had anything to do with that business, die of old age (a huge factor in the decline of Republican identity), or shrink back out of voting/engagement – like roughly half of American adults.
There’s little need to worry about what happens to hardened Trump cultists. There aren’t as many of them as it seems and they have minimal cultural and financial power. Faced with a real confrontation, with real material consequences, the number of them who will continue the fight will drop off precipitously, leaving the rest to be easily isolated and neutralized. Republicans who refuse to make peace with an emerging mythological order are on their way to becoming the new Amish.
For now, isolate Republicans from every center of cultural influence by any available means. Make it expensive and risky for anyone to identify publicly with the GOP. When Republicans attempt their coup, as they will, make sure they have nothing to support them but their small band of idiot cultists and the financial backing of a handful of millionaire weirdos.
Bring whatever organized violence is necessary to blunt Republican attempts to destroy democracy. And don’t flinch. On the backside of that coup, rout them from every remaining position of public trust and jail as many of them as possible.
There is no purely peaceful path to a post-racial order. Republicans will not allow it. White supremacy may have lost its power to hold American together, but white nationalism won’t die quietly. That’s not as dire as it sounds. Wars aren’t what they used to be, and this looming rite of passage is likely our only path to replacing white nationalism. In the end, we can help cement into place a new unifying mythology by making villains of those who fought for the old.