Let's Not Become a Bunch of Panicky Reactionaries

The lesson of the Capitol riots is to change the power structure, not to embrace it

Hamilton Nolan

On January 13, Nancy Pelosi greets the troops. Melina Mara/ The Washington Post via Getty Images

I’m a little concerned about the lessons that the Democrats are learning right now. I realize that this is like saying I’m a little concerned that this Rolex I bought on Canal Street is not genuine,” but still. We are living in a moment of great political opportunity, which means we are also living through an opportunity that Democrats can screw up. 

The swarming of the Capitol on January 6 was, like September 11, the sort of panic-inducing crisis capable of spurring even the creakiest bureaucracies into action. A time of crisis is a good time to have political principles — when all else succumbs to panicked frenzy, principles do not change. They also serve as a way of analyzing the world that can help you make sense of what has happened without being overwhelmed by the primal urges of fear or rage. Because the source of this fiasco was the Right, it has indeed opened a door for the Left. Now the Left has to remember what it believes in, to avoid meeting this crisis as a bunch of good old-fashioned American reactionaries. 

Reaction-driven responses devoid of guiding principles inevitably cause people to grab onto anything that makes them feel safe, craving both protection and revenge. Suddenly, any element of the power structure that did not directly participate in the Trumpist uprising appears to hysterical Democrats in a newly reasonable light. Thus we already have liberals praising the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and calling for new terrorism laws, all craving new funding for security forces, and appealing to the most powerful corporations in the world — anything that might momentarily protect us from the immediate threat. 

This is not the way. This is a trap. 

All of us who lived through September 11 and the subsequent neverending War on Terror” have witnessed the exact wrong way to respond to a crisis. In that case, we fell totally and completely into fear and revenge, costing literally millions of lives around the world in order to not solve the underlying problems. In fact, the fervor of the September 11 era ensured that even discussing the underlying problems was considered political suicide. The circumstances now are different, but the impulses are the same. A suspicious number of liberals who spent the summer putting Black Lives Matter” signs in their yard and criticizing the many abuses of the U.S. government now seem to be running around yelling, I will report anyone I see in a photo to the FBI! How dare anyone desecrate the hallowed offices of Nancy Pelosi! We must send enormous contingents of soldiers and riot police into the streets! Thank you Liz Cheney for standing up for what’s right! Please, Jeff Bezos, exercise your vast power on our behalf! Save us, Mark Zuckerberg! I shudder at the sight of anyone disrespecting my holy temple, the United States Congress!” 

Get ahold of yourselves! This is not who we are. 

Allow me to suggest that it’s possible to address the immediate, short-term problem — the fact that a right-wing mob hypnotized by right-wing propaganda committed a lot of illegal acts — while also holding in sight our principles, which are the only things that can identify the path towards solving any of the long-term problems we face. And solving them is what might help prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Arresting the rioters and kicking QAnon accounts off of Facebook and properly staffing the Capitol Police department during protests are short-term solutions. They may have to be done, but they are not the answers we’re looking for. Crises are just bubbles that sometimes erupt on the surface of deep pools of boiling chaos. Always, we should think about fixing the structural problems, rather than getting transfixed by the shiny outbursts in front of us. 

The Left, as I understand it, is concerned with changing the power structure of this country, in order to prevent inequality and oppression. So let’s do that. The task now is not to beg trillion-dollar tech companies to be more effective censors, but rather to break up these companies with aggressive antitrust action so that they do not have such terrifying power over our public discourse. The task is not to view the Capitol riot as a breach of the Republican Party’s norms, but rather to recognize that the entire project of the Republican Party for decades has been to tell any lie necessary to their voter base in order to get them to go along with an agenda that serves the interests of a tiny rich minority. The lies that Trump told about the election and the lies that QAnon tells about cabals of child molesters are bad, but they are not any worse than the lies that Republicans have been telling about Black people ever since the civil rights era, or the lies they tell about immigrants in order to distract from the accumulation of corporate power, or the lies they tell about the existential threats of climate change in order to protect the profits of fossil fuel donors. Now is not the time to pat Mitch McConnell and Liz Cheney on the back because they have chosen to cast Trump overboard now that he’s no longer useful to them. Now is the time to point to the utter meltdown of Trumpism as the natural end of a political program based on lies. It is not just Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who are responsible for enabling this — it is the entire Republican Party. 

The rioters themselves were a bizarre group of patsies set loose by decades of predatory forces. At least some of them will be punished for what they did, and if they are lucky they may one day be freed from their Infowars-style cult indoctrination. Let’s not lose sight, however, of the one admirable trait that those people exhibited: A healthy contempt for corrupt institutional power. Yes, they manifested this in the most ludicrous, confused and dangerous way possible. But the way forward is not to call on the power structure to smash anyone who threatens it. It is, instead, to focus our smashing impulses on the correct part of the power structure. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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