A mob of far right protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 after President Trump called and partially funded a “Save America” rally to mobilize his supporters against the results of the 2020 election. Trump called on the crowd to march to Congress as the election results declaring Joe Biden as winner were being certified. The swarm of protesters, including QAnon conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, militia groups, Proud Boys, and neo-Nazis, advanced to enter the Capitol building, overwhelmed the light detachment of police and pressed past the barricades. Congress was evacuated as protesters entered the building. Led by Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman,” protesters filmed themselves charging into the Senate Chambers, taking selfies as they looted and vandalized offices, leaving urine and feces in their wake; someone took a shit in Nancy Pelosi’s garbage can. Five were killed in the riot, including one police officer.
Break or Continuity?
When pro-Trump protesters storm the chambers of the imperial government, you start by asking, “Is this something different?” Has there been a break in politics as we know it?
While the far-right has made a major return after the election of Trump in 2016, to a point where they are often promoted by mainstream news outlets, they were marginalized after their racist murders in Charlottesville when thousands of people mobilized and turned the country against them. The mass anti-fascist protests in Boston and other US cities after Charlottesville led to splits among extreme right groups, resignations, nazis crying on video, and a general rout.
Last spring, the far-right began to remobilize through protests against closures and mask mandates that were imposed to slow down the spread of the pandemic. Trump and the Republican Party’s Covid-19 denialism politicized their base against these precautions. Right wing mobs staged armed protests in state capitols and sent out death threats against public officials. Neo-fascist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were heavily involved alongside newer people drawn into far-right politics through internet forums and Trumpism. Most of these actions went unpunished by the political center, further emboldening them.
Today’s far-right is not simply a fringe made up of the Klan or neo-Nazis, it also includes a significant group of people who are drawn to these politics through online conspiracy theories and far-right influencers on social media who gamify racist and fascistic politics with impunity. Mainstream commentary tends to portray this new right as “hillbillies”, “rednecks”, or otherwise uninformed crazies, but this obscures the class character of a movement of radicalized well-to-do petty bourgeois (CEOs, lawyers, realtors, politicians, and small-to-middle-size business owners) with allied police and military personnel. Most working class people in the US can’t afford a private plane to DC, let alone an arsenal of high powered weapons and combat gear.
While the right was building its forces through anti-lockdown demonstrations in the spring, the turning point was the summer’s anti-racist uprising. As the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others by the police went unpunished and economic desperation deepened, tens of millions of people flooded the streets to demand justice. Police responded aggressively, cracking down on the mass protests, arresting tens of thousands of protesters and killing 19 people in the first two weeks of protests alone. The right used this state-led repression to accelerate their activities.
The far-right mobilized against the uprisings against anti-Black racism in order to defeat a challenge to the racial order. Right-wing militias and counter-protestors worked directly with police to attack anti-racist protestors in cities across the country, as they have worked with Border Patrol and ICE in the past. The collaboration between armed far-right militias and police is evident in Portland, Olympia, Kenosha, and countless other US cities, where police explicitly thank the militias and coordinate to corral protesters into direct conflict with the right. This relationship emboldened militias to murder protestors, with assistance from the police. The alliance of far-right mobs and police forces that became apparent during the storming of the Capitol was a major factor during the months of protests that shook the country throughout the summer. The foundation of this alliance has always been the racism the police shared with the far right.
Following Trump’s loss in the November election and his rejection of the results, Trumpists and far right mobs started organizing public events to support the President’s attempts to overturn the election. These efforts have been unsuccessful in reversing the results as Biden managed to win large enough margins of the popular vote, but were important in shifting politics further to the right. Their main success has been mobilizing and extending Trump’s base.
Where the chips lay
The response to the events of January 6 was rapid as Trump was banned from social media, lost business connections and was impeached once again, while some armed vigilantes have been arrested. At the same time 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election, and about half of Republicans stuck with Trump even after the events at the Capitol. It might signify a growing division between the rank-and-file Republicans who continue to foster the far-right and the leadership that might prefer to break with it.
This is likely to further empower the Biden administration’s ‘national unity’ government, as both the Democrats and top Republicans unite to marginalize all protest. However, it is unclear that under a Biden administration that allies with the Republican leadership, the elements of the far right outside the Republican Party will face much of a crackdown. The alliance between the far-right, federal, state and local law enforcement, and the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party will surely pose a major obstacle for any attempt to crack down on the far-right. Whether or not the crowd on January 6 literally intended to overthrow the government, this kind of high profile intimidation by far right demonstrators is a feature of American politics and not an exception. It continues vigilante terror and white supremacist reaction in the postbellum period; the revival of the KKK in the 1920s and 30s; resistance to integration, and so on.
Where does that leave us going forward? How do we respond to the prosecution of Trump and the right-wing mob that stormed the Capitol? We should of course support efforts to impeach and prosecute Trump and those who stormed the Capitol, if for no other reason than to establish accountability and dismantle the notion that these people are “above the law.”
At the same time, socialists must be aware that the legal tools that will be mobilized for a crackdown on the right will likely be used against the left and emerging movements in the next period of upheaval. This includes any reliance on the billionaire owners of Facebook and Twitter to act in defense of democratic rights. The events of the past year have shown that both the law enforcement forces and the Democratic Party view the left as a bigger political threat than the far right. The left must navigate a difficult course here between general support for prosecuting these officials and vigilantes while resisting any extension of the surveillance state.
Its hard to ask the state to repress itself: the federal government routinely ignores far right and white supremacist violence, and in 2020 the lines between the police and the right have blurred considerably — there’s both collaboration and overlap in the ranks. This puts us in a precarious position of pointing out how obviously unequal policing is, where the difference between police reception to BLM vs. an armed mob was night and day, while at the same time not falling into the trap of simply calling on the state to deal with the threat of the right.
How do we then go about defeating the right? We can’t simply imitate experiments from the past, nor can we expect that a fully-formed anti-fascist coalition will drop from the sky. We can expect more far right demonstrations in the future, and this will have to be a practical starting point to unify our side: we don’t have to agree on everything to be able to work together to weaken and marginalize fascism. This activism has to center anti-racism to draw in the millions who have spent the summer fighting for racial justice and defunding the police, as the struggle for abolition and racial justice can only be won through demoralizing, demobilizing, and disarming white supremacist forces in this country.
Antifascists must also fight against the pro-life, anti-immigrant, anti-semitic and fundamentally anti-worker politics of the far right. The prominence of these politics among right-wingers provides a breeding ground for neo-fascists and they in turn aid them as they grow. Marginalizing these politics and confronting the fascist elements within them will be central to fighting fascism.
While it’s crucial to counteract the far right in the streets, this is a political movement that will need to be understood and confronted wherever it appears. When Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara came out in support of storming the Capitol, thirty-six alders in Chicago demanded his immediate resignation, pressuring the FOP to likewise demand he step down. This is a clear example of isolating fascists politically.
Republican mega-donors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, owners of the ULINE shipping supply business, funded far right protesters in DC. Anti-fascists should extend divestment tactics towards companies that prop up the far right when they stand to benefit from public contracts and subsidies. These are things movement veterans from the past few years have already been doing, and the potential exists to cohere and extend them into a broad-based front to fight racism and advance a politics for the working class and the oppressed.
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Hakan Yilmaz is a member of New York City Democratic Socialists, Professional Staff Congress, and Rank And File Action.
Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint and Jacobin.