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Die Laughing at the Capitol

The storm on Congress was extremely goofy and deadly serious. Making sense of it will require some dexterity.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

I am trying to cope with anti-democratic social collapse during a pandemic by reading local news stories about the people who stormed the Capitol. There was the remorseful CEO from the Chicago suburbs—“In a moment of extremely poor judgment … I followed hundreds of others through an open set of doors to the Capitol building”—and the son of a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge, wrapped in fur and a bulletproof vest, seen in photos carrying a police riot shield because he “found it on the floor.”

Then there were the real estate agents: the woman who flew to D.C. on a private jet in a bachelorette-style outing with some girlfriends—“This is a prelude to war,” she exclaimed—and the one who celebrated with a glass of champagne after making it onto the east steps of Congress. There was a marketing employee from Baltimore who wore his work badge during the riot and an aging adjunct professor from Pennsylvania who used to be a member of the state legislature. 

Current and former agents of the state were well represented in the crowd: the ex-cop from the Bay Area who was told by the reporter interviewing him that, “to put it plainly, you may be in some legal jeopardy” and the West Virginia state delegate who livestreamed himself breaking into the Capitol—“We’re in! We’re in!” he shouted in a now-deleted video; “Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!”—and has since succumbed to public pressure to resign.

Taken together, you have this soupy thing going on: The storm on the Capitol was extremely goofy and extremely frightening. The people who, once inside the building, stayed within the rope lines like your standard D.C. tourists were part of the same chaotic swirl as the zip-tie guys wearing tactical gear. This is what tends to happen when a lot of people show up somewhere. It can look very stupid, even as something important is happening. 

There are other versions of how this works: Occupy Wall Street, a movement that set into motion a global struggle against plutocracy and helped turn demands like debt cancellation into achievable policy, included studied organizers with a strategy to build power as well as countless stoner guys whose participation was limited to playing bongos and eating Kind bars. This is why figuring out what the Capitol crisis meant—these bigger questions about small-d democracy and small-f fascism—will require some dexterity. 

The heavy career-day vibe at the Capitol was also another reminder that coverage of the Trump coalition and anti-democratic, white supremacist movements in this country is often lazy class caricature. A recent analysis of turnout in the 2016 election revealed that “support for Trump was strongest among the locally rich—that is, white voters with incomes that are high for their area, though not necessarily for the country as a whole.” About two-thirds of his voters that year had incomes above the national average, and he picked up more of them in 2020. This doesn’t mean that every guy who rushed a police barricade was a small-business owner, but the presence of working-class people in D.C. on Wednesday doesn’t make this a working-class movement. 

Violent reactionaries are often mischaracterized this way. “Contemporary critics belittled the KKK as an organization of uneducated rural hicks, but they were wrong,” the historian Linda Gordon noted in a 2018 interview with Verso that I was reminded of again last week. Perceptions about place were off—in the 1960s, “50 percent of active Klanspeople were urbanites, and 32 percent lived in the country’s larger cities”—as were ideas about relative wealth—“recent studies of local Klans show that members were mainly middle class and upper working class.”

The same mix of characters makes up the Republican Party’s base, but political shorthand and narrative elision often obscure this fact. Mainstream political journalists and careless feature writers have spent nearly a half-decade in the throes of a pathological refusal to let go of the myth of Trumpism as a singular force of the “white working class.” Rural has come to mean white, just as the absence of a college degree is supposed to signal poor. Suburban is also white, but in contrast to its rural racial correlative, it is also not racist. These are obfuscations. Sometimes I find myself using them, too. 

That this taxonomy is superficial is borne out by data, though simple observation is often enough to pierce the veil. I grew up in largely white neighborhoods in Queens and Long Island, the domain of cops, teachers, and commuter dads with nebulous office jobs who owned their homes and loved Rudy Giuliani, first as mayor and later as a mascot for post-9/11 chauvinism. During the 2016 election, publications I worked at spent thousands of dollars sending reporters to South Dakota to cover Trump voters, when they could have just gone to parts of Bayside, Massapequa, or wherever Stephen Ross lives and gotten the same quotes. (Perhaps most obviously: Trump is from a once-gated community in Queens called Jamaica Estates, which made four years of pronouncements from our mayor and governor about what New York is absurd on their face.)   

This isn’t a special insight or anything, but it is the primary lens through which I have understood the Capitol riot and the last four years: The long-brewing anti-democratic fever dream of the Koch Brothers and DeVos family getting a boost from Tom who sells stereo systems in Wantagh. 

The petit bourgeoisie (sorry) from these enclaves answered the president’s call last week; so did the more adept brawlers who were in direct confrontation with cops (including some who were cops themselves). It’s confusing. But then, so is almost everything about being alive. 

Similar to the Capitol riot, the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer looked like a combination of jokers livestreaming their distress about gym closures and military veterans prepared for real violence. (Even these lines of distinction were themselves often blurry—gym crybabies can have weapons, too.) Militia members and other far-right formations, rather than being outcasts or anathema to American democracy, are what the sociologist Harel Shapira has called its most “intimate products.” The cops fighting cops and the former Marines training law enforcement in “urban combat” against Black Lives Matter protesters are expressions of the relationships—fraught, contradictory, evolving—“between private and state violence that have marked American democracy from its founding to the present.”

Any attempt to use some kind of a checklist to determine if all of this should be taken seriously as either a coup or some stable definition of fascism runs the risk of obscuring the incoherence, dynamism, and fundamental danger of these movements. It was “inchoate fascism, fascism in its experimental, speculative phase,” the writer Richard Seymour observed last week. This sense of process—that fascism is a living thing and not some page copied out of a history book—is useful. A lot is happening at once, and not always intentionally. 

The events in D.C. last week, then, were familiar even as they were strange. The presence of soft-boy middle managers in an emergent coalition of MAGA types and more practiced fascists didn’t make any of it unserious—or at least not exclusively that. These associations are a preview of what’s to come, which will require mass organizing, direct confrontation, and political courage from our elected officials to root out and defeat. At work here are the guy who was falsely reported to have died after accidentally tasing his own balls and the person who built the pipe bombs police say they discovered at the Democratic and Republican National Committee offices.* This is to be expected: These events are inept playacting and deadly seriousness. 

An off-duty police officer from Pennsylvania, who identified himself only as Jeff, told The New York Times that he went to the Capitol last week without a clear sense of what would happen or what he would do when he got there. He intended to be adaptable. “There’s a lot of people here willing to take orders,” he said. “If the orders are given, the people will rise up.”

Later in the same piece, we were introduced to Kevin Haag, a 67-year-old retired landscaper from North Carolina who found himself on the steps of the Capitol but refused to go inside. He didn’t like that other people did. Still, he relished the sensation of being on the threshold. “It felt so good, he said, to show people: ‘We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!’”

* This article has been updated.