The Treachery of (Words and) Images
Wednesday’s events were horrible, dangerous, infuriating, and predictable. People with weapons easily breached the Capitol, gallows were hung (perhaps performative, maybe not), and people were attacked and five are now dead. The country was stunned, and both establishment and social media have been deeming this Trump’s “coup” or an “insurrection” from the first. It’s hard to talk about this. Trump is horrid, detestable, and dangerous, and any time you try to reel the rhetoric back, you can be accused of being an apologist for a cruel, racist, inhuman bigot who happens to be president—which all makes sense. But doing awful things doesn’t mean we have fascism, and vandals and thugs breaking into a sacred public building doesn’t mean we’ve had a coup. There’s no saving grace to any of this, but it needs to be viewed in a clearheaded and coldblooded way.
Words matter and what happened was awful and surreal, and can be analyzed with a sense of history and politics, not in a media-induced frenzy. Hysteria, panic and fear have been the Left’s approach to virtually everything Trump’s done, and he’s done a lot to freak people out, and what’s that gotten us? Political awareness and action can certainly feed off fury—like much of 2020’s protest—but panic and utter fear aren’t good strategies. Now is the time to stay as calm as possible and plan for the future.
The imagery of January 6th was more intense and brazenly violent of any during the Trump era, because of the target—the Capitol, a genuinely terrifying sight. Otherwise we’ve seen this before in Charlottesville, the Michigan Capitol building, anti-mask rallies, or when groups like the Proud Boys attacked protestors in cities like Portland. We’ve witnessed immense numbers of Americans, Black Lives Matter and Antifa most often, but even 9 year old kids and Walls of Moms, beaten, gassed, shot with “less-than-lethal” weapons, rammed with cars, you name it.
And this, despite the anguished cries of talking heads, is nothing close to 9/11–and think about the way we talk about 9/11 now compared to 2001–the more distance one gets from events like this, the more realistic rather than frightening they become. Katrina was a humanitarian disaster. Read contemporary accounts of Nixon’s final days. Remember the stunning impact of the OKC bombings. We’re now seeing over 4000 people die, daily, more than 9/11, from COVID and these same bigoted thugs who ransacked D.C. have had countless riots over mask-wearing.
For that matter, we’ve seen dozens of public massacres at malls, bases, and of course schools—with no meaningful response. A classroom of second graders was slaughtered, and legislative crickets…. And of course the country was built upon the massive bloodshed of the indigenous, slaves, and immigrant workers. It would help to exhale. If this is the worst day in American history, we’ll be blessed.
Seeing this as a normal event in America in 2021 is a better, and actually more radical, way to analyze and plan going forward than treating it like a coup d’etat, which has a far more unique and ideological quality to it. Violence, like H. Rap Brown said, is as American as cherry pie.
The language of the Ruling Class: The street protests of 2020 were called “riots” by much of the political class and media and “uprisings” or “rebellions” by people on the Left. American history is full of conflict, with words creating interpretation. “Mobs” and “Crowds” or “rabble” don’t imply class or political consciousness, and a riot is an angry passionate uprising which denies people agency. Insurrection is not just a word but a legal term, used against the Left throughout the various Red Scares in American history. You insist on calling the action of Trump’s thugs an insurrection, you can be damn sure they’ll say that that the next time you’re protesting the police killing an unarmed Black man or woman. A “coup” is in fact empowering, and gives an estimable status to people who deserve absolutely no respect.
If the ruling class called people who were righteously protesting, maybe 30 million of them, all over America, a “mob” that was starting “riots,” why turn around and call partisans of their side—more violent and without any social or political justification—an insurrection or a group staging a coup? Why give them that stature, using the language of the ruling class. People who defend the elite will never be charged with insurrection. People who reveal state secrets, like Julian Assange, or make antiwar speeches, like Gene Debs, will. At the same time, many people are exercised about “blowback” right now–the idea that any Lefty who calls for action against the mob is playing in to the hands of state by legitimating its repression.
I understand the concern but the State doesn’t have to look hard to find excuses for repression, and we on the Left should absolutely want to see the people involved in Wednesday’s actions be arrested (though of course not cooperate with authorities in any way to make that happen). I have no problem defending BLM and Antifa actions from this summer, while attacking Trump’s crazed mobs. To suggest that the Left should have sympathy for them is the same false equivalence we get from the corporate media. But in the end, the ruling class will do what the ruling class wants to do and it will find a reason to do it.
People who are willing to defend ruling class interests will always be called “patriots”; the Left will never own that word and needs to put it away. Same with “traitors.” There’s some utility in turning the tables on Trump and the rest of them and referring to these people as “thugs” and “looters” and “scum.” People who foment a coup would have some brains and skills. Why give them undeserved credit for the events of January 6th? And if you want to be terrified, keep in mind that a real “coup” would make Wednesday look no different than Black Friday at Wal-Mart or, courtesy of a Facebook friend, a kegger when Dad was out of town. When you use the language of the ruling class, you’re already in the hole.
The Coup That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: By Wednesday, Trump’s inner circle, the people who continued to fight to overturn the election, consisted of him, an Adderall-addicted madman; his son, a coke-addicted madman; Giuliani, a pre-embalmed madman; Sidney Powell, a madwoman now facing a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit, and Mark Meadows. By that time, everyone else had jumped ship. It was as if only Neidermeyer and Marmalard were left and the float was barreling right at them. So Trump incited a big group of people (which was small, tiny,infinitesimal compared to the Black Lives Matter protests last year) who were raged out, and they marched on the Capitol and mayhem ensued, abetted by some police acting more like maîtres d’ than law-and-order types.
One does not make a blueprint for and carry out a takeover of government on Twitter for weeks ahead of time, in the open, with no actually planning; but he can certainly incite the mob that way, and Trump surely did, as always. That was not an organized Coup d’Etat. It was not an insurrection. It was not unpredictable. It was violent and it was ugly, like Trump’s language. Some scary shit went down, no doubt. But look beyond the spectacle of horrifying images and think about the larger political context.
The people who breached the Capitol for the most part walked around like gawking tourists from Peoria, many looking amazed like the dog that caught the car, taking selfies, live-streaming (and doxing themselves), walking into the chambers, going into Pelosi’s office, carrying Confederate flags and doing other odious things. Some got violent and pipe bombs were found. This wasn’t a group of peaceful protestors holding a vigil. It was a mob. They vandalized the place.
Though a horrifying sight, they had no plan, no organization. They smeared feces on the walls. They had bloodlust fantasies, but no way of carrying them through. No organization, no reinforcements on the way. They were as much capable of fomenting a coup as Giuliani and Powell were an “elite strike force” ready to take on the Supreme Court. When the National Guard finally arrived—called by Pence, the Vice-President of the guy who was stirring up the thugs—the crowd was gone quickly, snowflakes with no stomach for a real confrontation. That doesn’t mean they should be allowed to walk away. They’re seriously violent and incited by an unhinged cult leader. I’ve seen voiced on the Left express concern about the federal government going after them. Really? They need to be all arrested and dealt with harshly.
If you’ve ever read about a real coup, or a real crisis in government, it does not consist of a mob of people storming a building and taking selfies by which law enforcement can identify them. Seriously, I’m not downplaying it. It was horrific and fury-inducing. But there was never any possibility above Zero that the election would be overturned, Biden’s victory would be canceled out, Trump would remain in office, or that some government force would march down to the Capitol to stage a coup, or that “American democracy was in the balance,” as the more hysterical media people and the experts they brought in screamed. That was not happening and the media who kept ratcheting up the alarm and anxiety and fear got good ratings from it.
Trump’s Allies Were the Target: When the MAGA thugs broke into the Capitol they started shouting “Where’s Pence” and there were people calling for the Veep to hang on the gallows. Inside the Trump Death Cult, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and now Lindsey Graham had become the main enemies for rejecting Trump’s begging to change the Electoral College. Indeed, as Trump became more unhinged and desperate in the last week, he shifted away from the Democrats and put a laser focus on RINOs, in his fetid mind, like Kemp and Raffensperger, then Thune and Romney of course, and finally Pence and McConnell. After being in the crosshairs of the mob and seeing their names on hit lists, you can be assured they’ll start taking right-wing violence more seriously, after years of inciting it. The chickens truly have come home to roost.
At the same time, it’s been reported that pretty much everyone in the White House outside of 5 or 6 madpersons were trying to talk Trump down. Again, if they didn’t expect this and were trying to extinguish it (for their own self-serving reasons) it’s not a coup. It’s political violence, but more like a scene out of a dark political comedy than Guatemala City, Tehran, or Santiago or …..
The Ruling Class … Again—the Military: Along with Green and Red Podcast co-host Scott Parkin, I’ve been discussing the ruling class’s role in Trump’s demise ad nauseum for months now, in print and on the air. We’ve written about it and done a podcast on it. People, even the Left, focus on Trump’s words and the ball of string he’s using to bait us, that they don’t look beyond that to see who’s actually making decisions, who has power, who will decide Trump’s fate. Ugly tweets have accomplished more than ever thought imaginable, but that’s because there were important people benefiting from the environment Trump created and were willing to tolerate him while McConnell, Barr and other polecats did the dirty work.
When the military rebuked Trump last summer after the shameful and violent photo op, when Mattis and other retired generals and then Milley himself castigated Trump and apologized, when the Secretaries of Defense and the various services made statements on behalf of racial justice, when Trump kept insisting on keeping Confederate base names and recently vetoed a defense budget for that reason, it was obvious, with no doubt, that he had no force with which to remain in power. Trump wasn’t trying to overthrow a government, he was trying to stay in the White House to lead a government that despised him.
It was clear that the military was never going to help him do that. And then just a few days before the Electoral College certification, the ten living defense secretaries, in an effort led by Dick Cheney (yeah, what were the odds in Vegas on that?) warned Trump not to try to overturn the election and called on the military to stay out of politics. And just today, Pelosi told the media that she talked to Milley to “discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”
And the Bankers: Just a couple weeks after the election, in mid-November, various ruling class groups—Wall Street banks, the Chamber of Commerce, fatcat donors, and others—began to tell Trump to go away, even threatening to withhold donations to the GOP in the future if he kept inciting the mob with insane claims of a rigged election. Trump did keep the flames going, and the failure of the oligarchs to step in at that point, along with Biden’s “just ignore him” strategy, were huge errors. Trump was allowed to own the narrative for two months because he was just viewed as a souped-up version of a crazy uncle. People should have been in the streets too. There are a lot of lessons to be learned there. The events of January 6th could have been prevented well ahead of time.
But this week, the dam broke. Various business groups began to more vocally call for Trump to stand down, and GOP senators, hoping to avoid Trump’s twitter wrath up to that point, finally went public with their plan to certify Biden. Koch-backed groups weighed in as well, telling Trump to give it up. Then, most stunningly, on Wednesday, as the mobs ransacked the Capitol, the National Association of Manufacturers, as intensely anti-labor and anti-liberal as any group in Washington, the people who brought you Taft-Hartley, led by a longtime GOP operative, dropped the big one and put out a press release with the title “Manufacturers Call on Armed Thugs to Cease Violence at Capitol,” warning that “Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit,” and called on the Cabinet and Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment—as if Snoop quit weed, Shrodinger’s Cat died, and Satan had a Come-to-Jesus moment, all at the same time.
From there, the oligarchs piled on, culminating on January 7th with a call from the Wall Street Journal itself for Trump to resign. And on Wednesday, the 7th, as the Capitol was “under siege,” the Dow went up 437.80 and the next day, 211.73. As I write this, Dow futures are +161.00. Just today, the Grey Lady reported that “the party faces a threat to its financial base, too. Several of the most powerful business federations in Washington denounced the chaos this week in stinging language” such as the “extraordinary” statement from NAM. The ruling class got even richer from Trump and then ditched him and is secure and feels like it has things under control now.
This “dissent” from the military and ruling class, and even some elements within the Republican Party, are important, and should not be dismissed. When the ruling class shows fissures, you have to do whatever you can, no matter how seemingly small, to act on them. Capitalists aren’t going to overthrow themselves and hand power to you (they wouldn’t be much of a ruling class if they did….). People need to organize, outside of the Democrats and The Squad, in the streets and beyond the venue of electoral politics, to get things done.
Getting rid of Trump was important. Time spent on social media or elsewhere complaining about Biden and his party will be wasted energy. Our needs are great and time is short, and should not be used chasing the chimera of a Democratic epiphany or some kind of bipartisanship or reconciliation (two more words that should be retired). Last summer, when corporations waved BLM banners and set up scholarship funds and such, or when the NBA and WNBA went into their bubbles and conducted virtual seminars on Black history, that wasn’t revolutionary, but it did expose many people, surely millions, to ideas they would not have known otherwise, and they can act on those. It’s our job to follow up on that, to exploit in any way, even if it seems trivial at the moment, those spaces, those openings to introduce new ideas and actions and make them legitimate and eventually accepted.
It’s Not Over: In the coming months we’ll see countless post-mortems on this, with breathtaking headlines about how close we came to losing America and such. This needs to be analyzed absolutely, and with more reason than passion. But we already know what caused it—years of austerity and Democratic failure to help the working class and its commitment to Wall Street, Clinton’s “triangulation,” and Obama’s political fecklessness—leaving the field open to someone like Trump, who used it to incite angry people who felt dispossessed by elites and racial minorities. As the great Gil Scott-Heron told us, “America leads the world in shocks. Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock.”
Groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon offered a response and they aren’t going away, and in fact are now in Congress and other legitimate political spaces, while Trump’s flunky Ronna McDaniel will stay on as RNC Chair. Trumpism is here and we have to meet it with strength, in the streets if need be, but not count on Pelosi, Garland, The Squad or other politicos to do it for us.
I think it’s more than a quibble to reconsider what we call things like this. A “coup” gives too much credit and political oxygen to a group of violent miscreants and thugs. Talk of insurrection and sedition can boomerang back against the Left. Insisting on calling everyone a “terrorist,” be it a crazed guy with a van in Nashville or QAnon devotees in a Viking costume in the halls of congress, makes it easier to use that word against protestors in Portland and Seattle and New York and everywhere else. For what it’s worth, the public response to Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Defunding th Police and other “snappy” ideas is now better than it’s ever been, so this summer’s actions did matter.
ABC News kept referring to the vile mob on Wednesday as “anarchists,” and that’s a greater cause for anger, and action, than a word like coup or insurrection. The people, the groups, and the language that led to the world today won’t fix the current crisis. That’s up to us–doing mutual aid, forming affinity groups, organizing unions a ton of associations, and getting into the streets. They’re a mob causing a riot, we are leading a rebellion.
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