The Trump Mob Combined the Worst of Left And Right
The president’s supporters are full of sound and fury, signifying far less than they claim.
In The Making of The President 1968, a deeply shocked Theodore H. White describes, first, the anarchic violence of student radicals ransacking university campuses, and then the furious backlash that propelled the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama. In stoking the alienation of “the white workingmen of America,” White prophetically observed: “George Wallace uncovered a reality that will be of concern for years.”
Half a century later, in last week’s assault on the Capitol Building—and thus on government itself—we have witnessed a convergence that White could scarcely have imagined between the expressive violence of the 1960s left and the hate-filled politics of the contemporary right. The imagery has been disorienting. Those of us old enough to have participated in the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War may have watched the scenes of bearded, placard-bearing men scaling the walls of the Capitol with a weird wrench of feeling. The muscle memory said, “Right on, brother!”; conscious thought cried, “How dare you?”
Extremists on both the far-right and left have long shared an affinity with romanticized and ritualized violence. In the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Sixties, Black Panther leaders like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton enjoyed a lurid glamor; their place has been filled in our own time by the gun-toting cowpunchers who joined Cliven Bundy and his family at their 2014 melodramatic confrontation with federal officials over access to Western grazing. Many of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s rallies throbbed with a mood of violence that occasionally precipitated actual attacks against protestors or journalists. But rage and paranoia on the right was sated by a simple fact: Trump won. Had he lost in 2016, we might have seen the mayhem we’re witnessing today.
What was postponed has now arrived. It’s all too possible that last week’s riot represents not the dying spasm of a defeated remnant, but the advent of a new era of violence carried out in Trump’s name and with at least implicit blessing. The more that leading GOP officials part ways with Trump, as they have in recent days, the more he will tighten his grip on the acolytes whose dreams and nightmares he orchestrates. The mob awaits directions.
[To read FP’s ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, click here.]
The Sixties did, of course, include nihilistic violence that laid waste to whole neighborhoods in Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. And even peaceful protests can provide shelter for rioters and looters, as we saw during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. But a protest march is not a riot; it is a form of expression that typically involves a great deal of speaking and listening. What I recall from the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam was interminable speechifying from a platform much too far away for me either to hear or see much of anything. I found my way home in a bus chartered by the furriers union.
In short, while there can be left-wing mobs and right-wing mobs, the salient difference between that moment and this one is between purposefulness and nihilism. Protests are a form of political speech that seeks, and may be addressed by, a political response. Mob violence, insofar as it has political content at all, is more like a species of blackmail that seeks to terrorize authorities into submission. That was the goal of the armed crowd that tried to compel Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to rescind coronavirus restrictions last summer—not to mention of the small group that planned to kidnap her and other Democratic leaders, like a latter-day version of the Red Brigades. Mobs like last week’s are almost too inchoate to be said to have a goal, but these Trumpistas must have imagined that they could force Congress to overturn the results of the presidential election. The fact that they failed to change the outcome may matter less than the fact that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in creating a spectacle.
Former President Lyndon B. Johnson could have taken the air out of the protest movement by calling a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and forcing the Saigon government to negotiate with the North. President-elect Joe Biden won’t be able to do anything to reach the kind of people who swarmed over the Capitol. Their only demand is to reverse history—not just the outcome of the election but all the forces that have diminished the status of the white American male. Biden’s emollient language of bipartisanship will mean nothing to people who identify with neither party. Public officials will have no choice but to respond with force if a mob attacks the offices of a major newspaper or broadcaster, or an embassy or a foundation. That, in turn, will exacerbate the rioters’ mythology of exclusion and the depth of their alienation. And Trump will likely find ways to egg on hias hardhats from the club room at Mar-a-Lago. Mob violence could well prove self-perpetuating.
Trump’s Svengali-like hold on one-third or so of the American people ensures that the toxins he has poured into the American system will not drain away soon. That said, the kind of violence we saw last week may repel many Americans with a residual sense of decency. In 1968, tens of millions of Americans came to conclude that the kids were right about Vietnam, even if they deplored their tactics; much the same can be said of the Black Lives Matter protests. Trump, however, will likely preside over a shrinking, if increasingly radicalized, faction.
The analogy with the 1960s, when, as White noted, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) radicalism inflated Wallace’s popularity, might encourage progressives to predict a left-wing backlash to today’s right-wing extremism—a Reaganism of the left. But that misjudges the moment. The mob that attacked the Capitol does not stand for right-wing politics any more than their puppet master does; they are engines of destruction. Americans are not going to respond by rallying around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If there is a silver lining here—and how can you not hope for one?—it is that Americans of all camps might respond by repudiating mob tactics, and by coming to terms with the restraints imposed by liberal democracy.
I admit, however, that I have been holding out hope for such a mass awakening for the last two or three years. I haven’t been proved right yet.
James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.