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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.

Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington.
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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.

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James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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