The Capitol building riot shows us that while the Left take to the streets, the Right take the government
It’s fair to ask why the riot in the United States Capitol four weeks ago was important enough to impeach the President.
That’s what many on the Right are asking, at least. They point out that last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd resulted in scores of casualties and millions of dollars in damage, and that no one was ever accused of “insurrection”, which is how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly characterized what transpired after Donald Trump invited his supporters to march on the Capitol Building.
To appreciate the special threat that the rioters on the Capitol did indeed represent, it’s necessary to look past the smallness of their number and the brevity of their spectacle -and a “spectacle” is what it really was. It wasn’t a “coup,” as so many headlines breathlessly claimed. A coup is an inside job, a contest among elites.
The rioters on the Capitol were very much on the outside, as their face paint and homemade tactical outfits so vividly attest.
Nor was their disruption particularly violent, compared to what the city itself has seen in the past.
Sympathizers of the Capitol rioters would waste no time in reminding us of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1969, when some 12,000 buildings were damaged, 13 people killed and another 1,000 injured.
And yet those rioters never ventured into the Capitol itself. Neither have protestors or rioters since then in any other cause associated with the Left attempted to invade a city hall, much less the seat of the Federal legislative branch.
Indeed, what is it about the Right that makes it so obsessed with the government? Just last October, the FBI broke up a right-wing plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and the Department of Homeland Security considers right-wing extremists to be a threat to national security.
In the comparatively tame world of politics, conservatives have managed to impose their initiatives for the last half-century in one wave after another of successful election drives, including the New Conservatives who gave us Ronald Reagan and the Neo Conservatives who gave us George W. Bush.
The success over the last decade of the amorphous conservative movement known as the “Tea Party” has been especially baffling to many on the Left, as it coincided with the Progressive “Occupy” protests that garnered so much attention and seemed to have enjoyed such success in formulating an all-inclusive identity of the “ninety-nine percent” opposed to the world’s wealthy elite.
That movement seemingly disappeared as soon as its tent encampments came down, whereas Tea Party sympathizers went on to fill seats in both chambers of government and then the White House itself.
The fact is that the Tea Party wasn’t a “protest” at all, in spite of its homemade signs and public gatherings.
The Occupy movement, on the other hand, was only ever an appeal to figures of authority, never a claim to authority itself.
After all, when protestors take to the streets, they do so to draw attention to themselves as a distinct cohort with a certain point of view.
The slogan “black lives matters,” for example, is meant to highlight the singular challenges that black people face living in a predominantly non-black society, and yet it also reflects a unique self-identity that cannot speak for society as a whole.
No such complication exists with the slogan “the silent majority,” which has held sway on the Right ever since President Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, used it in a 1969 televised address aimed at the highly visible protests against his policies in Vietnam.
That turn of phrase is powerful not simply because it ingeniously calls attention to a base of supporters who don’t exactly call attention to themselves, but because of the implication that such people don’t even have to attract attention, since their views already make up the cultural mainstream.
Those individuals were and are mostly white, of course.
But to dismiss their sentiments as a matter of ethnic chauvinism is to over-simplify the challenge that the Left faces, since Progressive efforts to re-orient the nation away from its traditional image as an Anglo-Saxon society confronts an opposition who draws no distinction at all between its own imperatives and those of the nation itself.
That kind of thinking is what permits a bare-chested man sporting a buffalo headdress to stroll right into the halls of Congress as if he were a consummate insider. A ludicrous sight, to be sure, but then so were the crowds of hecklers that used to harass black students courageously taking the first steps towards school integration. One gets the feeling that the crowds never really went home; they just ran for office.
Every “protest” on the Right is always an “insurrection” of a kind, whatever form it takes.