Why the tendency to downplay what’s happening?
The question is troubling as one considers the wide diversity of takes (on the left) in the aftermath of last week’s events in DC. To some, the Trump-incited mob’s entry into the Capitol was an attempted coup, or an insurrection—intentionally conveying all weightiness inherent in those terms.
To others, not so much. They suggest Wednesday’s event was more akin to a flash mob of Q-addled lunatics effectively coalescing in a momentary action; this collective did not so much “storm the US Capitol” as haphazardly loot, wandering aimlessly through that building until they got bored. It was spectacle. If perhaps somewhat alarming as a discrete event, the mob represented no significant threat—certainly less than that posed by a technocratic Biden administration, whose neoliberalism, amplified by whatever draconian legislation results from the January 6 riot, remains the more severe danger—if not, effectively, the only reality.
Aren’t both stories somewhat true? It strikes me that the intertwining of these two conceptions may be the most useful way to distill what happened last Wednesday, to amplify its severity—and as best we can, divine the future.
Though I find the invocation of coup d’état misleading—particularly given, as many pointed out, what coups have looked like in other countries, often supported by the US, over the last decades—I do think one can simultaneously express disgust at Joe Biden’s reference to the US Capitol as a “citadel of liberty” and recognize that an event like last Wednesday’s is real, and portends more extreme events. To say that the liberal order is the more dangerous threat is not wholly untrue but downplays the threatening complexity of the reaction that that liberal order has bred. Indeed the monotony of neoliberalism may well endure and worsen, as more and more people are crushed by poverty, hunger, the pandemic, ecological disaster, et cetera—while simultaneously transforming, adding new complexities, dangerous local realities, and more visible and overtly fascist elements, presumably with increasing speed. In other words, if this event is only spectacle—it will surely up the ante.
Those who would downplay the fascism inherent to Trumpism frequently point to the hyperbole of liberals—happy enough to rehabilitate George Bush, unwilling to meaningfully interrogate the basic tenets of the United States constitutional order—as evidence of histrionic or selective overreaction. A similar dynamic has happened with last week’s events; see Timothy Snyder on Democracy Now! But an often simplified and self-serving liberal conception of fascism does not negate the obvious fascistic components of the broad MAGA movement, nor those within last week’s occupation of the Capitol. As Robert Evans, vigilant fascist-watcher and chronicler of the Portland uprising last year, describes in an excellent (and free) audiobook, white nationalism and overt fascism have a long and violent recent history in this country. Dismissal of last Wednesday’s Capitol riot as the product of Q-LARPers—with no coherence, program, or capacity for “success”—misses this, intentionally or not, and fails to meaningfully understand and interrogate the phenomenon of fascism now.
Indeed, it is persistently frustrating that there remains a cohort who, in the name of sober analysis, continues to downplay the obvious and escalating severity of the situation—or insist on unnecessary and historically dubious definitions of fascism. One might recall that the actions (past or planned) of the MAGA crowd are only one element of the present; a devastating pandemic is ongoing, climate collapse is accelerating. Elites have no answers and will not offer any; presumably, they will increasingly be unable to hold the system together.
It also bears saying that there are no good answers. Obviously, every concern about unaccountable censorship and increased authoritarianism in an aggressively neoliberal Biden administration is legitimate. Nonetheless, it seems that the meaningful intersection of these two realities—intensified and streamlined neoliberalism, and reactionary fascism—is where we ought to give attention. To focus selectively on one is only marginally useful at this point—the two exist dialectically, on a continuum—and as catch-all explanation avoids confronting the reality of the present, which is one of collapse, breakdown, in an unprecedented manner. Wherever you land, 20,000 troops at an American inauguration is an extreme and new development, and heralds a not-positive change (as does the Joint Chiefs reminding those troops that they took an oath to the constitution). Those who would downplay what is percolating now might seriously consider that.