The Political Fallout From the Capitol Hill Invasion May Prove More Significant Than 9/11

Photograph Source: The National Guard – CC BY 2.0

I was always worried when I had to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad at a time when its entrances were under frequent attack by suicide bombers driving vehicles filled with explosives.

Being blown up by al-Qaeda in Iraq was not the only danger. The soldiers guarding the outer checkpoints of the zone were understandably nervous and would shoot at any vehicle they thought was coming too close to them. Once, I had to cower down behind a concrete barrier as they fired at a battered old car which had stalled just in front of their position.

I recalled the old Baghdad Green Zone this week as 25,000 National Guards established a well-defended area with the same name in the centre of Washington. The overt purpose was to protect the inauguration of Joe Biden as president and US security agencies, caught on the hop by the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January, were busy slamming the stable door long after the immediate crisis was over.

The Democrats and the largely Trump-hating media want to portray the alt-right rioters as “domestic terrorists” who had staged an abortive “insurrection” in order to stop Biden taking office. Clearly, some members of the mob would have liked to do just that, but, despite the impression given by all those blood-curdling video films, this was not a “coup” in the sense of an organised attempt to seize power. Any suggestion that the US capital faced a threat anything like that to the Green Zone in Baghdad 15 years ago is an absurd exaggeration.

What we are seeing is political theatre, which is scarcely surprising since we have seen little else during Donald Trump’s four years in the White House. It is fitting that the end of the Trump presidency was marked by two events – the Capitol invasion and the exaggerated military response to it – that hover between theatre and reality.

At one level, it is gratifying to see the Republicans, who last year came close to winning the presidential election by pretending that Black Lives Matter protests were a “terrorist” insurgency, now claiming to be the defenders of sober truth and piously expressing dismay that the Democrats should be endangering national unity. This is a classic case of biter bit and hypocrisy run rampant.

In reality, the Republican leadership is frightened by the idea that “1/6” will become the new “9/11”, permanently demonising them and splitting their party. A billboard in one Trump-voting rural county in Texas spells this out, denouncing “treasonous RINOs” – Republicans in name only – who refused to back Trump’s claim that he had lost the election through fraud.

For all Biden’s talk of “unity”, the Democrats have an opportunity to extract political blood from the Republicans and are not going to pass it up. If they play their cards right, they can exploit the shambolic invasion of the Capitol for years, just as the Republicans did 9/11. The loss of life is very different – five dead compared to 2,977 – but in terms of perception the two events have significant features in common.

Both were highly visible even by the standards of round-the-clock news coverage: the image of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers was seared into the minds of Americans by repeated showings. Every detail of the takeover of the Capitol is likewise known to the world because the supposed revolutionaries spent much time taking film of themselves. Politics has always been a form of theatre but satellite television and the internet means that today the whole world really is its stage.

The Democrats have been dealt a strong hand but it is an easy one to overplay. In the long term, 9/11 succeeded far better than Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda could have hoped because it provoked a disastrous overreaction by President George W Bush, who pursued his “war on terror”, launching two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and openly legitimising America’s use of torture and rendition.

Over-exploitation of 1/6 for short political gain could likewise be counter-productive if it targets too broad a swathe of Republicans. The gambit of former supporters of Trump on Fox News is to claim that all the 74 million Americans who voted for him are being unfairly demonised. Big business may be hurriedly distancing itself from Trump and Trumpism, but its revulsion may not last as plutocrats recall what he delivered for them in terms of tax cuts and deregulation.

It is doubtful if Trump himself could lead a resurgence of Trumpism after his Nero-like inaction during the pandemic, nor will he easily escape the explosive consequences of his belligerent demagoguery addressed to his supporters before they went on to storm the Capitol. Regardless of just how far he egged them on, their lawyers will presumably be telling their clients that it is much in their interests to claim that they believed that they were obeying a direct order from the president, without which they would not have stirred an illegal finger.

I believe a Trumpian resurrection would be very difficult because the danger he poses to so many has been so graphically demonstrated over the last four years. He no longer has the advantage of surprise and of opponents, Republican and Democrat, who underestimate him.

His great skill continues to be his mastery of modern communications, notably Twitter and television, but his chronicle of ineptitude in office showed that he had mastered nothing else.

His chaotic rule appropriately culminated in his catastrophic mishandling of the Covid-19 epidemic and 400,000 Americans dead. Yet even then, he only just lost the election, showing the vast size of the constituency to whom he appeals.

As he retreats to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Trump remains an obsession for America and the world. The prospect of his political revival is thankfully less than a few weeks ago when it seemed possible that he might set up his own television station, stage mass rallies, and claim that he had been robbed of the presidency. Today he probably has too many powerful enemies, now in control of government, for a comeback.

Yet the social, economic and cultural causes of the rise of Trump are still there. Broadly speaking, the neo-liberal economics dominant for 40 years since the age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have produced unsustainable inequality. This is not just an American phenomenon. Trump is, after all, only the American variant in a range of populist nationalist autocrats who have taken power around the world from Brazil to Turkey and from Hungary to the Philippines.

America has always been more deeply divided by race and class than most Americans and almost all foreigners realised. The repeated, rather desperate, appeals for unity at Biden’s inauguration serve only to emphasise the divisions. Given the depths of the hatreds and fears, it is surprising that there has not been more violence. In the 1960s, turmoil in America was typified by demonstrations and riots, but above all else by assassination, something which we have yet to see this time around. Biden spoke of ending the “uncivil war” but this has lain beneath the surface of American life since independence and will not end now.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).