Looking back on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol


Tyler Merbler

CALLED TO ACTION: Thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C. to demand that Vice President Mike Pence and Congress reject Biden’s presidential victory.

Rioters in support of former President Donald Trump stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, leaving the nation in a state of chaos and confusion just two weeks before President Joe Biden’s inauguration. As the first time since the 1814 Burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812 that hostile forces invaded Capitol Hill, this event will undoubtedly make history. But we can’t just accept an event like this.

To prevent another infamous Capitol Hill riot two centuries from now, we have to realize that this riot was grounded in America’s growing populist sentiment ever since Trump’s election in 2016. Trump, his followers and media outlets behaved at best irresponsibly and at worst criminally by insisting through insidious speeches that the 2020 presidential election was corrupt. According to federal election infrastructure officials, the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history.”

Make no mistake: There is much more to this riot than an aggregation of angry Trump supporters who spontaneously decided to storm the Capitol, as their defense attorneys claim. Although Trump’s inflammatory words during the inaptly named “Save America” rally—held only a few hours before the storm—definitely lit the powder keg, the plot to overthrow America’s democracy had been building like a storm for weeks. As early as election night, when Trump prematurely and erroneously claimed victory even as votes were still being counted, the plot for a coup d’etat began.

According to a report by Slate, the strategy to take advantage of the so-called red mirage—that early election returns would appear better for Trump than the final counts—started during the weeks leading up to the election, with Trump going so far as to rehearse his lines, according to former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Trump showed no signs of conceding, and social media and conservative news outlets allowed their platforms to be used for the continued assertion of false or unprovable claims for angry Trump supporters to lap up. In the meantime, Trump continued to spout outright lies of widespread voter fraud in several battleground states, and even invited supporters to come to a “big protest in D.C.” on Dec. 20, 2020, promising it would be “wild.”

The days leading up to the riot itself consisted of Mayor Muriel Bowser requesting the deployment of the D.C. National Guard as support for the local police force. These unarmed guards served as little more than “crowd control,” a stark contrast to the response earlier in the year to protests by Black Lives Matter. And though the vile acts of the insurrectionists have been thoroughly documented—mostly gleefully by the offenders themselves on social media—Trump himself refused to intervene for four hours as congressional members and staffers worried for their lives.

In the rubble and shattered glass of the aftermath that left five people dead and 140 officers injured, it’s up to us to examine not only how insurgents gained relatively easy access to the Capitol (there are reports of inside help from members of the GOP and Capitol police), but also how people were so easily radicalized into violent frenzy through perpetual and unchecked lies. How do we stop this from happening again?

There is no easy answer. The FBI is rounding up participants, the Senate is holding trial to convict Trump and social media companies have eradicated their ranks of QAnon and other conspiracy tweeters. While these steps go a long way to giving consequence to treasonist action, they do not address the ongoing exploitation of populist beliefs by the ruling class and the GOP.

At its heart, populism attempts to put the beliefs of ordinary Americans at the forefront of decisions, arguing that the elite discount the struggle of middle Americans. In the GOP version, the elites are liberal snowflakes who concern themselves with government handouts to the poor and political correctness (never mind the billionaires that make up the ranks of the GOP).

The rhetoric that white Americans somehow have lost out due to social justice and increased rights for minority groups rings true in the ears of low-income whites, who somehow believe they have more in common with the billionaires than with minority groups because their skin is the same color. Their aggression would be better served toward dismantling corrupt practices (such as Trump’s tax cut) within the GOP, but Trump supporters and the like have successfully exploited the frustrations of poor white Americans and duped them into being cannon fodder in a failed coup d’etat.

Republican leadership should condemn the actions of Jan. 6, swiftly rebuke all involved and expel the extremist, racist, anti-democracy, conspiracy-wielding parts of their party, but the response so far has been half-hearted calls for unity and deafening silence. On the side of “ordinary Americans,” we can buffer ourselves from exploitative populism by recognizing that it thrives on volatile short-term whims; the expression “think before you act” has never been more appropriate. To ensure that these mistakes are never made again, we must speak out about them. Silence in the face of anti-democracy is complicity in democracy’s downfall.