The riot of the Capitol at the center of American history

Translated by Margot Daniele, proofread by Marie Peltomaki

The chronicle of Recherches internationales

Let us briefly recall the facts of the events on January 6, 2021, in the capital of the United States: a rioting mob of the extreme right, worked up into a frenzy by Trump who was still the president at the time, managed to get into the premises of the Capitol where the two Chambers of Congress are based. These rioters wanted to stop the vice president, Mike Pence, from conducting the certification session of the November 2020 election results, won without a doubt by Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate. We were able to see images showing overwhelmed policemen and rioters, who were all practically white, taking selfies in various offices, including the office of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader and president of the lower house. Five people were killed, including a woman. That woman was Ashli Babbitt, a conspiracist, extremist Trump supporter, a former soldier and a former elector of Obama. At last, the police regained control of the Capitol and the certifying vote of Biden’s victory was able to take place during the night.

The shock and emotion have evidently affected American citizens and viewers from all over the world, who followed the riot live. According to the reports that kept on being brought up in the media, the “temple of American democracy” was attacked by a group of conspiracists of the QAnon movement that had been strongly urged by an unconventional and out of control president; Trump still has not admitted defeat and has no intention of doing so. This was a serious attack against democratic institutions and, although the American democracy has its faults, the severity of this kind of event is undeniable.

We must question the unbelievable failure of the police. The force that was in charge of defending Congress consisted of 2300 people and the announcement of the Trump rally had been known for a long time. The national guard was not called for backup. Images show demonstrators taking selfies with policemen, suggesting at least an ideological proximity. The chief of police of the Capitol resigned and there is an ongoing investigation, but it is clear that it was the fault of the police that allowed the rioters were able to enter the parliament. A great number of eyewitnesses were able to point out that the police punished Black Lives Matter protesters much more violently. We must analyze the nature of the riot and at the same time what made the invasion of the Capitol possible.

Trump’s legitimacy was challenged by his vice-president and by the chief of the Republican majority at the Senate, McConnell, although they are both from the right-wing and were up until now aligned with the president. The power elite that had been useful for Trump up until now abandoned him.

A semantic battle took place in the media and among American political leaders during the riot, fueled by the president himself. Should we talk about a coup, a putsch, an attempted coup or putsch, an uprising, a riot, a protest that went wrong? In France, the parallel to the 6 February crisis in 1934, when fascist leagues or of extreme right attempted to penetrate the Palais Bourbon unsuccessfully, was sometimes made, but this comparison is problematic since the police was not overwhelmed and rioters were not encouraged by the president.

This semantic battle is crucial because it determines political actions. Democrats started a second impeachment procedure of Trump for provoking insurrection. The historian Romain Huret explained in a France Culture broadcast that he did not want to use the expression “coup d’état” out of consideration for real victims of coups. Indeed, putsches or coups involve a need for armed forces, while on January 6, 2021, armed forces were not next to rioters and the order was reestablished by the police force. Being precise on terminology does not lead to minimizing the severity of an insurrectional riot. Coups like those in Chile in 1973 or in Greece in 1967, that the United States has participated in stirring up, had much more serious consequences because the army had stayed in power and had imposed a military dictatorship. Coup attempts such as the ones in Spain in 1981 or in Turkey in 2016 are also partially brought about by armed forces. In the text “The devil’s right hand: war, militia and alt-right in the United States”, published on the ACO platform, Romain Huret effectively traces the history of factors that enable this type of riots. His title comes from a song by Steve Earle, that denounces the danger of firearms. For him, the key point is: “the emergence and reinforcement of the nebulous militia and paramilitary are above all the result of the war state that is permanent since the Vietnam war”. To my knowledge, but a few media reports and no Democratic members have made the connection between exterior wars, the presence of firearms in the country, the extreme right-wing militia and the brutality of the rioters, some of which were former soldiers.

A senator, Susan Collins, declared that when the attack of the Capitol took place, she thought that “Iranians” were responsible for this while Nancy Pelosi thought this was Putin’s action. At a time when the American democracy is threatened from the inside by the militia encouraged by the president, some Democrats are tempted to “protect their democracy” by looking at other factors than the national history. The American historian Eri Foner perfectly identifies the characteristics of this insurrectional riot in an article published by The Nation, “The Capitol Riot Reveals the Dangers from the Enemy Within”. He traces the history of racist insurrections and numerous weaknesses in the American democracy throughout history.

These two historians shoot down the temptation of explaining the riot by external factors instead of looking at the American history, but they also stress that, as Huret says, “by only making Donald Trump responsible for the occupation of the Capitol, the United States is missing the big picture”, in other words, the history of the militia that he presents. The riot on January 6 in 2021 is serious and worrying, particularly because the president was involved and because his speech is so often inflammatory, or even genocidist, but it is also, like Trump himself, a symptom of a more serious illness in American society. An illness that Martin Luther King had identified in his speech at Riverside Church in 1967 as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism”, personifying Trump more than fifty years later.

We cannot avoid the sociological question of the basis of conspiracy theories and extreme right armed militias that evidently are a great danger to democracy. The female rioter killed by the police mentioned above had first voted for Obama and then joined a racist movement and become a Trump supporter. Her journey illustrates the culture of despair that can lead to riots and conspiracies, but that could also lead to a left-wing contestation. To fight against insurrectional rioters, we must take measures against the social crisis that has been aggravated by the pandemic, and at the same time, end the never-ending wars and lower the number of weapons that are on the market in the United States. This extends far beyond the impeachment of a reckless president who was playing with extremism. We are not seeing Democratic party leaders who can be compared to Martin Luther King, even if they mention his legacy opportunistically.

Pierre Guerlain, Professor of American civilization, Paris Nanterre University

Photo by @simonfitall


This chronicle was conducted in an editorial partnership with the Recherches internationales journal, in which numerous academics and researchers collaborate and tackle the major questions that shake today’s world, such as issues of globalization and solidarity fights that are formed and appear to be more and more inseparable from what is happening in each country.

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