In the aftermath of the coup attempt at the Capitol, the notion that Donald Trump’s politics most closely reflect the aspirations—either imputed or self-identified—of the “white working class” has become increasingly untenable. Like other Republican candidates, Trump received significant support from poor and working-class whites in 2016 and 2020. But the Capitol attack confirmed in the starkest possible terms that he has found particular favor with an affluent, privileged layer of middle-class and petit-bourgeois whites1; they have been at the forefront of the most visible and militant pro-Trump street organizing, of which January 6 was the most spectacular example.
The key figures in the Capitol attack seem drawn primarily from the ranks of small business owners, military and police officers, politicians’ families, and a familiar rogues’ gallery of petty grifters and violent far-right thugs that coalesced out of the dregs of the Tea Party. These are the representatives of a rapidly maturing vanguard of principled reactionaries within the petit bourgeois. They are members of the middle class who oppose democracy, whether in its mass, working-class form, or its liberal bourgeois one. For all their offensive displays—including “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts and pseudo-Viking attire—the attackers’ behavior, rhetoric, and beliefs cannot be explained by white supremacy alone, though that is a major constituent part of the ideology that animates them. Nor are they simply “brainwashed,” misguided, or otherwise fully deluded or bewitched by Trump or anyone else.
Much attention has been given to the attackers’ widespread and often quite fervent belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory, an internet-based rehash of old anti-Semitic tropes combined with a personality cult around Trump himself. How, it has been asked in recent weeks, could otherwise “respectable” middle-class whites throw themselves into such activity? But while the ideological function of QAnon merits close attention, it is a red herring to suppose that those who roused themselves from real estate offices and police stations across suburban America in order to board private planes and “Stop the Steal” were acting purely out of some altruistic but misguided desire to “save the children” from a shadowy cabal. There were other factors at work.
Relevant in the wake of the election and the attack, but not widely enough discussed, are last spring’s so-called “lockdown protests.” These were organized in opposition to basic public health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and the closure of gathering places in order to stop the spread—in opposition, in other words, to any social response at all to the pandemic. These protests provided key organizing opportunities for the now-infamous movement of “concerned small business owners.” (Ashli Babbitt, who died storming the Speaker’s Lobby on January 6, was a small business owner from San Diego.) The lockdown protesters found allies in the most conservative and reactionary corners of the “big” bourgeoisie, with ties to the DeVos and Koch families and funding from organizations such as the Convention of States—launched with money from extremist Republican billionaire Robert Mercer.2 Many of the protests were organized by the Dorr Brothers, experienced marketers who created a small business model out of ginning up conservative fury and then harvesting data from signed petitions they subsequently resell to political campaigns.3
These lockdown protests were explicitly organized as an attempt to assert the interests of small capital against those of either the working class or the more liberal wings of the “big” bourgeoisie. Since the start of the pandemic, other wealthy, liberal democratic societies have typically responded to the Covid-19 public health emergency with social programs such as rent stoppages, monthly cash payments, and spending to increase ER and ICU capacity. Under Trump, meanwhile, the US responded with a ragged patchwork of municipal ordinances and offensively paltry material support, with federal cash subsidies topping out at $1,800 per tax filer for the entire first nine months of the emergency, along with expanded unemployment benefits that expired even as the crisis wears on. All this against the backdrop of the long-crumbling public health infrastructure, the absence of universal healthcare, and particularly poor working and living conditions for people of color.
Also curiously left out of the current conversation, the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests last spring and summer reflected the rage and profound frustration of a population left alone to die or, in numerous cases, brutally ushered to its demise by racist police violence. As the cruelty, ineptitude, and indifference of the state were increasingly laid bare by the pandemic, this uprising managed to draw into the streets not only hundreds of thousands of people of color, but also significant white involvement and solidarity with its demands for Black liberation. BLM demonstrated its capacity to give political voice to widespread popular dissatisfaction with the status quo and to force a change in conversation, bringing such demands as “Defund the Police” into the mainstream of debate, and linking a racial justice demand with a class demand to divert resources from policing to social programs such as education, healthcare, and housing. (More ominously, the protests provided an occasion for agreement between Trump and then-candidate Biden: both thought it necessary to prosecute “anarchists,” a category that seemingly included any left-wing protester.)
Black Lives Matter and the lockdown protests: here were two starkly different visions of freedom. While the former sought to expand democracy, fight repression, and champion worker demands for universal healthcare, rent hiatus, and more plentiful and reliable unemployment benefits, the latter sought the very opposite in the name of a narrowly circumscribed kind of freedom—the freedom of small business owners to do business. To the extent that any part of the lockdown protesters’ complaint was legitimate, it was true that the federal government’s response largely did hang struggling small ventures out to dry, preferring instead to funnel relief funds to large corporations. But their complaint wasn’t merely that they couldn’t live—it was specifically that they couldn’t live as bosses wielding their monopoly on capital. They wanted to ensure that workers remained “free” of access to material support that might weaken their bosses’ economic leverage over them—and thus interfere with the bosses’ “freedom” to compel poor people to work in unsafe conditions. April polls showed that 60 percent of US voters favored lockdown measures and were more concerned about the deathly spread of the pandemic than they were about harm to businesses. That month, the Wall Street Journal led an article about life-saving unemployment benefits with the observation that “roughly half of all US workers stand to earn more in unemployment benefits than they did at their jobs before the coronavirus pandemic shut down swaths of the US economy, a result of government relief that employers say is complicating plans to reopen businesses.”4 (The complication was that without the economic coercion to do so, workers would not duly hasten to contract and spread Covid-19.)
The fascists and fascist sympathizers behind the coup attempt perceived, although only as if through a funhouse mirror, the hypocrisy of liberal bourgeois democracy. As far as they’re concerned, this is a regime that has proven itself incapable of reliably serving its core functions: administering social repression, defeating Black organizing, and resolutely prioritizing capital over human life. At the same time, they also abhor the capacity of true democracy—democratic social control over the material resources necessary for people to survive and flourish—to liberate the oppressed and exploited workers upon whom their precarious fortunes depend. On January 6 they calculated that they stood to benefit from silencing whatever small voice working people—particularly working people of color—might have in liberal government. Only business—only capital—should speak.
It’s no coincidence that the last-ditch attempt to install Trump for a second term materialized as an assault on the Electoral College. For all its bipartisan support and the turgid ritual associated with the vote-counting, the truth is that insofar as it is a plainly racist, white supremacist, anti-democratic institution bequeathed to us as part of the United States’ legacy of slavery, it is disingenuous to pretend that only delusion could cause citizens to regard the whole pompous affair as tawdry and illegitimate. What distinguishes the January 6 plotters, however, is their insistence that the Electoral College’s fundamental flaw is its failure to be white supremacist and undemocratic enough—a complaint thinly veiled behind Trump supporters’ accusations of “illegal” (read: Black and Latino) votes corrupting the election.
We tend to think of the delusional and irrational nonsense in fascists’ heads as a cause for their behavior. It is instead, quite frequently, a consequence of their aims. To value living human beings so cheaply requires a flight from reason; accordingly, right-wing authoritarians turn away from facts and reality, weaving mental knots that justify their inhumane program. A whole ecosystem of conspiracy and superstition swells up to enable the convenient delusion. Thus Donald Trump is not simply a profligate charlatan and bully but a hero, a champion of children, and an enemy of the Devil himself.
In some cases, far-right authoritarians simply reject the need for any heroic, ethical, or political justification, preferring instead to rule with an entirely naked fist. But few people are icy-hearted enough to admit openly that they will happily sacrifice others’ lives merely to maintain their own affluence and social domination. This calculus becomes more palatable when dressed up in antivaxx conspiracy theory, QAnon mythology, or even—for all its especial unsavoriness—a kind of sincerely held white supremacism. But for all the mysticism, the people who showed up on January 6 made calculated, self-serving, and clear-eyed decisions based on their interests and their perceived immunity from accountability. While recent arrests and Trump’s refusal to issue pardons on their behalf seem to have proven them wrong about their perceived impunity, it was not unreasonable for them to have assumed that the law would look the other way and demonstrate tremendous laxity for affluent whites. After all, it had done so for much of the previous year, and indeed for most of their lives. (For all we know, it might still, since none of the plotters has yet stood trial.)
Though they wouldn’t have put it in these terms themselves, the attackers succeeded at exploiting the liberal democratic state’s self-inflicted vulnerabilities to the fascist threat. Elected officials of all political persuasions fear independent, working-class mass movements as much as the ragtag band of fascists that breached the Capitol does. The US’s security forces have long tolerated white supremacist sympathies in their ranks—that is, when they weren’t outright encouraging and organizing such violent racism. The prevalence of far-right and white supremacist ideology in the police and military make these forces particularly well-suited to crushing Black Lives Matter protests and putting down leftists, but they present an incredible liability as any kind of bulwark protecting the institutions of liberal democracy from fascist, white supremacist marauders. With every passing day, we’ve learned more about the disproportionately high number of police and former military among the coup plotters, the “failures” of deployment and communication within the security services that led to the extremely flimsy security response to the putsch, and the challenges in implementing the National Guard to defend the January 20 inauguration, as those in charge of inauguration security struggled to vet the troops for coup sympathies.
In the end, the presidential inauguration passed largely without incident, but given the several thousand National Guard troops and the massive militarized zone in the center of the capital, Washington DC was a city transformed. This show of overwhelming police and military force is a tribute, albeit a perverse one, to liberal democracy’s current capacity to prevent a successful far-right putsch against the wishes of those in power. But it’s clear that doubling and tripling down on building up the police state is not indefinitely sustainable. That strategy cannot reliably outnumber the far right and stop them in their tracks the way masses of working people organizing at the grassroots can, and it has little to offer people trying to keep their communities safe from far-right terror. Still, it wasn’t surprising that the Democratic Party and its affiliated organizations discouraged social justice activists from confronting the far right in the streets; they had done the same in early November, although, in numerous cases, mass left-wing protest had been key in preventing the far right from disrupting vote counts.5
In less than a year, mainstream conversation on policing has shifted from “Abolish the Police,” to “Defund the Police,” to the shopworn “Reform the Police,” to—most recently—public receptivity to the Biden Administration’s recent pledges to beef up the security services with more money, resources, and carte blanche to root out “domestic extremists.” Anyone with a Facebook account could have—and to a large extent, did—know that there would be violent right-wing attacks on the electoral process in January. This has not dissuaded FBI officials from setting their sights on the few shreds of Constitutional protection that prevent law enforcement from using any more of the surveillance tools designed to fight the so-called war on terror against US citizens without foreign ties.
We cannot police our way out of authoritarianism. An increasingly authoritarian police state in the hands of the “correct” bourgeois elites will not suppress the far right; it will instead train a new generation of far-right foot soldiers and target, disorganize, and destroy fascism’s most dogged opponents among the far left. Left-liberal tolerance for the expansion of the police state under Barack Obama played a major role in leading us here; in 2021, we do not have the luxury of repeating that mistake.
From the point of view of capitalism, given the choice between far-right authoritarianism and profits on the one hand and socialism, democracy, and human freedom on the other, the former will always emerge as the lesser evil. I do not mean to suggest that fascism is immediately imminent in the United States as a dominant mode of public governance. It is not. Still, we cannot entertain complacency about an increasingly sizable and belligerent far-right authoritarian movement that is confidently putting forward its own fascist solutions to social and economic crisis.
As an understandably nervous populace asks how we can prevent more antidemocratic, terroristic violence of the sort we saw at the Capitol, the lessons of the Black Lives Matter protests seem to be fading from popular memory just when they are most necessary. Black liberation struggle and abolitionist politics are central to antifascist organizing. Fascism’s insistence on dominating human beings and reducing them to rightless, wholly exploitable, and expendable beasts of burden is also a tendency already within capitalism—one that Black people in the US have organized against since before the country’s inception. The movement slogan “We keep us safe” is a reminder that the tools to confront and defeat authoritarianism and white supremacy, and to protect vulnerable communities, exist nowhere else but in the hands of the people.