The people against the putsch

·5 min read
The Capitol.
The Capitol. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

After months of delay and wrangling, the House of Representatives investigation into the Jan. 6 putsch finally started this week. On Tuesday, several Capitol Police officers testified about how they had been attacked by the right-wing mob — beaten, maced, tased, pelted with racial epithets, and on and on.

The investigative aspects of these hearings are very important — particularly figuring out if sitting members of Congress or the Trump administration were directly involved in planning or carrying out the storming of the Capitol, as several officers asked the committee to do. (I would also like to see some discussion of what happened to the dozens of officers who were suspended or investigated for possible ties to or participation with the mob.)

But the broader political conclusions that the rest of the country, and particularly the Democratic establishment, draw from these hearings are even more important. It is quite possible Trump (or someone like him) will try to encourage a coup again in the future. Mobilizing mass protest and ensuring the political reliability of law enforcement and the military are the most important steps to take to prevent that from succeeding.

I have previously noted how Trump has made de facto support of the putsch a mandatory position in the Republican Party. Members who take basic norms of democracy seriously have been largely purged, and the leadership is now entirely composed of groveling Trump toadies. As Josh Marshall writes at Talking Points Memo, Trump "has made vindication of the insurrectionists, release of all those indicted for their crimes and vengeance against the Capitol Police officer who shot Ashli Babbitt into the centerpieces of his 2022 campaign."

If Trump runs for president again in 2024, there is every chance he will be nominated but lose the general election, given his hammerlock on the conservative base but low general popularity. In that case, he is giving every sign he will try the same strategy he did after losing to President Biden — cheating, tampering with the votes, tendentious lawsuits, and eventually overthrowing the government by force.

In keeping with their timid institutionalist instincts, Democrats have thus far mustered only procedural reforms in response to Jan. 6, like a $2 billion bill to beef up security around the Capitol that recently passed the Senate, and a proposed new anti-terrorism law. This is a terrible (if sadly predictable) reaction. The reason the insurrectionists breached the Capitol was not because the local cops did not have enough equipment and manpower — the average rural police department in this country has enough military-grade firepower to occupy Belgium — nor was it because treason and sedition aren't already extremely illegal. No, the reason was politics.

On the one hand, prior to Jan. 6, the Capitol Police brass ignored extremely obvious evidence and urgent warnings that the far-right extremists were planning something very serious, because as a rule cops either can't believe conservative white people are ever a real threat, or they actively sympathize with them. That wasn't true of most of the rank-and-file, as was shown in the testimony Tuesday, but it explains the behavior of the leadership, and why other officers fraternized with the mob.

On the other hand, in the days leading up to Jan. 6, local Democrats were exerting every effort to stop their own supporters from showing up to confront the putschists. On Jan. 3, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (along with most of the rest of the local liberal establishment) urged residents of the city "not to engage with demonstrators who come to our city seeking confrontation," because their fussy, anxious fear of clashes blinded them to the much greater danger to the national seat of government.

It follows that there are two main strategies for protecting the American state from another putsch. First, root out right-wing extremists from law enforcement and the military, and ensure that both leaders and the rank-and-file are people who can be relied upon to defend democracy (instead of beating up Black Lives Matter activists) if it comes to that. Second, mobilize the Democratic base for possible mass counter-protests. If the Capitol Police and D.C. cops had been sufficiently prepared on Jan. 6, and had united in sympathy with a mass of several hundred thousand peaceful counter-protesters protecting the Capitol with the sheer weight of numbers, the Trumper mob never would have made it inside the building.

As writer John Ganz explains at Unpopular Front, this was the basic strategy that the French left used to defend the Third Republic from right-wing extremist attacks in 1934. After an attempted coup on Feb. 6 that year, virtually the entire political spectrum, from liberal small-d democrats to communists, united to defend republican institutions in parliament and on the street, which worked — it took Hitler to put the French far right in charge.

Frankly I doubt the elderly, cowardly Democratic leadership has anything like the strength and determination of French socialist leader Léon Blum, who put himself at tremendous risk to fight fascism in the 30s and 40s. But then again, as Ganz points out, unlike Paris in 1934, the American far right today has virtually no organic support within cities like D.C., and hence could not organize another putsch without transporting a lot of people in from outside as they did before Jan. 6. It would be fairly straightforward to make the Capitol nearly impenetrable to right-wing assault, if Democrats can find some courage.

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