Siege Mentality

The Jewish Currents editorial staff discusses what the Capitol putsch means for the right and the left.

The Editors
January 12, 2021
Trump supporters gather on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6th, 2021. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

The right-wing siege of the Capitol last Wednesday, incited by Donald Trump, threatened the lives of members of Congress, briefly delayed the certification of the election of Joe Biden, and left at least five people dead. While Democrats move to impeach Trump once again in the last days of his presidency, and as images of the insurrection and information about its participants continue to emerge, the violent spectacle has prompted questions about what it means—and what it forebodes. Last Friday, members of the Jewish Currents staff convened to process the event in its immediate aftermath. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Arielle Angel: Watching those first images of people taking over the Capitol—which were mostly of people pulling barricades from cops and pouring into the building—I’m just going to admit that part of me found it exciting, even as it was horrifying to consider their actual ideology or what might have happened had they reached their intended targets. I’m not at all proposing that 1/6 was a model for the left—especially as the extent and intent of the brutality becomes clearer and clearer. But I think I was viscerally responding to this vision of our government as momentarily vulnerable. 

We’ve been talking a bit about how to gauge the effectiveness of this event in terms of imagery. I’ve been reflecting back on what I wrote about protest aesthetics in 2019, and I do think that at least in formal terms, this was a success for Trump’s white supremacist, conspiracist base: It produced galvanizing images for the people who believe the election was stolen. It looks crazy to us because we know they’re wrong, but they did something that is unprecedented in American history and they feel righteous. It’s not clear where they’re going to go from here, but what happened Wednesday will be a major rallying point in whatever movement consolidates around this event.

Peter Beinart: I disagree that this was any kind of success, or has been perceived as one even by the people who were involved in it. Trump got so freaked out, perhaps because he was in legal jeopardy, that he put out this hostage video and threw his own people under the bus. And now some of the rioters are saying they feel betrayed by Trump. I’m not saying these people won’t have a future in some crazy new movement. They’re still out there. But I think many feel that they failed, not only because they weren’t able to stop Biden from becoming president, but because Trump himself has been forced to partly abandon them. Trump is also less powerful than he was a week ago because establishment Republicans—and corporations—have been forced to distance themselves from him.

The question of whether this succeeded or not is relevant to the left as well. If you believe, as I do, that this was a political defeat for Trump’s forces, then anybody on the left who wants to replicate those tactics should learn that lesson. There’s absolutely no comparison morally between the anti-racist uprising this summer and this one, which was motivated in large part by white nationalism. Nor was this summer’s uprising nearly as violent. But its violent moments were seized upon by the media, and exaggerated, and may have helped Republicans this fall. If the left wants to disrupt Congress, it needs to do so very differently from what happened on January 6th.   

Mari Cohen: In terms of results, this seems quite dissimilar from what happened last summer. Many pundits characterized the uprising as violent and likely to provoke backlash, but it actually  forced municipalities around the country to reckon with the prospect of defunding the police—even if ultimately they didn’t, or if the movement was corporately co-opted. But I agree with you, Peter, that the Capitol riot so far looks like a strategic failure. If the goal was for Trump to seize power and overturn the election, the result was the opposite: the Senate consolidating to reaffirm the election results and Trump backing off. What we don’t know yet is whether it will be a success in terms of rallying the right and inspiring future violence. 

David Klion: We already know from the accounts of those who study and report on the far right that the social networks they monitor are lighting up over this. So focusing on Trump himself at this stage is probably beside the point. He’s going to leave office and he’s probably done, but the underlying political forces that helped bring him to power and that he legitimized will be drawing inspiration from this for years to come.

Ari Brostoff: There’s a kind of dramatic perfection to the way this played out. Like they say, if you put a gun on the wall in the first act, it has to go off in the third. I’m not a pundit and in general I can’t make predictions to save my life, but I vividly remember saying to a friend on the eve of Trump’s inauguration that at some point, his base was going to realize that he could not give them what they wanted and would turn on him. It’s been continually astounding over the past four years just how much Trump has managed to deliver to that base—both in terms of actual policies he’s enacted, and even more through his genius for the production of iconography. He managed to keep delivering right up until now. 

It was pretty clear that this was not going to be a coup in the sense of any significant portion of the government or the military materially getting behind these people saying, “Here, take the Capitol, it’s yours.” Instead we saw Republican leaders making wild bets on how to triangulate between the president’s base and their own power structure. The gun going off in the third act was the moment when some members of that base breached the Capitol. That’s the moment when they showed that they had moved beyond Trump, even as they were calling for four more years.

Joshua Leifer: Even more striking than the breach of the Capitol, to me, was watching the president of the United States, who had incited his supporters to take this action, subsequently concede of his own accord. This tells us something about the locus of power. The Republicans and the Democrats answer firstly to capital, and despite the pandemic, capital is doing great. The stock market is doing well, asset prices are fine. So there is no will on the part of the donor class for any kind of upheaval. It’s been both amusing and telling to see all these Republican donors and CEOs come out and be like, “This is not what we bargained for.” What separates us from an even more dangerous scenario, in terms of the rise of a fascist right, is that for the most part, capital is very invested in the status quo.

I think Peter is right that there is essentially no mass constituency for disruption on either side right now. As much suffering as the pandemic has caused, not only is the system resilient, but middle-class households have more savings than they did before, and upper middle-class people are buying big homes in the suburbs. The unemployment benefits are not enough, but they were actually more generous than the wages a lot of people were earning before. So you have a large cross-class alliance of people who’d like to avoid significant political turbulence. 

DK: The past year has seen the radical edges of both parties pushing as far as they can and getting rebuffed by the party establishments. It feels like the end not just of the Trump era, but also of the Bernie era—an era that saw large numbers of people on the right and on the left demanding more radical change via electoral politics.

After the attack, the leaders of both parties, who had been in this bunker together off camera, came out with these Sorkinesque speeches about how they stood up to the mob. We’re now witnessing a bipartisan elite consolidation against what they see as the craziness and extremism of their respective bases.

Jacob Plitman: We’re in the interregnum after both the expressionism of Trump and the fantasy that Bernie would somehow manifest social democracy from above. So on the right, as Trump is about to go, we get an attempted political Ragnarok, Vikings and all. On the left, we should be very wary of our own version of politically toothless performance, crankery, and messianic hallucination. We only have as much power as we have; I don’t know anyone planning to storm Congress, but there are a lot of people interested in forcing a futile vote on Medicare for All. It’s a long march to the Capitol, and there is no shortcut, even through the windows.

Nathan Goldman: I do worry about the possibility that this was the correct strategic move for the far right, to go so far that it forces a break from the Republican Party. After all, on the left, a lot of the energy of the anti-racist uprising was defused by its absorption into electoral politics. I’m thinking about this from my standpoint living in Minneapolis, where demands for abolition resulted in City Council members making claims—that I, like many people, was way too credulous about—that ended up amounting to bold rhetoric with little follow-through. Here, as elsewhere, there have been police budget cuts, which is significant, but the immediate policy gains of the movement are a mixed bag. Some would argue this means the uprising wasn’t effective and the left should therefore focus on electoral strategy, but I wonder if it means the opposite—that energy should stay and build in the streets rather than get funneled into the Democratic Party. It’s true that the left has seen some electoral gains in the past few years, at least locally and in the House, but the core of the party, despite adopting more left-wing rhetoric, has not fundamentally changed.

If the result of the attack on the Capitol is that the far right ends these four years uninterested in electoral politics and on the path to getting better organized, while the left’s organizing continues to get absorbed back into a party that barely tolerates its demands, that might be a success for the right.

PB: But as Mari said, Black Lives Matter completely reframed the debate. It accomplished something immensely positive and transformative. I’m asking a narrower question: Should we be excited at the prospect of the left breaching the Capitol in the way these people just did? And my answer would be very strongly no—partly because we have models of how to breach the Capitol in a completely different way. In 2016, John Lewis staged a sit-in over gun control on the House floor. In 2018, the Sunrise Movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office. They breached the Capitol in a humane way, without anyone being killed, without trashing stuff, without looking like assholes. 

AA: But it should be said, they also didn’t win anything. Anyway, I don’t think anyone is proposing taking a cue from the right. As those examples suggest, the left actually has much more continual experience with planning demonstrations and interacting with police and dealing with state violence, which is a good thing. This was a major crash course for the right, and I wonder what’s going to happen as they gain more experience. They may partly just get better at organized violence, which is very scary. And parts of the movement may also get better at appropriating the forms of protest and civil disobedience associated with the left, in which case we might have to think about what it means to reckon with these fascist elements as a democratic force—also scary.

JL: But it’s not just a matter of the right gaining new protest skills. The far right in the US has major ideological contradictions to work through, which were very much on display last week. The members of right-wing movements are often ex-military and wedded to the symbols of the state and of American nationalism. It requires a jump, if you’re coming out of that social formation, to take up arms against the police. The incongruity of the Blue Lives Matter supporters—and actual off-duty cops themselves—fighting the Capitol Police tells us something about the tensions this movement is going to have to confront. It’s too simple to focus on the  “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirts, neo-Confederates, and skinheads wandering around, because what united the crowd, in addition to Trump, was militant US nationalism. For the moment, it is the QAnon conspiracy that seems to be providing a way for people to overcome their own deep personal investment in American patriotism. By saying that they’re saving America from satanic pedophiles, they can justify violence against the symbols of the state. But we’ll have to wait and see how far that enables the movement to overcome its identification with the state and the armed forces.

AB: We saw those contradictions playing out in real time among the people who had broken into the Capitol waving American flags as well as Confederate and Nazi and Israeli flags, and Lisa Frank-looking flags of their own making, squaring off against Capitol Police. You see it, too, in video interviews with the rioters—they have so much difficulty formulating their positions whenever someone gives them the microphone they’ve so desperately sought. I found them really hard to watch. There was a video of this guy who had witnessed the woman being shot and killed, and he’s breaking down: “Wait, the stimulus checks were bullshit. And also, they just shot this woman.” The interviewers are like, “Okay, who are they?” And the guy’s like, “I don’t know. The police? Congress? I don’t know. But we have to do something.”

The other interview that really struck me was with Aaron Mostofsky, the son of that Brooklyn Orthodox judge who was down there. He’s wearing this fur pelt and he’s holding a police riot shield and wearing a bulletproof vest that he says he found on the ground. He’s having a lot of trouble explaining himself—he seems a little stunned. And then there’s this amazing moment where he starts readjusting his police vest and mutters to himself, “This is actually heavy.” It’s so fucking funny, and so dark. You look at him next to that guy he posed with in pictures, with the ripped chest and antlers, and you just think, man, that dude’s gonna eat him for lunch. I don’t know what else to say right now about the Jewish right’s emerging partnership with full-on Nazis, but I can’t believe we are watching it play out so vividly.

JL: I think the fact that so much of the right-wing conspiracy theorizing, and in particular QAnon,  is mediated through forums and the network of new conservative social media is what accounts for at least some of the ideological incoherence. It’s what allows Orthodox Jews to stand next to Nazis without feeling threatened by them: It’s not real to them. There’s a moment when you see people in the aftermath of the woman being shot, where they’re like, “Oh my God, this is real. This is real life.”

AB: Imagine building your whole worldview around the idea that everything you see is actually a simulacrum, that everyone assaulted by police or every shooter on TV is a crisis actor, and then watching somebody get shot by a cop in front of you. It’s like the Matrix.

AA: It’s true, it’s going to be interesting to see how they assimilate the surreality of the internet into the real time of their movement. It’s hard to imagine how they start to organize themselves around this, because you’d think that all the contradictions—especially around police—would immediately be apparent. And if they can’t organize broadly, are we actually just talking about smaller and smaller cells of people committing larger and larger acts of disruption and violence?

JP: One interesting consequence of Wednesday’s events is that they’ve contributed to a growing understanding that the institutions that enforce the US government’s reign are not ideologically neutral actors. We are naive only about our own security apparatus; I think we generally understand that the Egyptian military, for example, has a political consciousness, a base, specific interests. When it comes to the US, that truth is often muted.

This is important. Politicization of the military is the determining factor of any chances at a proper coup in this country, much more than a mob of morons smashing their way into Congress. Even the rise of right-wing militias does not come close to the importance of political consciousness among the US military and the police, which for the time being remains a relatively minor factor in our politics. We do not have popular generals who can seize government, like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and there is no outside power capable of installing a military nobody like Pinochet. The police remain both violent and right-wing, but are not organized to a degree capable of seizing power. Nevertheless, when it appeared that the cops opened the gates and allowed the protesters into the Capitol, that was a reminder that the police here are a political entity in and of themselves.

DK: If there’s one predictable thing that’s going to happen here—and maybe it will also be a delayed reaction to what happened this past summer—it’s that there are going to be more barriers around the Capitol, more investment in cops, and more pressure to trust cops, the National Guard, and the military. It was striking to hear ostensibly neutral anchors constantly and scornfully refer to the people doing this as anarchists—which for the mainstream media just means anyone who’s disrupting the public order. Whatever force these people are met with is  force that the left is at least as likely to be met with in the years to come, especially from a bipartisan establishment that sees far-left and far-right agitators as two sides of the same coin.

AA: Right. You see a lot of people talking about accountability and consequences without specifying exactly what they mean, even people who might have newly found themselves advocating for prison abolition.

JL: Some of the responses from people on the liberal-left have really frustrated me—for example, calling the protesters and Trump un-American and using the language of nationalism and treason. I understand the emotional thrill that might come from being able to reverse the script on the right in that way. But as hard as this might be, I think we on the left have to resist the feeling of horror at the intrusion of the political into the halls of government, which in actuality have been cleansed of real democracy, of accountability. The eruption that we saw on 1/6 is a symptom of a crisis of representation, of the disconnect between power and the people, that Washington has come to symbolize. It’s true, obviously, that the crowd was motivated by a reactionary, racist, and ultimately anti-democratic politics. But it’s also true that if we join in Chuck Schumer’s re-sanctification of “the temple to democracy”—which is neither truly democratic nor a temple—then we cede the political realm to the right. It means the left has no real answer other than to join in defending institutions we know are broken.

MC: I think the reason the left is so susceptible to that kind of rhetoric is that this attack on the Capitol is part of a longstanding tradition of violent white backlash against the prospect of multiracial American democracy. So the reaction is to try to protect our institutions against that backlash. But we know that what the right-wing rioters are fighting is not a material or institutional reality but a vision—the one that was articulated last summer in the uprising and that has yet to be realized. This brings up a lot of complex questions that the left has been grappling with, and struggling to properly answer, around race and class during the Trump era. If our vision of a multiracial socialist government were fully realized, would these people be less angry and less violent? Or would they be more angry? 

JL: For now, the question remains theoretical. If anything, going forward there might be greater pressure on the US government institutions to become less democratic and more insulated from popular discontent that could threaten the system’s ability to function. Any political movement that seeks to radically transform society has to recognize this and take it as a starting point. Unfortunately, though understandably, some segments of the left have fallen into a vulgar accelerationism that is detached from material reality. Enough with the fantasy. The left is not going to breach the Capitol. There is not going to be socialism in our lifetimes. 

NG: I think it’s true that the American left is prone to overstating the fragility of current conditions. I’ve done this a lot over the past four years, looking around and feeling fearful but simultaneously hopeful about the inevitability of rupture. And one lesson of the Trump era might be that the current hegemonic order assimilates an extremely high amount of chaos and suffering without real disruption. For a lot of people, that’s a sunny story about the resilience of capitalist, liberal democracy. But for those of us who think that this resilience stands in the way of a necessary fundamental reckoning, that’s very bad news.