Insurrection and entitlement

This is a piece I wrote for BBC History Magazine on January 15, 2021

Before Trump, no US President has incited a mob in the hope of disrupting the legislature from ratifying his election loss. Yet when a chorus of commentators repeated “this is not who we are” as they watched footage of Trump supporters storming the US Capitol, their sentiment, while well-intentioned, was misleading. Putting what happened at the Capitol in context is challenging because it is both shockingly new and depressingly familiar. While unprecedented in its specifics, and shocking in its scale, the Capitol riot is also part of a long American tradition of insurrectionary violence.

That tradition goes back to the Revolution itself, the constant touchstone for dissidents throughout US history who have been able to use the example of the so-called “Patriots” to justify their resort to violence. In the 1780s and 90s, there were major armed insurrections in the rural western parts of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania against the imposition of taxes. Wearing their old revolutionary war uniforms, rebels attacked courthouses and symbols of government authority, arguing that it was the only way to get their voices heard.

The Civil War of 1861-1865 was a massive insurrection and the culmination of decades of violent tension, including in Congress. In 1856, the anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner was beaten into a coma in the Senate chamber by an irate congressman from South Carolina. (One of the photographs that went viral after the January 6 Capitol riot was of a man carrying a Confederate flag in front of a portrait of Sumner, who must have been spinning in his grave).

After the Civil War was over, white southerners continued their struggle to maintain control in their states using violence to prevent black people and their white allies from voting and in sometimes launching successful insurrections. One example was the coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, in which a white militia unseated a multi-racial city government and massacred perhaps 300 African Americans.

What all these episodes have in common is that they are rooted in a sense of entitlement to rule that has always been the peculiar characteristic of white American men. By 1776, British governance of the colonies was regarded as illegitimate. White North Carolinians thought that if black people voted, the governments they elected were illegitimate. Today, a very large portion of the Republican Party believe that President Biden is illegitimate because a conspiracy involving the Democratic party, the “mainstream media”, Venezuelans and the Chinese Community Party “stole” the election.

In a society with much higher levels of violence than most, it is not surprising that those who feel cheated have tried to restore their rights using force.

There has always been a segment of the US population that has rejected the messy pluralism of democracy and yearned for authoritarianism, and there have always been demagogues who have pandered to them. Twentieth-century examples include Huey Long, the depression-era Louisiana politician, the segregationist George Wallace, or the conspiracy theorist Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. Donald Trump is simply the first of these truth-defying populists to become President aided by the emergence of social media which has segmented the population into rival camps with their own versions of reality. So while the political violence we’re currently seeing is not new, it is more dangerous to the stability of the republic than at any time since the Civil War, and is not likely to disappear any time soon.

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