Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

The Political Context of the Assault on the Capitol

Bonfires of grievance and dispossession in a country riven by alternate realities.
January 11, 2021
Featured Image
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09: A campaign sign for U.S. President Donald Trump lies beneath water in the Capitol Reflecting Pool, on Capitol Hill on January 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed and desecrated the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. (Al Drago / Getty)

The seditious mob that attacked Congress was not an aberration—it represents a deepening dysfunction which, absent a profound national renewal, could destroy America as we know it.

These antagonists of democracy felt both alienated and empowered. Their license came from an American president who urged them on because “you’ll never take back our country with weakness.” Like 82 percent of Trump supporters, they knew Joe Biden had stolen the election. But their hatred embraced anyone who thwarted their leader—including his own vice president.

They fed on intoxicants shared by millions. Some compared Trump with Jesus. Others nurtured the deranged obsessions of QAnon; loathed multiracial democracy; or despised the media. Nothing about this distinguished them from Trump—or the 45 percent of Republicans who support their assault.

When order was restored, most Republican congressmen voted with the mob. Amidst the wreckage, two of their senatorial enablers—Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz—sent fundraising appeals. They, and others ambitious to succeed Trump, will continue fueling the bonfires of grievance and dispossession in a country riven by alternate realities—only one of which is real.

Demographic sorting and racial and cultural antagonisms have enlisted Trump’s base in a zero-sum war of subjugation against antagonists most will never meet, but with whom they can never compromise. A society so polarized cannot deal with its most urgent problems—or even acknowledge what they are.

Amid the ravages of COVID this schism has turned deadly: The resistance to public health measures has become a form of suicide which doubles as a lethal attack on others. More broadly, the political stasis bred of division is killing our capacity to master our collective future. Inevitably, such a system will disintegrate—or explode.

The paralysis reflects a deeper social pathology with multiple tributaries—the toxins of racial and cultural estrangement; the disintegration of communal bonds; the proliferation of mind-numbing misinformation; the accelerating gaps in wealth and opportunity; the increasingly ossified class system—which, in turn, erode faith in democracy as a means of resolving our problems. Running through this is the crabbed doctrine of shareholder capitalism which reduces human beings to disposable units of production divorced from the conditions that give life dignity: health, safety, security, opportunity.

This largely accounts for the oft-remarked “deaths of despair” among those left behind. Fearing that our widening economic inequities will breed resentment, an oligarchy of the outnumbered wealthy bankroll political parties and politicians to protect their interests and augment their power—notably Trump, who diverted the marginalized and insecure by trafficking in racism, xenophobia, and phony populism while passing tax cuts for the rich.

As we glide toward plutocracy, ever more couples struggle to sustain their families on two insufficient incomes. Increasingly, overstressed Americans are divorced from communal associations—clubs, unions, recreational sports, mainstream places of worship. Instead our fragmented society offers gated communities of the mind: the nostrums of white nationalism or religious fundamentalism rooted in hostility to the “other”; online conspiracy theories offering fantastical but simple explanations for an increasingly abstract and menacing world; broadcasters profiting by promoting discontent and loathing—Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, talk radio.

As economic power concentrates and executive power swells, the workings of globalism and government become yet more incomprehensible to ordinary citizens. This sense of disempowerment and estrangement further abets the arsonists of truth who traffic in rage and paranoia to mesmerize the credulous.

Witness Trump. His monomaniacal presidency centered on creating a community of the impotent and angry whose sense of belonging derives from unquestioning belief in “Trump” as symbolic strongman. This allergy to reason is what makes Trumpism so intractable: It is not about ideas, but mass psychology.

Trump promises to restore an Edenic white America in which his followers are uplifted by the mere existence of an authoritarian leader who voices their psychic cravings. In this lotusland of the mind, stagecraft displaces governance—Trump’s every false pronouncement creates a new reality, and his every desire is theirs. Sharing his contempt for democracy, they never notice his disdain for them.

Little wonder that the party which created them both now cowers before Trump’s Visigoths. Well before Trump seized it, the GOP was addicted to minoritarian-authoritarianism—relying on the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the donor class to frustrate popular democracy—while arousing its base with cultural warfare, white identity politics, anti-government nihilism, bogus economics, and nonexistent voter fraud practiced by minorities.

There is little indication that the nature of the GOP has been fundamentally changed by what has happened in the last two months—the lost presidential election, the parade of failed lawsuits based on lies, the twin defeats in Georgia. Even the shocking attack on the Capitol seems not to have chastened party professionals: Days later, the Republican National Committee re-elected a craven Trump supporter as chair, and chose a vice chair defined by his closeness to Trump Jr. When Trump called into the meeting, they applauded.

Captive to the base, the GOP will propagate Trump’s lies about electoral theft while sharpening the tools of minority rule. Given more tempting circumstances—such as a closer Electoral College vote in 2024—this GOP might well try to steal another election. The Democratic party is all democracy has left.

It therefore falls to Joe Biden to revive a politics of the common good. Defeating the pandemic and reviving our economy are but the prerequisites to restoring a shared sense of opportunity, equity, comity, and confidence in democratic governance as a force for bettering the lives of all.

Then, perhaps, we can begin to restore a shared sense of citizenship wherein more Americans feel welcome to re-engage in the social and political enterprise of improving their communities and their country. One can but hope for a national service program which allows Americans to know each other again, and a renewed civics education which reintroduces our democratic institutions to a citizenry which, all too often, misapprehends them.

Harder yet is to reform those institutions. But we must try. The Electoral College promotes minority rule and electoral chicanery; gerrymandering breeds extremism; our campaign finance system engenders oligarchy.

We cannot do all this anytime soon. But we must start at once, lest the desecration of our Capitol presage far worse.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.