As around 150 Trump supporters amassed at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on January 6, they followed the consensus behavior that similar rallies across the country displayed: They escalated the violence. Trump loyalists sought out confrontations with journalists and the police, attacking many with pepper spray and paintballs before a hesitant police force used crowd dispersal weapons on them. Less than three weeks before, a similar collection of armed far right activists stormed the Oregon State Capitol building in response to social distancing rules meant to curb the spike in COVID-19 cases that are filling up Oregon hospitals.
“There was a sense of surreality [on January 6]: minor politicians and activists talking about grassroots organizing and ballot measures while behind them on a screen a live feed of people storming the capital played,” said Laura Jedeed, an independent reporter who was on the scene. The right-wing violence was directed at counter-demonstrators.
This was just one of rallies that happened around the U.S. based on a central message: The election was illegitimate and the only solution to it is violence. In Washington, Donald Trump had called on his supporters to amass in response to the certification of election results that was scheduled for the floor of Congress. As his supporters grew angrier, and Trump continued to proclaim that a conspiracy was afoot to steal their democracy, hundreds stormed the capital building in a violent attack. This sent senators and congressmen into hiding, halted the certification procedures and ended the day with four people dead in a flurry of street-level attacks. Capital staffers of color were photographed leaving the building while the occupation was beginning, hands raised in fear.
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While many people have tried to portray this event as the death rattle of the Trump movement (or worse, have baselessly sought to blame anti-fascists), the size, scope and intensity of Wednesday’s actions bely only one message: This is far from over.
In Olympia, Washington, a mass of Trump supporters came together to “Stop the Steal,” a refrain that has become a new rallying cry of the Trumpist movement. Reporters trying to cover the event were stopped, as they were in many cities, by armed groups bent on destroying equipment and harming journalists. In Los Angeles, hundreds of Trump supporters rallied at the LAPD headquarters and attacked counterprotesters. In Michigan, the site of some of the most aggressive far right protests in 2020, including both the armed occupation of the state capitol and an alleged kidnapping plot of the governor by militia members, an anti-certification rally was held at the state capital sending the message that Trump should be declared the winner despite what the vote counts say.
Similar rallies happened simultaneously around the country and thousands traveled from states as far as Florida to join the melee at the U.S. Capitol. Kristina Malimon, the vice chair of Young Republicans of Oregon, was arrested in D.C. as a part of the violent mob. Across the country, something as seemingly small as a procedural vote and some tweets from Trump were enough to amass a decentralized yet confederate force of violent combatants with an arsenal of weapons and a willingness to break boundaries.
This effect is largely because Trump’s support has little to do with the official organs of the Republican Party, but instead in his ability to break from it. As the vote took place, he declared that Vice President Mike Pence would have to torpedo the election procession if he didn’t want to be branded a traitor for refusing to. Trump rode a wave into office that was started by the Tea Party: Blame the establishment for being inauthentically conservative, and make that ideology a proxy for working-class white identity. This model channels anxiety in white working-class communities toward a nativist ideation of victimization, whereby security and success only arrives by targeting marginalized communities who could be their “competition.” Trump amplified this messaging, making his base loyal only to him, severing their allegiance to the party as a way of consolidating his own power.
Trump’s power was never solely about what he could do in the White House, but in what he could inspire others to do out in the rest of the world. The violence of his followers follows from the worldview and rhetoric he offers, and since his own finger is never on the trigger, he maintains a plausible deniability.
On Wednesday, several White House staffers resigned because they were horrified by Trump’s ecstatic reaction to the violence enacted by his supporters. This seems to imply that this was never about political success: It was about building a cultic following that would lead supporters to commit audacious acts of idolatrous servitude even when it breaks their own moral taboos and destroys their lives.
One woman, a 35-year-old veteran named Ashli Babbitt, was killed amid the attack on the capitol on Wednesday. She had become radicalized along a familiar pattern, stoked by Trumpian claims of global conspiracy and QAnon mythology. In the end, she was willing to take up violence and give her life to Trump’s cause, and his response was simply to go on television and continue to repeat conspiracy theories about the election.
The violence of Trump’s supporters always escalates when they believe they are “losing” — we saw this in their response to the material failure of the lost electoral bid, and also in response to narratives that circulated among them about anti-fascists overthrowing cities around the country.
Their fear of losing escalates their movement to the point of violence since they no longer believe the established channels are legitimate, and as they further break with reality, we can expect these acts to potentially become more severe. Trump’s imprint on the country has been profound, and we will likely find that it has more of an effect on our society outside of Washington than it does on the organs of state power.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon infamously said “politics is downstream from culture.” The “alt-right” has followed this precept, seeking to shift cultural norms within white communities by further mainstreaming overt expressions of white supremacist ideology, believing that changes in politics would follow. Trump has radically changed the culture, creating a radicalized nation of devoted followers, and it will take more than a smooth presidential “transfer of power” to change that.