Taken on its face, the September 18 “rally” to support members of the mob that sacked the Capitol Building in January was a flop. Reports indicated maybe 400 people were in attendance, most of those being members of the press who were on hand in case the event became unruly. There seemed little chance of that; law enforcement was there with enough manpower to storm Normandy Beach, and the Capitol Dome was again obscured behind hastily erected security fencing.
It would be highest folly, however, to use the scant attendance at the “Justice for J6” rally as a metric for the present strength of the pro-Trump authoritarian white supremacist movement. The reason: Most of the serious players in that movement, and specifically the organizations known for violence, made a deliberate point to stay away from Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
In the days leading up to the rally, rumors began to spread that members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, two authoritarian groups with long records of inciting street violence during demonstrations, would be present at the “Justice for J6” rally. Spokespeople for those groups batted down these rumors with alacrity.
“If you rally in DC right now, you’re an idiot and you’re going to get people thrown in jail or worse,” read one Proud Boys tweet. “We will not be attending this guaranteed disaster,” read another. Kelly SoRelle, a legal representative for the Oath Keepers, said in a statement, “I do not know of any specific plan to attend, other than what we are watching the media fabricate.” Press images from the rally would seem to indicate they meant what they said.
Far right Republicans in Congress likewise made a point to stay away, including Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn, who usually charge toward these events like moths to a 500-watt light bulb. Various luminaries at Fox News insulted and derided the event as not being legitimate, which was somewhat startling given that it was primarily organized by Matt Braynard, a former campaign worker for Donald Trump. As for Trump himself, the former president dismissed the event as a “setup,” saying, “If people don’t show up, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a lack of spirit.’ And if people do show up, they’ll be harassed.”
Trump was wrong about the threat of widespread “harassment;” there were only two arrests reported at the rally, and no violence to speak of from police or participants. But was that small crowd a sign of missing spirit and waning furor? Or was it a tactical retreat, a deliberate decision to lay low and not exacerbate an already tense situation?
Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, has been sentenced to five months in jail for burning a Black Lives Matter flag that belonged to a Washington, D.C., church, and at least 650 people have been charged for their role in the Capitol insurrection. Discretion at this juncture may have seemed the wiser course.
There is more to it, I fear, than the authoritarian brigades keeping their powder dry at a time when there is a lot of light on them. Jason Stanley, author of the 2018 book How Fascism Works, has a far more ominous theory about the small crowd on Saturday.
“The entire Republican establishment was taken over by this,” Stanley told Slate. “It’s not the followers we should focus on, it’s the authoritarian movement growing inside the Republican Party that threatens not just the country, but with climate change, the world. The question is: Why is it not helpful to have mass violent rallies right now? It’s not helpful because the movement, the fascist social and politic movement, is winning. They’re changing the election laws in state after state.”
Consider the confluence of events that began well before the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Trump and his minions have vigorously cast doubt not only on the results of the 2020 presidential election, but also on the recent California recall election. It seems clear that, going forward, Republicans will refuse to call an election legitimate unless the Republican wins the election. The effects of this nihilistic approach to the ballot is already proving caustic.
Meanwhile, Trump-inspired state legislatures all across the country are erecting fearsome barriers to voting, and pushing candidates for key state offices that control elections. On the federal level, an attempt to check this anti-democracy movement has been thwarted in the Senate because conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin refuse to let the filibuster die, and Republicans like Mitch McConnell are all too happy to sit back and let the franchise burn on a pyre of racist Trump idolatry.
And now that movement has shock troops with enough restraint and tactical savvy to avoid a public crunch with law enforcement if it does not suit their goals. The attack on the Capitol Building on January 6 has become a near-nationwide attack on democracy itself, and it has not paused for one single moment. September 18 was not a dud. It may well have been the calm before the storm.