The Trumptown Putschists
- January 07, 2021
Many years ago, when I moved to Spain in 1988, people used to talk about the coup attempt of 1981, when Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero and 200 Civil Guard officers took over the Spanish Congress of Deputies and held MPs hostage. Years later, people could still remember what they were doing on the day of 23-F, as it’s known in Spain, and would tell you how they or their families had packed their bags and headed for the French border. Such reminiscences did not seem melodramatic in the country where a golpe de estado – coup d’etat – against the Spanish Republic in 1936 ushered in civil war and the overthrow of Spanish democracy.
As Marx might might have said, the ‘Tejero coup’ repeated that tragedy as a black farce, but even though it ended in ignominious collapse and a triumphant affirmation of Spanish democracy, it was a farce that had very real possibilities of becoming more than that. Its protagonists included real soldiers, tank regiments, high-ranking officers, preparation, and strategy.
None of this can be said about the crazed events that took place yesterday, when a rabble of diehard MAGA supporters, NeoNazis, QAnon conspiracists, white supremacists, and neoconfederate seccessionists swarmed the US Capitol building, in a violent and chaotic riot that had no precedent in American history.
Though questions remain to be answered about the collusion of the Trump administration that allowed this ranting mob to run rampant through one of the iconic institutions of US democracy, this was not a coup per se. Its participants could not count on the support of the armed forces. They were not part of an organised national insurrectional movement, and they had no coherent strategy for taking power.
This was an explosion of rage and hatred, fuelled by baseless conspiracy theories of a rigged election that have been carefully and consistently nurtured by the most politically-depraved president in US history and the Republican Party machine. This fantasy has been amplified by a gaggle of lawyers, attorneys and political fixers, by mainstream rightwing media outlets and the social media fringe.
For weeks, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have been awash with extremist rightwing accounts urging their supporters to ‘burn down DC’, kill Nancy Pelosi and other ‘traitors’, and declaring ‘We want blood.’
All this was well-known, yet nothing was done to prevent it. Today, many of Trump’s ‘populist’ supporters abroad are at pains to condemn the rioters, but not the president who has done so much to turn his country into a toxic morass of hatred, resentment, paranoia and white status anxiety. Only hours before the assault yesterday, Trump was at a rally urging his crowds to march on the Capitol and promising to march with them.
Naturally he didn’t do that. Because even though Trump has no qualms about inciting violence against migrants and minorities, or placing the lives of his country’s elected representatives in danger, he is not the type ever to put himself in harm’s way. He is a playground bully sado-demagogue, who turns his thugs loose on the vulnerable and then runs off to hide as the shots are fired and the kicks are administered.
So he did that yesterday, and later in the afternoon, with four dead, and pipebombs and weapons turning up across the capital, and American democracy humbled and humiliated, he popped up once again to condemn the violence – almost – while also telling the ‘great patriots’ responsible for it how much he loved them and felt their ‘pain’ , and understood their anger at the election that he still claimed had been rigged.
This is what we have come to expect from the Trumpshow. And as shocking and insane as this denouement is, it doesn’t constitute a serious coup d-etat. It is not intended to overthrow the government, seize control of the state, install Trump as dictator, or start civil war. Trump and his supporters might like to do all these things, but for the moment at least, that prospect is beyond their power.
A rightwing goon cavorting in the rotunda in a a Jamiroqui headress is not Jefferson Davis, and yesterday’s assault does not reprise the guns of Fort Sumter. But that doesn’t mean what happened yesterday had no strategy at all, or that it can be dismissed as a freakish aberration.
On the contrary, Trump and his supporters are playing the same long game that they have been playing ever since they refused to accept Biden’s victory. They are radicalising their extensive base, and laying the basis for the permanent destabilisation of the Biden administration, through a series of ‘mini-insurrections’, militiarisation and acts of Timothy McVeigh-style ‘leaderless resistance’ in the coming years.
Now that the Democrats have flipped the Senate, they have even more reason to do this than they had before. So I suspect we will see more, not less, of what we saw yesterday, played out at different points across the country, because it is very difficult to separate yesterday’s ‘extremists’ from the 74 million voters who voted for Trump, many of whom are as convinced that they were cheated of their rightful victory as the fascists who ran amok in the Capitol.
In effect the riots are a kind of radical rightwing theatre, dramatising and rehearsing the national confrontation that Trump and his supporters would like to see. It remains to be seen whether Trump himself benefits from this, or whether the political rewards accrue to whoever emerges as his chosen successor, but whichever way it turns out, the movement that he created already poses the gravest threat to American democracy and the future of the republic since the Civil War.
To defeat this movement requires the Biden administration to show courage, vision, and determination in developing policies that actually benefit the American population, repair some of the damage of the last few decades, and draw some of the toxins from a traumatised, destabilised society that is now capable of anything. The new government will have to maintain the coalition that won the election, while widening the emerging splits in the Republican Party around a new pro-democratic consensus.
It will have to inspire and undertake a serious attempt to counter the disinformation and misinformation that has led so many Americans to embrace the barking conspiracy theories that the populist right has used so effectively.
Last but not least, Biden will have to take legal action against the president and his cabal, and carry out a full investigation of the security failings that allowed yesterday’s riot to happen. Any attempt to avoid this confrontation in the name of ‘national reconciliation’ or ‘healing’ will prove counterproductive.
Biden said yesterday that the assault on the Capitol ‘borders on sedition.’ Bordering does not apply here, and Trump and his supporters should face the full force of the law for what they have done and what they have tried to do.
All this is a lot to expect, but without it, yesterday’s riots will not be a freakish aberration, but the beginning of something much worse. Because its protagonists may not be the greatest putschists, but their movement does have teeth, and a democracy that wants to survive as such needs to show that it has teeth too.