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Some people watched the events of January 6 and assumed the American alt-right had peaked. It was hard to believe that this motley crew of sovereigntists, neo-Nazis, QAnon-mongers and fancy dress protesters could pull off another lightning strike — especially at next week’s heavily fortified presidential inauguration. That is not, apparently, how America’s bewildering archipelago of rightwing fringe groups perceive what happened.
Not only did the #StoptheSteal marchers cross a bright red line by desecrating Congress; they showed their power by intimidating all but 10 Republicans into voting against Donald Trump’s impeachment. Alas, neither Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, nor Mitt Romney in the Senate, are anywhere close to the beating heart of today’s Republican party. That space is occupied by people such as Alabama lawmaker Mo Brooks, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Lauren Boebert, the recently-elected congresswoman from Colorado who is an avowed QAnon supporter. As the chaos was unfolding, Boebert, who packs a Glock pistol and refuses to submit to the House’s new magnetometer, tweeted: “Today is 1776” (earning her a brief Twitter ban).
It seems clear to me that the law enforcement failure to crack down hard on both the perpetrators and those who funded them — as well as at least three Republican lawmakers who allegedly had contact with insurrectionist leaders ahead of the attack — would only invite more such assaults, and worse. As Ali Soufan, the celebrated former FBI counter-terrorism agent puts it, the demonstration effect of January 6 will act as a recruiting sergeant for many more such thugs.
Soufan likens the storming of the Capitol to al-Qaeda’s 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The implication is that the FBI and others need to act now to prevent America’s domestic terrorist threat from metastasising into September 11 2001-style ambitions. “What happened is not the end — it is actually the beginning,” Soufan told MSNBC. “If we pretend nothing happened, the chaos we’ve seen will come back more lethal and more dangerous than before.”
I take Soufan’s view seriously. But I wanted to hear from someone on the far-right on how the event was perceived. So I called Richard Spencer, America’s best-known alt-righter, who has yet to be banned from Twitter. It turns out there is a reason for that. Spencer, who infamously gave a Nazi salute at a Washington event shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, has revised much of his former philosophy.
Although Spencer still describes himself as an “identitarian”, he voted for Joe Biden on November 3 — a disclosure that astonished me. “Trump brought out the worst aspects in me — that’s not what I want to be remembered for,” Spencer said. “I recognised the toxicity of rightwing populism and didn’t want America to go further down that road.” His view of the January 6 protesters is very different to Soufan’s. He said there was a hard core of genuinely violent types. But the majority were juvenile poseurs. “A lot of them see politics as a kind of video game — like shooting Nazi zombies in some kind of world war two gaming scenario,” he said. “You can see how unrealistic they are by the fact that they are still openly boasting on social media about what they did. They don’t seem to realise that the law is coming for them, which it is.”
So who is right, Soufan or Spencer? I lean more towards Soufan. After 9/11 the entire American establishment united in condemnation. This time only half the establishment did. The other half either cowered or openly celebrated the insurrectionists. To me that looks like a green light. On the other hand, a lot of those in the QAnon universe are just isolated conspiracy theorists, who have found (nonsensical) meaning to their lives online. They are at least as lonely as they are fascist. Most probably do not have violent instincts. Yet, if the polls are to be believed, they cheered what happened on January 6, which makes them the water in which violent fish swim.
Rana, I know you are as revolted as I am by what happened last week. How seriously do you take it as a portent for what could happen after Biden takes over? As you can see, I am a little ambivalent.
Join Peter Spiegel and Swamp Notes columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce as they discuss what to expect on Inauguration Day and beyond. Sign up and tune in on January 19.
Ed, like you, I have several complicated reactions to all this. First off, the 9/11 analogy is tricky and a bit confusing. Whether or not one agrees with Soufan that a 9/11-style crackdown on domestic terrorists is needed, the results of that crackdown in 2001 were a mixed bag at best. According to Shoshanna Zuboff, you could actually track an acceleration in the type of surveillance capitalism practised by the big tech platforms (which, of course, were instrumental in the planning of the Capitol protests) back to US governments’ reaction to 9/11, and in particular the embracing of “total information awareness”.
Big Tech has, of course, belatedly shut down the president (and others including Boebert) but do we really think this is anything but a political acknowledgment that there’s a new administration coming in next week? On that score, I totally agree with Bell, whose article you pointed out, that we need to adopt a European-style approach to hate speech and just force the platforms that facilitate this stuff to take it down Asap or be shut down themselves. Allowing private companies to decide when and how such limits are enforced is untenable and undemocratic.
As I’ve written in the past, I’m far more worried about the political power of Facebook than the power of a group of rag-tag guys with a Confederate flag. That said, they both point to the same thing, which is the crisis in liberal democracy in America and faith in government itself. The takeover of the Republican party by what Timothy Snyder so brilliantly called “gamers” and “breakers” is what we really need to worry about. It's amazing that the best outcome we can hope for in the short term is that the gamers win out over the breakers.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Where is the post-neoliberal world headed?’: “I don’t want to get between the two of you in the debate about neoliberalism’s meaning, but to Rana’s argument, offshoring has been overrated as the cause of national inequality. Technology is much more important . . . All call centres could be returned to the US, yet the jobs would never total those outsourced because companies are increasingly using computers to deal with consumers, and educational disparity has become even more important by creating and perpetuating economic inequality. As to Ed’s point, Biden does have a vision of a major change in our economy, returning to FDR concepts of the federal government creating a massive number of new jobs. Not just in the environment, but repairing and building infrastructure. He also emphasises the need for dramatic increases in the levels of education across all populations, thus free college. Now he needs to get those ideas enacted into law, admittedly a significant challenge.” — Harris Miller, McLean, Virginia
“Andrew Yang, during his primary campaign, was correct, in my opinion, in emphasising the coming Armageddon of further job loss due to automation (as a result of continued advances in commercial artificial intelligence). Any analysis of future political climates and deepening economic inequality must factor in this 800-pound gorilla that is, surprisingly, off most people’s radar screen.” — Michael H, Chicago, Illinois