by Nick Johnston
Contributing Writer from the US
Hi, I’m an American. On January 6th, while baking brownies during a work break, I received worrying messages from friends abroad. Evidently people were storming my country’s Capitol. A number of Trump supporters raided the building in an apparent attempt to disrupt the electoral process. Some intended much worse. I came home to a phone full of notifications. Many friends wanted my thoughts. As an opinionated left-leaning American living in a conservative stronghold, I think they saw me as some kind of discount reporter.
For some, my area might be the cartoon that pops in their head when they imagine conservative America.
The small town in Wyoming where I now sit has more cattle, coal, and rifles than residents. Trump’s approval ratings are higher here than anywhere. His name hangs from flags on the back of pick-up trucks, and even a tractor on the road nearby. Qanon conspiracy theories are regularly posted on our local Facebook page. Being called a ‘liberal’ or ‘leftist’ (sadly used interchangeably) is a serious insult here.
Among educated international students, especially Europeans, there is a fascination with conservative Americans. Heck, if you have a story about ‘redneck’ Republican relatives, you can capture a crowd at a party. When I tell folks about the cattle, cowboy hats, and guns, they eat it up. If I share that I used to be conservative, their eyes go wide. I talk about how we stand for the pledge of allegiance every morning in school, how we sing the national anthem at rodeos and football games, and how the cross and the flag adorn so many homes and businesses. Nationalism in the United States is unique in the West. When asked for my thoughts about what’s happening here, most just want to understand them. Conservatives. What’s up with Republicans? What’s their deal?
What’s up with Republicans?
Understanding conservatives is certainly important. There’s no story about January 6th without them. There are a few angles of approach. Some are likely familiar. The standard list of causes includes things like misinformation, conspiracy theories, McCarthyism, white supremacy, Christian extremism, reckless rhetoric from Republican leadership, and the American culture of violence. It’s all true. Misinformation is polarizing people. Low digital literacy leads to viral lies. Otherwise normal folks radicalize as algorithms mobilize mobs.
What was once reserved for socialists has generalized to encompass even capitalist Democrats.
Racial and religious chauvinism also remain potent. White supremacy, open or covert, still motivates millions. Those who were alive for (even responsible for) segregation still vote, hold power, and raise children. Cultural Christianity likewise drives many to ‘resist Satan’. Meanwhile, Republican politicians, especially Trump, use violent rhetoric, which unsurprisingly translates into violence. So go the standard talking points.
Lastly, the ‘patriotic’ rhetoric that conservatives identify with is violent and insurrectionist at its core. Even the most straight-laced and reasonable Republican (or Democrat for that matter) is familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s words: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thus, for many conservatives, storming the Capitol seems patriotic. It is seen as a reenactment of the founding values of the United States - harassing those in power (without actually confronting other forms of oppression). This sentiment runs so deep in many Americans, that even I, leftist that I am, felt some excitement in the scary, long-dormant conservative corners of my brain. This ugly impulse feeds twisted fantasies, which are anything but anti-authoritarian
Those who stormed the Capitol remind one of dogs that chase cars, never imagining they’d ever catch one. When given the chance to occupy the Capitol and enforce demands, most took selfies and stole memorabilia. Though maybe we simply got lucky. Roleplaying revolutionaries, it was revealed to be almost entirely theater. Maybe their movement hasn’t matured in tactics or organization. Maybe they have a half-baked ideology. In any event, many didn’t think that far ahead. Though they might from now on.
The Republican party at a crossroads
A deeper analysis requires we look past rhetoric and aesthetics and focus on the actual conditions of the party. The truth is, the Republican party tends to lose the popular vote. Since Bush’s victory in 2000, winning elections with fewer votes is simultaneously a strategy, and an anxiety. Demographics that tend to vote Democrat are growing. Projections are dark for future Republican victories if these trends continue. Georgia is emblematic. Other states are projected to follow. Hence, Republicans are at a crossroads. They are tasked with either remaining hostile to popular participation in elections, or changing their platform to appeal to more people. They either need to try harder to keep people from voting, or they need to change the party.
The internal divisions in the Republican party can be read as expressions of that divide in favored strategy. They either gerrymander, suppress voting, maybe even ‘coup’ a little, or they transform. They aren’t just at war with liberals and progressives, they are at war with the Republican party. As a Trump-supporting friend of mine posted on Facebook this week, “The Republican party must die.”
Those in power think cynically about strategies for their party’s survival. Since they haven’t been winning popular votes they are tempted to reject elections and suppress popular democracy. Though some politicians are motivated by ignorance, some are just cynical strategists. The angry folks at the Capitol however, were operating in an ideologically tangled space which included a coalition of diverse groups. Libertarians, neo-confederates, literal nazis, religious fundamentalists, and conspiracy theorists all marched together. Clashing outlooks are united by a love of Trump and a hatred of Democrats. However, whether or not these shared loves and hates can keep the party together isn’t clear.
If there is anything my conservative family is certain about, it’s that they hate Hillary, Obama, Biden, Pelosi, and the rest.
Whether the Republican party splits, depends on how these conflicts over strategy are resolved. Since Trump is synonymous with a certain rhetorical and political strategy, he is likely to either make or break the Republican party. Trump loyalists (whether they know it or not) favor a Republican party which commits to a legacy of anti-democratic voter suppression. The recent outburst was less subtle and more frantic. The rest of the policy platform is secondary to their leader’s personality. The anti-Trump Republicans, like the previous presidential candidate and current senator from Utah Mitt Romney, favor a reformation of the party. Willing to compromise on some rhetoric and policy, these Republicans are less hostile to our democratic institutions. Insecure in their hold on power, some strive to secure the popular vote, even if it means changing their message and tactics.
With Democrats in power, the resentment which fuels Trump’s reactionary wing of the Republican party is likely to endure. If anything is central to American conservatives, it is opposition to Democrats. Policy is often secondary to a sense of group affiliation. Maybe more than anything, conservatives don’t like the way Democrats seem. To many conservatives, Democrats seem like out-of-touch, limp-wristed, nasal, obnoxious, condescending, over-bearing elites. That’s what I hear at least. If a Republican is anything, they aren’t a Democrat. Ask some of my relatives why they have a gun by their bed and they’ll say, ‘jokingly’ “It’s for Democrats”. Many truths are spoken in jest. Conservatives feel besieged by liberals that are radically unlike them. It is hard to imagine Biden’s administration overcoming this obstacle of perception. If you spend any time listening to conservative pundits, like I do, you’ll find that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their millions of viewers are equally fascinated and disturbed by liberals and leftists as we are by them. We ‘progressives’ aren’t so different in this way.
The problem of "Us" vs "Them"
Every day, millions of progressives, especially in the West, finish reading articles that outline the sorts of things I just described. Feeling enlightened, they say
what’s wrong with conservative Americans.”
With a diagnosis in hand, they feel good. Some go off and make some funny
memes. The USA is the problem child of the West, screaming in the back of the car as the rest of the Western world asks “why can’t you just be normal?”
There’s something critical for progressives in building their identity in contrast to conservatives. As a High School student in upstate New York, I remember dozens of my peers dressed up for Halloween in dirty flannel shirts and work boots with their teeth colored black to look toothless. They spoke in a caricature of bad English and acted ‘stupid’. The joke was that they were pretending to be people living in a nearby area code (where my family is from, in fact). It was open mockery of the American archetype of conservatism: blue-collar whites living in de-industrialized towns or the countryside, racist and ignorant of global affairs. By dressing up as them, they implied “Aren’t we glad that’s not us?”
Some Americans abroad, like me, do this often, but in other ways. In Europe, we try earnestly not to be the ‘bad Americans’. Through hundreds of little gestures, we try to signal “I’m not like them. I’m not racist. I’m not ignorant.” Yet, the way we focus on these archetypal conservatives has another use. In mockery and analysis, we define ourselves as “not them.” It’s a form of reassuring ourselves.
Americans, especially conservatives, can appear foreign or archaic to many Europeans. Looking at reactionary elements of my society may feel like peering into the past. The images of those recently at the Capitol, some with confederate flags and fascist symbols, gives flashbacks. We see Blackshirts and putsches amid the red, white, and blue. Maybe some think of Pegida, Vlaams Belang, Rassemblement National, or UKIP. However, these comparisons often have the same effect. By posing in contrast to reactionaries, we miss an opportunity to take a sober look at who we really are.
These days, history has a habit of dissolving into ‘current events’. Lacking a historical and global perspective, it is easy to get caught up in only condemning conservatives ransacking the Capitol. I saw many of my friends sharing what Obama had written in response to the riots. Among other things, he wrote that the “chambers of democracy” were “desecrated”. Bill Clinton and George Bush joined in condemnation. Many enthusiastically shared their words. It’s comically forgetful and near-sighted. The same desecrated chambers they lament have and continue to preside over far worse than was visited on them January 6th. The foreign policy and intervention of Western nations has caused political violence and desecration of democracy that conservatives at the Capitol could have only dreamt of.
The sight of fascists walking the halls of the United States Capitol is a horror ‘new’ to Americans and many in the West only because we have blinders on. For every Democrat clutching their pearls, there is an illegal Israeli settlement on Palestinian land that their party defends. For every progressive sharing Obama’s message for peace, there are dozens dead by drone and sanction. For every dismayed Belgian, is a Turkish soldier ethnically cleansing Northern Syria with Belgian Weapons and a sarin canister is dropped by Assad.
For every Westerner afraid of a toppled democracy, there is someone living in a former-democracy toppled by Western powers.
What should trouble us about reactionary violence is not just that it has happened before, but that it happens now. What should trouble us about it happening now, is that it happens because of us. What many US lawmakers (and former presidents) feared on January 6th, would have had them cheering if they could have done it to another country.
Many examine American conservatives anthropologically. Through the lens of op-eds they gaze at them like ‘primitives’. The jolt of terror in seeing fascists walking through those ‘hallowed halls’ shouldn’t end with self-consolation. The lesson isn’t just “Education is important” or “Conservatives are out of control” or “Glad that’s not us.” When we look at a Republican politician or pundit defending the actions of those that stormed the Capitol on January 6th, we need to look in the mirror.
If anti-democratic political violence troubles you, it’s not only fascists you have to worry about. Many acting distressed are the very same that treat democracy as a tool, to be discarded when expedient. Comically, this fact lives as a mangled half-truth in the claims of Trump supporters. Unfortunately, they rest their arguments on demonstrably false claims, rather than a wealth of evidence that the USA undermines democracy both abroad and at home. That the political establishment would cheat democracy is not unbelievable, it’s standard operating procedure in our foreign and domestic policy. Suppression of the black vote, disenfranchisement of felons (1 in 44 voting age adults) and those living in American colonies are structural and routine offenses against democracy at home. Coups, sanctions, proxy wars, as well as outright invasions and occupations do the trick abroad.
At some level, you have to wonder whether unconsciously, conservatives fear Democrats are doing to the USA what we as a nation support other states in doing. Meanwhile, maybe Democrats also unconsciously fear the viciousness a coup could unleash, because we have unleashed it elsewhere.
I hope my friends abroad can see that reactionary violence is not just the ‘quirk’ of my backwards nation, but an imperial trope playing out domestically. If we care about democracy, we have to care about it here, there, everywhere, and all the time. We should know that the fear we feel is felt by others elsewhere, because of the very politicians many progressives now look to for authority and consolation. If we come away from January 6th treating reactionary violence as an exception to the political order, we haven’t learned the right lesson. If we want to confront enemies of democracy, the list will be long. Riotous reactionaries are only the beginning.
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