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The 117th Congress

07 Jan 2021

Yesterday was supposed to be a gripping and transformational moment for American governance, because the Democrats had regained the trifecta of the House, the Senate and the Presidency for the first time in a decade. It was supposed to be gripping and transformational, because Senator-elect Raphael Warnock would be the first African-American Democrat from the South to serve in the Senate. It was supposed to be gripping and transformational, because Senator-elect Jon Ossoff would be the first Jewish senator from the Deep South since Benjamin Jonas was elected in 1879.

Instead, it was gripping and transformational for all the wrong reasons: for the fact that 8 Republican Senators and the 139 Republican Congresspeople objected to the election results by peddling unfounded lies around electoral fraud; for the flying of foreign flags in and around the Capitol bulding; and most importantly, for the attempt by a sitting President to incite a violent incursion into the Houses of Congress as to impede the peaceful transfer of power.

There are three meta-narratives that this ties into.

Racial Privilege in Policing

The most obvious one is about the racial disparities that exist in policing. The Capitol is the cornerstone and one of the most visible symbols of the American democracy. Unsurprisingly, there is a 2,300 strong Capitol Police force, with the Metropolitan Police Department and the National Guard of the District of Columbia being available to support if necessary. In the past, these law enforcement and military units have been deployed and have engaged in operations to disrupt peaceful protests and clear out space for a Presidential photo op. And they have done so with full force, wearing tactical gear rather than dress blues and armed with batons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and other riot equipment in order to restrain and attack protestors.

By contrast, the Capitol Police put up little to no resistance yesterday and could be characterised as amicable, practically letting rioters past the barriers and taking selfies with them. Meanwhile, requests for the DC National Guard to step in once it became clear the police were not capable of protecting the Capitol Building were initially denied by the Department of Defense, before a further period of dithering for over an hour and a half due to concerns of bad optics.

Recognise that there’s a world of difference between protests at large and what occurred yesterday - if there was a time for guns to be drawn and lethal force to be deployed, it would be when terrorists attempted to breach into the sanctum of American government. And yet it is laughable the extent to which the authorities were much less prepared for, much less responsive to and much more peaceful with yesterday’s insurgents, compared to past cases where protestors have done far less - and it is a testament to the extent to which white privielege exists.

The American Right

The second pertinent piece of context is about the role the political right has played in 21st century America. For one, their portrayal of themselves as the patriotic side of “law and order” that backs the “boys in blue” is just nonsense. No principled conservative would believe that breaking through police lines in order to overturn election results fits these criteria - and yet, that’s exactly what the mob did yesterday, striking at the heart of the democratic process because they didn’t like the result. Clearly there are principled conservatives in the US, but they certainly weren’t present yesterday and they don’t represent the loudest or most powerful voices on the right anymore. Instead, we have hypocritical lunatics who drop their principles as soon as it became convenient to do so. The result was that America, even if just for a short while, became a banana republic where elected officials could not discharge their constitutional duties due to the threat of violence, and where they had to be evacuated and barricaded in a room for their own safety.

Crucially, this isn’t some one-off event. It isn’t transitory because it’s part of a broader secular trend, where Republican officials pander and lie to their electorate in a cynical attempt to advance their political careers. Whether this is Senator Josh Hawley giving a fist pump to the rioters or Rudy Giuliani calling for trial by combat hours before the insurrection or the President telling people to “fight like hell” that morning, there is a pattern of Republicans egging on their supporters and fanning the flames of ridiculous lies. As Senator Mitt Romney said that evening, “the best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership”. Unfortunately, few Congressional Republicans have displayed the leadership required to put country over party.

When the President said that “there won’t be a transfer of power, Republicans went from denying that the President was serious to arguing that there was no harm in humouring him to actively pushing for investigations of electoral fraud. And let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Republicans don’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re trying to capitalise on the discord and doubt for their own political agenda by fanning the flames of tinfoil hatters. The result is that 45% of Republicans believe that storming the seat of government was justified. There’s no surprise here - a populace that has had its fears preyed upon and its conspiracy theories regarding electoral fraud affirmed is going to be angry, wanting to seek justice. And that means what happened yesterday, with the death of five people at the Capitol, their blood is on the hands of the Republican Party.

A Failure of Imagination

And finally, there’s the broader discussion of how it was even possible for the Capitol to be overrun so easily. As seen above, the police resistance was minimal - there’s a particularly horrifying video of a lone Black officer being left to hold off an entire mob. A plausible story of why the police on the scene were so outmanned and underprepared is that the Capitol Police usually relies on support from other federal authorities for serious events, but they had assumed that these individuals would simply be protesting and would not actively attack the police. Indeed, this is consistent with the fact that the Capitol Police turned down National Guard manpower from the Pentagon and the Department of Justice’s offers of FBI agents. To some extent, this reflects the first comment regarding racism - it seems likely that in part they thought so because they saw white people as less threatening, especially since they were right-wingers who traditionally had been friendly with the police.

They were wrong. These insurrectors were not just angry protestors who organically spiralled into a raid of the Capitol. They were prepared and well-equipped domestic terrorists. They used pepper spray on the Capitol Police, had automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails as well as carrying police-style zip tie restraints. There was a pipe bomb outside the RNC and DNC, alongside a truck near the RNC with long guns, ammunition and bomb-making materials. There were also at least two IEDs found at the Capitol. All of this doesn’t suggest just a random disaffected crowd - it screams of a planned terrorist attack on government officials.

And although the MPD might claim that “there was no intelligence that there would be a breach of the U.S. Capitol, this is just bollocks. There were warning signs everywhere. If there weren’t, people like Arieh Kovler or Bellingcat or Sarah Kendzior would never have been able to see this coming.

Now there’s a conspiracy theory answer to this, which argues that this was somehow planned. Suppose I were an outgoing President not wanting to lose my power. What would I do? I’d engage in legal gish gallop to sow doubts in the legitimacy of the election. I’d repeat claims of fraud and use my influence to get party allies to do the same. And I’d gather my supporters, get them riled up about an establishment plot against the people, and tell them to head to the Capitol, on the one day where I know for sure all legislators have to be present. I would ensure the Capitol Police was unprepared and that federal support was as delayed as possible. And the result of that sounds a lot like what actually happened. I’m not a conspiracy theory person, so let’s discard that - though this story above makes me see why conspiracy theories are so tempting. The non-conspiracy explanation is Hanlon’s Razor i.e. never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity - it’s that the US has been systematically underestimating the threat of domestic terrorism.

This is part of a broader failure, which has haunted intelligence services in the past. As 9/11 Commission’s executive summary of its report described, “the most important failure was one of imagination”. In this case, it was a failure to take the President at his word when he said that he wanted to sow discord, undermine trust and obstruct democracy, owing to people’s inability to imagine that the President would be so openly evil. It is also a failure to imagine that right wing insurgents would literally just walk into the Capitol, perhaps because Hollywood has conditioned us to believe that these are impreganble citadels that can only be penetrated by highly militarised and trained individuals. We cannot have this sort of failure again, because we were in many ways incredibly lucky this time, with staffers remembering to grab the boxes with the electoral votes. And even so, there is still a danger of computers having been compromised. As such, it concerns me that so many continue to treat this as simply a bunch of angry people, rather than the coordinated attack it was.

The 117th Congress

Let me conclude by explaining the title of this post. It’s an allusion an episode of the Newsroom called “The 112th Congress”, narrating how the Tea Party movement defined the 112th Congress.

“I understood the Tea Party in the beginning, just like I understood the SDS. The Tea Party was a middle class movement responding spontaneously to bad trends: wages were stagnant, jobs were disappearing, Wall Street got trillions and everybody was laughing at them. They’ve been co-opted by the radical right, which in turn has enslaved the Republican middle. … The Tea Party is being radicalised and their original organising principles obliterated, and no one should be laughing anymore - they should be scared shitless. My party is being hijacked and it’s happening in real time. How is this not our top story every night?”
- Will McAvoy in “The 112th Congress” (The Newsroom)

This commentary on the radical elements of the Republicans is more apt than ever - if we ever expect to have a functioning democracy rather than one where I live-tweeted about an attempted coup, there needs to be a fundamental shift away from a party that aids and abetts demagogues. Without that, we will remain in a world where half of the Republican Party continues to believe that the election was a sham and that they would be justified in using force to correct this. This breakdown of trust would spell, if not the end, certainly the deterioration of the Republic. So if that wasn’t the top narrative you were worried about, it damn well should be now.

[ miscellaneous  takes  ]