Fear Politics is No Longer Sustainable

Many hot-off-the-press takes have rolled out ever since the Senate’s certification of the electoral votes (usually an unexciting event that garners scant media coverage at best) was briefly shut down after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building and proceeding to vandalize, loot, and steal from the property. These takes have ranged from condemnations of the rioters’ behavior (including from world leaders) and calls for prosecution and jailing of the participants to calls to impeach President Trump a second time and encouraging his senior-level staff to resign. Some even believe that the day parallels Pearl Harbor and should live in infamy, while others have been quick to point out the differences in police treatment of the pro-Trump rioters and the Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. Still, others have lamented the worrying number of far-right extremists, neo-Nazis, crank conspiracy theorists, racists, and fringe militia groups that showed up at the rally-turned-riot. 

There is merit to all of this, but they are missing the big picture (the only big-picture take I have seen is people pointing out one of the rioters getting a Confederate flag into the Capitol building, something Confederate soldiers were unable to do 150 years ago). That big picture is something that has been bubbling under the surface of politics for decades now, and that is the tension between the haves and have-nots. The political class is not oblivious to this: politicians, journalists, pundits, activist leaders, and other political elites turn every single thing into a potential or actual catastrophe. Every election becomes “once in a lifetime” and a chance to “save our country.” Every speech given by a politician is influential. Every piece of legislation will have serious consequences. And so on and so on. 

Whether these claims have any merit is not significant. What is important is that our elites, specifically our politicians, continue to exploit our fears and pit “us” versus “them.” People often like to think President Trump is the only major politician with a toxic “winners and losers” mentality, where if we do not try to win, then we lose. But this mentality is shared among our politicians from both parties, making us less trusting of one another and more willing to confine ourselves to echo chambers and the misinformation that permeates such places. Whataboutism becomes commonplace as people talk past each other, versed in wildly different political languages. Coupled with the differences in values that people hold and the increasing perception that the “other side” wants fundamentally different political outcomes to occur, it becomes impossible to find common ground.

With this in mind, it makes sense that Trump supporters, feeling maligned by elites and that the “once-in-a-lifetime” election was stolen from their guy, would go and riot and loot the Capitol building. I am not trying to excuse the actions of the rioters (quite the opposite, I condemn the idea of mob rule as an affront to a nominally functioning political system); instead, I am offering an explanation for the behavior of a group of people whose intentions and political goals are often widely misunderstood. Additionally, it is not a defense of the beliefs that Trump supporters tend to hold. When people are made to feel like they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from engaging in criminal behavior, it is then that respect for democratic norms and republican institutions diminishes. Unfortunately, shunning the political process (in favor of “alternate” means of political participation) when one feels powerless to influence it has historical precedent in this country.

In a previous article, I discussed the centrality of violence in American politics. I think that is no more apparent than last Wednesday’s riot, and it shows how deeply ingrained violence is in our politics. Pundits keep calling the riot “un-American,” but I argue that it is who we are. This will continue unless large portions of the country finally recognize that they are protesting against the wrong people. In other words, the same reasons that pushed the Capitol rioters to act the way they did (minus the cranks) are the same reasons that motivated the Black Lives Matter protesters, the Occupy Wall Street protesters, and the Tea Party types to take action. However rudimentary, people are angry at the status quo: the national debt has gone up, cost of living has soared, student debt has accumulated at dizzying heights, lockdowns have continued without an end in sight, and most importantly, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has widened. People have every reason to be angry, but while we are at each other’s throats, cronyists in big business and government are laughing their way to the bank. 

Violence is never the answer. Those who directly participated in breaking into the Capitol building should be punished accordingly and proportionately, being mindful not to add any more incarcerated individuals than we have to. And while the state continues to perpetrate acts of violence on Americans every day, we should recognize that private individuals and groups can do so as well. We should oppose all of it because the current state of politics is unsustainable. 

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