Trump supporters gather outside of the Senate chamber after breaching the US Capitol building (Image: EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo)

You fall asleep thinking about the exciting/boring news day ahead, when 11 US senators and up to 100 House members will challenge certified election results. All the procedural guff, “all that is required for evil to triumph…”, “Mr President I yield my time…”, blah blah blah, some bogus procedural coup aimed at the 2024 Republican primaries. 

And you wake, flick on The Washington Post, and see a horned protester in American flag body paint heading a mob forcing their way into the marble halls of the US Congress.

God damn it, history actually happened. Protesters lolling in the Senate president’s chair, after the chamber was evacuated, rifling through people’s desks. Extraordinary scenes.

Here it is, what popular culture has been dreaming of in a thousand crappy movies and comic books: the moment when the US government loses its imperial unitary power all at once, and becomes as one with the tin-pot countries in whose capitals it had fomented coups that looked exactly like this one, ragged militias in the shining set of power. Someone seize the airport and the television station!

Whether you call it a coup or not — it appears to be both a ham-fisted version of one and a simulation of it at the same time — it surely marks the conclusion of America’s rhetorical power, its capacity to project global dominance and legitimate authority.

Could one imagine this happening in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing? My god, there wouldn’t even be a wet spot left where the protesters had been.

This sudden loss of global power projection comes not because the storming represents a planned assault on state power — although it opens an opportunity for a real civil war within the branches of government — but because it doesn’t, because it has occurred through a mix of lassitude and poor planning, and the habitual soft policing of right-wing events. 

Had it been a Black Lives Matter protest, the Capitol would have been ringed with steel, troops with fixed bayonets several deep, as it was during the march on the Pentagon and other Vietnam protests.

Here, all was not merely confusion but a lack of confidence in the rightness of protecting the highly imperfect, very limited, actually existing democracy of the US, against a force dedicated to its destruction, in the name of a mythical “real America” deprived of its right by imaginary electoral fraud. 

The DC National Guard were called out late, leaving the petty Capitol police, whose task is to deal with sporadic drunks and loonies (not ignoring their complicity with the right-wing insurgents) the sole task of defending the legislature. The Virginia National Guard was called out by that state’s Democratic governor even later.

This failure to assert the state power one has actually gained is in part a consequence of the quasi-anarchist dimension of American progressivism, with its emphasis on police abolition. In Greece during the 2010-12 crisis, the Communist Party marched on the parliament building — and then defended it when the anarchists tried to invade it. That sort of dual conception is absent on the US left and leaves it disarmed. 

But of course the chaos and the carnival was only part of it. “Yippie” style political theatre has made its final migration to the right; they turn up in red, white and blue war paint, Star Wars trooper headgear, Q t-shirts, tricorn hats and all the rest. This disguises the fact that the Capitol invasion was only possible because the actual military hadn’t been called out to defend the seat of US state power.

That would appear to be a decision of Trump’s recently appointed, supine defence secretary, installed for just such a moment. Not my country, so I’m not waving a flag for calling out the troops. Simply observing that when the executive branch won’t defend the legislative branch, what you have is the first stage of an internal state coup in classic fashion.

This is evidenced by calls from within the pro-Trump right for a declaration of martial law, the guarantee of stability, safety of the people, etc; a one-two manoeuvre used by both right and left in the Cold War, from Guatemala to Czechoslovakia.

Any sense that this is simply a cosplay simulation is false; the protesters have opened up the formal moment which would allow a coherent narrative of legitimation for an actual coup to be opened up.

Trump himself is teasing out this division between the real and the simulated, by tweeting out that the protesters should go home “in love and peace” but congratulating them as fully justified. In turn, Twitter has innovated, making it impossible to comment on, retweet, or “like” said tweets. 

Indeed, the collapse of unitary power was, paradoxically, exacerbated by Joe Biden giving a televised address in front of a backdrop saying “Office of the President-elect”, a huge breach of standard protocol (the “one president at a time” rule). He was appealing, of course, for “unity”, that mystical American political notion essential to the projection of global power.

Yet the insurgents are not interested in that sort of unity, e pluribus unum, nor in standard Cold War notions of American greatness as grounded in projected power. E unum unum is more their go.

Biden’s concluding of his address with Lincoln’s “last, best hope of man” was particularly pathetic. Today, the US is a cautionary tale about the destructive role that hubris and myth can play in the life of a republic.

This is surely not the end of something that saw its greatest success with Trump’s 2016 election, but the next stage. Little noticed was a less chaotic but similar process at the Kansas statehouse. What happens if such groups can create a coordinated attack, where 20 statehouses are occupied simultaneously? What if that seeds a wave of further occupations?

Far-fetched? Did you think you would see right-wing militia lolling in the Speakers’ chair, like scenes from Libya or Iraq a few years ago?

What will determine the possibility of this is whether US progressives have the capacity to turn around and crush these movements, using the state power at their disposal — having just actually won control of White House and Congress.

Or whether, from sleep, they will wake to find they could not keep such of a republic as was given to them.

Peter Fray

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