By Marc Robail
On January 6th, pro-Trump protestors rushed Capitol Hill. This protest certainly ranked among the largest single-day demonstrations in American history. Protestors from across the United States were in attendance, connecting through internet chatrooms, message boards, and social media. In an openly illiberal move, the Trumpist contingent demanded the reversal of presidential election results. The protestors were loosely motivated by a cultic admiration of Donald Trump and underlying (perhaps unknowing) resentment from decades of declining White living standards. Despite their patchwork ambitions and contrasting goals, the protestors’ raw energy could be distilled to a righteous anger against a malicious political establishment. The protestors rallied around a distorted perception of Trump as a vehicle for anti-establishment interests, despite the president’s innumerable betrayals. Regardless of factual circumstances, one aspect is strikingly clear: the Capitol Hill Uprising emerged from a highly energized, untamed mass of dissatisfied, motivated, and mostly White Americans.
The motivations of the Capitol Hill Uprising are drawn from a series of intricate myths, legends, and acculturating initiations. Most importantly, these myths were powerful enough to justify extremely transgressive actions against the political establishment. Chief among these myths is the infamous QAnon conspiracy. Beneath the mindboggling network of increasingly complex linkages, QAnon reveals a powerful psychological symptom of White American consciousness: extreme (and correct) distrust of existing political leadership and foreboding awareness of a malevolent, self-enriching government. Other myths, such as the Trumpist “plan-trusters,” reveal an eschatological trust in authoritarian, strongman leadership. Trump becomes a messianic figure in these myths, in which mostly-White Americans trust him with “draining the swamp” of morally evil figures. Trump’s contested loss against Joe Biden therefore produced an incredulous and combustible demonstration to restore their mythic messiah. Such a figure cannot be reinstated, in this view, by rational debate. In an extremely polarized American electorate, recourse to “respectable” methods of discussion is sheer impotence. Instead, the Capitol Hill protestors revealed the bubbling capacity for direct action within the psyche of the average American. The Capitol Hill Uprising showed the potentiality for combative confrontation within the myth-driven Trumpist movement.
Why do the mythic foundations of the Capitol Hill Uprising matter? German jurist Carl Schmitt argues in the 1923 book The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (translated by Ellen Kennedy, MIT Press: 1988) that “irrationalist” theories of force are the strongest motivators of direct action. Irrationalist masses are motivated by narrative-driven energy rather than any banal reliance on cordial political processes. In an exegesis of French syndicalist Georges Sorel’s famous Reflections on Violence, Schmitt contends: “the ability to act and the capacity for heroism, all world-historical activities reside, according to Sorel, in the power of myth” (68). Myth-driven, irrationalist force “creates a mythical image that pushes its energy forward and gives it the strength for martyrdom as well as… [to] use force” (68). The myth-driven group “lays to rest every belief in discussion,” (66) instead favoring the use of physical force and potential violence. Schmitt explains that this energy foments “bellicose, revolutionary excitement and the expectation of monstrous catastrophes” (71). The myth creates “struggle as a life instinct,” (71) preparing the mass for direct action toward their enemy. This “creative force that breaks loose in the spontaneity of the enthusiastic masses” (71) permits the irrationalist cause to pursue forceful, lively action.
The irrational myth is the greatest danger to parliamentary democracy, according to Schmitt. One of parliamentary democracy’s fatal flaws is its lack of motivating myth. Schmitt characterizes parliamentary democracy as an impotent chamber of endless discussion, in which the people’s will is discarded amid the infinite bickering of party politics. For Schmitt, the absence of a parliamentary myth is harmful to its institutional survival: “wherever [myth] is lacking, no social and political power can remain standing, and no mechanical apparatus can build a dam if a new storm of historical life has broken loose” (68). Schmitt describes parliamentarism as “the monstrosity of cowardly intellectualism,” (69) lacking the vitality of the irrational myth. Rather than possessing the enthusiasm and charisma of a mythic mass, Schmitt alleges that parliamentarism’s vigor is hampered by its slow, detached discussions. Against the unstoppable myth, parliamentary democracy would likely crumble.
According to Schmitt, the irrational myth garners its appeal from the failings of rational parliamentarism. Schmitt states that “myth is the most powerful symptom of the decline… of parliamentary thought” (76). In basic terms: once the endless discussion of parliamentarism has lost its appeal, myth becomes the strongest compelling force of action. The decline of “rational debate,” likely emerging from its ineptitude and undercurrent of plutocracy, pushes the politically active mass toward direct action. National myths, Schmitt states, are far more potent at spurring action than parliamentarism’s false veneer of rational litigation. In other words, primordial and transcendent myths of nationalism are stronger motivators for mass participation than weak apologies for parliamentarism. In a foreboding tone, Schmitt envisions the ultimate endpoint of direct action: tragic conflict between political groups. One can infer that Schmitt believes the myth-driven irrationalist group would eventually triumph.
Why has parliamentary democracy lasted this long?
Schmitt provides a compelling critique of parliamentary democracy. However, Schmitt’s speculation about the demise of parliamentary democracy has not come to fruition; in fact, so-called democracy reached its strongest position by the beginning of the 21st century. Why did the vision of irrational myth’s triumph of crushing tepid deliberative democracy, fail? The answer can be found in the simple definition of state put forth by German sociologist Max Weber: the state “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The state, no matter how weak, still has legal recourse toward the use of physical force. The myth-driven group is always liable to the lethality of the state. Any force used by the myth-driven group is deemed illegitimate, firmly outside of legality. Force, in this sense, powers the immovable regime against the unstoppable myth.
The Capitol Hill Uprising encountered the state’s monopoly of legitimate force. Protester Ashli Babbitt was killed by police forces during the protest. Around three other protestors may have died on January 6th. Punishment against the protestors arrived swiftly after the Uprising. At the time of publication, many of those involved have been arrested by heavily-armed squads of FBI agents. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham requested the protestor’s prosecution “to the fullest extent of the law.” As of January 10th, 25 domestic terrorism investigations have been opened against protestors. Several leading Congresspeople have pursued stronger domestic terrorism laws to confront the growing populist energy of White America. President-elect Joe Biden called for a redefinition of existing laws that would define such populist and nationalist groups as domestic terrorists. These efforts would strengthen the state’s ability to exercise physical force against political dissenters. There will undoubtedly be greater levels of political persecution for anti-establishment nationalist groups than ever before. The state is clearly gathering the greatest possible tools of physical force to use against dissenters.
Weber’s definition of state monopoly of physical force misses one crucial element of 21st century neoliberalism: the strength of private corporations and citizen armies to destroy the lives of ordinary Americans. Many Capitol Hill protesters have lost their job due to involvement with the Uprising, at the discretion of their company. Protestors are openly being doxxed on social media by Leftist groups, or even their own family, thus allowing corporations to identify and take action against employees. Most national corporations have released statements condemning the participants of the Uprising. The entire media establishment, from far-left outlets to Fox News, is united in their condemnation of the protestors. Social media giants such as Twitter, YouTube, and DLive have deplatformed the Uprising’s thought leaders, including Trump himself, both cutting off their source of income and silencing some critics of the regime. The full arsenal of private corporations is aimed squarely at the populist American.
Despite any dissident-right misgivings about the political particulars of the Capitol Hill protestors, January 6th struck fear into the heart of the establishment. Populist Americans, particularly rural Whites, are increasingly disenchanted by appeals to “democracy” and “rule of law.” The democratic process has left these Americans without representation. The US Congress, from Democrats to Republicans, openly and often rule in the interest of financial elites and minority groups. White Americans do not receive any sympathy from the political establishment. Zero policies have been enacted during the Trump administration to remedy the plight of White America: the opioid crisis rages on, White deaths of despair climb higher, cultural malaise continues, and poor Whites find themselves in an even more precarious economic environment. It is no surprise that such people would seek alternative, and sometimes extrajudicial, means of enacting political will. It is also no surprise that such people would find solace in myths such as QAnon and the Trump personality cult.
We appear to have arrived in an era of myth-driven groups and force-backed regimes in America. In the words of Schmitt, this age discards any debate or compromise: “argument [becomes] irrelevant… never capable of renewing the age of discussion” (76). The American establishment’s recourse toward domestic terrorism laws shows an uncompromising stance toward the will of populist America. If the establishment will not hear debate, it will crush it instead. Similarly, populist America’s righteous rage appears unlikely to coexist with an openly hostile regime. One can even question if parliamentary normalcy could ever return: as Schmitt states, “the last remnants of solidarity and a feeling of belonging together will be destroyed in the pluralism of… myths” (76). Does the Capitol Hill Uprising solidify the unbridgeable chasm between White, rural, right-wing populism and the multiracial, urban, neoliberal elite? Will the foundational myth of QAnon and Trumpism be changed into something more useful and real? Will nationalist groups face harsher repression under domestic terror laws? Only time will tell. Nationalist sympathizers must pursue coherent political organization and a strict non-violence code in this era of overreaching domestic terrorist laws. The untamed mass of Capitol Hill protestors requires clearer, critical political aims (which may be possible given Trump’s open betrayal) and stronger leadership. The anti-establishmentism of QAnon and Trumpism must be honed and transformed into a coherent, authentic, and unabashed nationalism. This will legitimize the political will of White America against the establishment. Whatever the case, it is certain that the current stage of American politics is similar to Schmitt’s Weimar-era experiences: we are undoubtedly amid a crisis of parliamentary democracy.