Chaos in Washington conjures up coups and dark past

US AFFAIRS: The protesters in Washington appeared to be walking a thin line between an anti-democratic riot and a populist protest that got out of control.

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather for a rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC on January 5, 2021. A string of extremists are expected at the rally. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images) (photo credit: SAMUEL CORUM/GETTY IMAGES)
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather for a rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC on January 5, 2021. A string of extremists are expected at the rally. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Much of the desire to push a mass rally for US President Donald Trump into some kind of defining moment – a “revolution” or “civil war” or “stop the steal” denouement – has been in the air for years. A hard-core group of people in the US, devoted supporters of Trump, have long gathered online and in other forums to discuss drastic action against a plethora of enemies they believe exist.
The protesters in Washington are not a monolith. In Ohio, media found thousands were making the journey to the US Capitol. But few expected the US Senate and other buildings to be “locked down” or to see people breaking glass and fighting with police in the nation’s capital. Scenes of protesters letting off a fire extinguisher in the otherwise quiet and banal halls of the Capitol, while others posed in all manner of interesting clothing, from raccoon fur hats to cavalry caps and Confederate flags, will frame this chaos.
“Literally under attack,” is how commentators saw the Capitol. Video showed people gathering in the afternoon, before breaking through barricades. Computer screens, according to video posted online, were left on at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office as assistants evacuated the office during the protests. Protesters got into the Senate Chamber as well. Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate, called the incidents “insurrection.” The National Guard was reportedly summoned by Pelosi as the Capitol Police could not secure the buildings. Congress was evacuated. “Lawmakers evacuate,” US media reported.
Ana Navarro Cardenas tweeted that this is “the kind of thing that happens in Cuba and Venezuela where lawless dictators send rapid response brigades to intimidate and attack political opponents.”
Joe Lockhart, CNN political analyst, noted that “the cabinet should convene and remove the president under the 25th amendment. We have a president who is now engineering a violent coup attempt.”
Bizarre plastic masks were given out in the Capitol to staffers, in case of tear gas. Rep. Jerry Nadler tweeted “I am safe. We are sheltering in place. Make no mistake: President Trump and his enablers are directly responsible for this violence.”
In Washington lawmakers called on the president to tell his supporters to stop “trampling” the District of Columbia.
Outside Washington, thousands of miles away, there is a mix of schadenfreude and concern. For decades the US lectured other countries on “free and fair elections” and put out annual lists of complaints about how countries were not conducting elections fairly. The US urged unity and urged militias not to attack capitol buildings in other countries, like Iraq. Now some wonder if it is the US that needs to hear from Afghans, where US soldiers have been fighting for two decades, about how the US needs “unity talks.”
Many former Trump administration officials have called for calm and for the president to condemn the violence. Trump did tweet about standing with the Capitol Police.
However, earlier in the day at a speech Right Side Broadcasting Network had live online to 1.8 million viewers, Trump said that he would never give up. He said that with his supporters, “we will stop the steal. This was not a close election; we won by a landslide.”
He mocked the 81 million votes for President-elect Joe Biden, who was supposed to be fully confirmed Wednesday via electoral votes that would be tallied in the US Senate. Trump said they were “computer votes” but not real votes.
He compared the US election to one in a “third world country... their elections are more honest; it’s a disgrace.”
Trump vowed not to let this go on and asked Vice President Mike Pence to do the “right thing” and certify that Trump won the election. He said states wanted a “revote.”
Prominent Republicans have disagreed with Trump over the last several days, from Mitch McConnell to Tom Cotton. Others, like Ted Cruz, have stood with the president but against the violent protests. It didn’t work. The protesters stormed the Capitol anyway.
For some this conjured up the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 when Adolf Hitler and a band of Nazis attempted a coup in Munich. Twenty people were killed. Hitler was imprisoned. Others might recall the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss as a point of reference for civil conflict. For others it reminded them of Muqtada al-Sadr’s men storming the Green Zone in 2016. It also brings up images of other times capitol buildings were taken over, from protests in the Caucasus to Salvador Allende watching the coup in 1973 before his death.
Russian Revolution leader V.I. Lenin is reported to have said that the Communists found “power lying in the streets and simply picked it up.” Power is at stake in Washington. Countries and peace survive on a thin line, a kind of social contract. When things tip in the wrong direction, massive changes can occur and violence can result.
That is what happened in the Arab Spring protests 10 years ago. However, as we witnessed in Tunisia and then in Egypt, these types of populist protest uprisings go only so far. They were later stopped in Bahrain and led to a civil war in Syria.
In the US whispers of civil war have been heard for years, during the 2016 election and after a rising alt right led to violent clashes with left-wing protesters. This culminated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which one person was killed. Low-level violence continued at some protests and then burst on the scene again in 2020. A right-wing activist was shot in September 2020 in Portland. Clashes continued after the US election from Olympia, Washington, to Washington DC. In addition, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old, is accused of shooting three people in August.
There were mass protests in June after the killing of George Floyd. Trump threatened to call in troops in the capital at the time. Some said the Insurrection Act should be used. At the same time voices critical of Trump have accused him of collusion and said he has backed “traitors” to the US.
This kind of rhetoric has led to feelings that there could be a civil conflict in the US. People linked to law enforcement and former military personnel spread rumors about the “blue flu” where police go on strike and the Three Percenters rise up against a “globalist” elite who are bringing the “swamp” back to Washington. This rhetoric mythologizes the supposed 3% of American colonists who took up arms to fight the crown in 1776.
FOR THE Biden camp there has been a tendency to move forward and keep forming a future government. On January 6 Brett McGurk, the former anti-ISIS coalition head, was rumored to have been tapped by Biden to head up Middle East policy for the future administration. Biden wants to assemble a competent team, from Jake Sullivan to Kathleen Hicks, Colin Kahl and other veterans of the Obama administration.
The Biden approach has been to ignore Trump’s rhetoric rather than fuel tension. They want Trump to leave quietly. Even when recordings of a phone call to Georgia emerged in which it was clear Trump would not concede defeat, there was relative quiet from Biden’s spokespeople. Let Trump leave and then deal with the chaos and tensions he has stoked, is the message.
But for the protesters that is not enough. A direct attack on democracy is what many believe they are seeing in the US. Others are optimistic that the US will pull through. Authoritarian regimes are surely watching, knowing that the next time the US tells them about democracy, they can point to this.
This isn’t the first time that Washington and American politics faced challenges in the form of protests or potential civil conflict. There was Shays’s Rebellion in 1786, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, the Burr conspiracy of 1804, the US Civil War, William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech in 1896, and the Bonus March of 1932, as well as the massive rallies in the capital in the 1960s. Richard Nixon even went out to the Lincoln Memorial when the capital was full of protesters and met anti-war demonstrators in 1970. He spoke with them for hours.
America has had its populist demagogues before and also masses willing to follow them. The rise of Trump has been compared to populist American leaders in the past, whether Andrew Jackson or Huey Long.
But they never contested an election like this. The devotion to Trump among his followers outpaces the support for Republican candidates in some places in zeal. It does not necessarily convert to victories at the polls. In addition, the conspiracy-addled ideas linked to QAnon have poisoned many with stories of secret codes embedded in Trump language that could order a civil war.
As the sunlight faded in DC on Wednesday, people abroad looked on with bewilderment. Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote “outraged and heartbroken.” Turkey state media mocked the US by claiming to monitor “worrying” developments. Turkey’s regime should know since its own presidential security attacked peaceful US protesters in 2017, and Ankara’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan was close to Trump, emboldening the former’s authoritarian tendencies.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan summoned troopers to assist the Metropolitan Police in Washington toward the end of the day.
US Sen. Marco Rubio said at four in the afternoon, “There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill. This is third-world-style anti-American anarchy.”
Americans might want to stop comparing what is happening in Washington to the “third world,” since it has now come to the US.