Assault on Capitol HillIf Islamic militants are driven by ideology and a skewed worldview, so are white nationalists and the MAGA mob.
The ransacking of the United States Capitol on January 6 by President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) mob officially signals the arrival of the age of extremism in America. The age of extremes otherwise occurred elsewhere and at other times—in 20th century for historian Eric Hobsbawm. But the urban sociologist Manuel Castells confirmed that the post-Cold War world would not be Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ but more like his teacher Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ when identities would take extreme forms.
This meant that the search for identity ending in extremism would occur only in the non-West, especially in the Muslim-dominated areas. Then, the bug of extremism would later spread to even Hindu and Buddhist areas, such as India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. And the West would provide democracy, rationality and progress as its civilisational contrast. How wrong he appears now!
It also seemed that the forces of marketisation and consumerism—the prime drivers now being Amazon and the social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter—would confine the wave of extremism primarily to those areas outside the West with sporadic minor instances of acts of Islam-inspired terrorist acts in the West such as 9/11, the London Underground bombing and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as egregious examples.
Initially, it seemed that the new finance capitalism generated from within the West would tame any major upsurge of extremism within the West, such as Christian fundamentalism and white nationalism, whose monstrous outbreak the world had seen after the First World War. But Wednesday’s assault on the over two-hundred-year-old citadel of American democracy belied that assumption.
In one sense, it seemed that American society had been gearing for it for some time now, but it still came as a shock. The visuals of the event added to the shock element. The breaking of the police barriers, scrambling up the walls of the building, breaking through the gates and doors, smashing through windows, ransacking of senators’ and House representatives’ offices—these produced all kinds of emotions. It was shocking, comical, terrifying, and angering. It dismayed America’s friends and offered a moment to gloat for its enemies. It was shocking because America’s own ‘patriots’, unlike the British Army 200 years ago in 1814, was vandalising the centre of American democracy.
Comical because the ‘diverse’ crowd consisting of Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and nationalists, MAGA enthusiasts, and run-of-the-mill Trump loyalists, was equipped with all kinds of paraphernalia, including guns, zip ties, camouflage, tattoos, beards and long hair. Like in a circus, there were some who had come with painted faces, bear furs and buffalo horns to exhibit themselves. There were others who had come to achieve their nefarious purpose in full combat gear. This was frightening. It was carnivalesque criminality. One guy (it turns out that his wife is a physician) posed gleefully for photographs with the Speaker’s lectern. One posed in the Speaker’s chair with his boot on the desk; another posed in the Senate president’s chair. Others had come planned and prepared with guns, bombs and Molotov cocktails. Any attempt at comedy and circus exhibition was bound to produce tragic consequences. A woman from California named Ashli Babbitt received a fatal bullet in her neck and a police officer named Brian Sicknick died when he returned to his office. Trump’s patriots had come to Washington to perform the most unpatriotic act.
Even though Wednesday’s invasion came as a sudden shock, it had been there all along in the subterranean American world. It became visible since Trump’s successful presidential campaign began. In both form and content, the absurdist, tragic vandalism of January 6 was a fitting finale to the end of Trump’s presidency that had begun with the monstrous display of fireworks from the White House lawn at the end of the Republican National Convention last August. It began in garishness and ended in criminal absurdity.
Trump’s fall may be imminent but he has opened up Pandora’s box of white nationalism; the genii of white identity extremism is out of the bottle of liberal democracy and humanism. And it’s out in full force. Racism has been camouflaged as nationalism, like Hindu hatred for non-Hindus being disguised as Hindu nationalism or Islamic extremism as Quran-sanctioned Jihad.
The battle between West’s liberal democracy with all its concomitant values and the long-suppressed white pride and supremacy has commenced out in the open in 21st-century America. Which side will win depends on how America’s hallowed institutions respond to this epochal threat.
The initial signs appear promising. Even on the day of the siege on Capitol Hill, as soon as the law enforcement agents managed to expel the rioters from the Capitol building, the business of ratifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election began in reinforced solemnity and urgency. Resuming the proceedings, the Senate President, Vice President Mike Pence, an otherwise Trump loyalist for all four years of Trump’s presidency, said, ‘To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins’. Senate majority leader and staunch conservative Mitch McConnell said, ‘We have never been deterred before, and we will not be deterred today. They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed’.
Indeed, the institutions and machinery of American capitalism and democracy have put their wheels in motion. The House has launched the impeachment proceedings against Trump for inciting insurrection. The federal and local law enforcement agencies have begun apprehending the rioters. While the US state institutions have set in motion their instruments to punish Trump and his shenanigans, American capitalism, too, has spread its long tentacles. Businesses and organisations have begun cutting off relations with Trump. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have cancelled Trump’s accounts. Apple, Google and Amazon kicked Parler (a conservative communications app) off their platforms. The business magazine Forbes has issued a warning to corporations not to hire Trump’s White House communications officials, ‘Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie’.
While these corrective measures show the resiliency of American democracy and capitalism, will America’s political and economic system come up with effective preventative measures? As America has emerged with Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to prevent Covid-19, will its system respond to the twin American dilemmas—of Black pathology in American urban war zones (Chicago alone had 800 homicides in 2020) and discontent and disenchantment of its left-behind white population? If Islamic militants are driven by ideology and skewed worldview, so are white nationalists and Trumpists. Even if one Trump goes away, another will emerge tomorrow in the form of Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley. What can America do to inoculate its politics, its vulnerable minds? What happens in America in the coming months and years depends on the answer to these questions.