• Cas Mudde, The Guardian

A year after the Capitol attack, what has the US actually learned?

The government is finally taking the threat of far-right militia groups seriously. But the larger threat are the Republican legislators who continue to recklessly undermine democracy

Police explode flash-grenades as a mob storms the US Capitol. [Leah Millis/Reuters]

One year ago, he was frantically barricading the doors to the House gallery to keep out the violent mob. Today, he calls the insurrection a “bold-faced lie” and likens the event to “a normal tourist visit”. The story of Andrew Clyde, who represents part of my – heavily gerrymandered – liberal college town in the House of Representatives, is the story of the Republican party in 2021. It shows a party that had the opportunity to break with the anti-democratic course under Donald Trump, but was too weak in ideology and leadership to do so, thereby presenting a fundamental threat to US democracy in 2022 and beyond.

Clyde is illustrative of another ongoing development, the slow but steady takeover of the Republican party by new, and often relatively young, Trump supporters. In 2015, when his massive gun store on the outskirts of town was still flying the old flag of Georgia, which includes the Confederate flag, he was a lone, open supporter of then-presidential candidate Trump, with several large pro-Trump and anti-“fake news” signs adorning his gun store. Five years later, Clyde was elected to the House of Representatives as part of a wave of Trump-supporting novices, mostly replacing Republicans who had supported President Trump more strategically than ideologically.

With his 180-degree turn about the 6 January insurrection, Clyde is back in line with the majority of the Republican base, as a recent UMass poll shows. After initial shock, and broad condemnation, Republicans have embraced the people who stormed the Capitol last year, primarily referring to the event as a “protest” (80%) and to the insurrectionists as “protesters” (62%), while blaming the Democratic party (30%), the Capitol police (23%), and the inevitable antifa (20%) for what happened. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Republicans (75%) believe the country should “move on” from 6 January, rather than learn from it. And although most don’t care either way, one-third of Republicans say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who refuses to denounce the insurrection.

The increased anti-democratic threat of the Republican party can also be seen in the tidal wave of voting restrictions proposed and passed in 2021. The Brennan Center for Justice counted a stunning 440 bills “with provisions that restrict voting access” introduced across all but one of the 50 US states, the highest number since the Center started tracking them 10 years ago. A total of 34 such laws were passed in 19 different states last year, and 88 bills in nine states are being carried over to the 2022 legislative term. Worryingly, Trump-backed Republicans who claim the 2020 election was stolen are running for secretary of state in various places where Trump unsuccessfully challenged the results.

At the same time, the situation of the non-Republican far right is a bit less clear. While some experts warn that the militia movement, in particular, has turned toward more violent extremism, the violent fringes of the far right are also confronted by a much more vigilant state. This is particularly true for groups linked to the 6 January attacks, such as the Oath Keepers, which has faced increasing public and state scrutiny after 21 of its members were alleged to have participated in the attacks. Similarly, Proud Boys leaders are facing trial over the event, and some have agreed to cooperate with authorities in their investigations.

After decades of the US government ignoring or downplaying the threat of far-right violence, President Biden has made “domestic violent extremism” a key concern of his new administration, regularly singling out white supremacists as “the most lethal terrorist threat in the homeland”. Partly in response to reports that former military personnel were prominently involved in the 6 January attack, the Pentagon has acknowledged “the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacist or white nationalist ideologies,” to the military and the country at large.

This is not to say that the state is in control of the violent far right. While more than 700 suspected insurrectionists have been arrested, only some 50-plus have been convicted so far, mostly facing fines and probation, after judges rebuffed the DoJ. And media reports found that both the military and law enforcement have struggled to rid themselves of far-right ideas and supporters. But potentially violent far-right individuals and groups are now surveilled much more than they have been since 9/11 – we’re in a moment perhaps more similar to the short period after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, still the most deadly domestic terrorist attack in US history.

In short, a year after the Capitol attack, US democracy is in a different but still fragile place. Most importantly, the extremists are no longer in the White House, encouraging and protecting the far-right mob. In fact, the state is more aware of and vigilant towards the far-right threat than ever before this century. The threat of far-right direct violence is probably less severe than before – not because the movement is weaker, but because the state is stronger.

At the same time, the Republican party has become increasingly united and naked in its extremism, which denies both the anti-democratic character of the 6 January attack and the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency, and is passing an unprecedented number of voter restriction bills in preparation for the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential elections. As long as the White House mainly focuses on fighting “domestic violent extremism”, and largely ignores or minimizes the much more lethal threat to US democracy posed by non-violent extremists, the US will continue to move closer and closer to an authoritarian future.


(c) 2022, The Guardian


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