Trump and Jan.6 epitomize America’s history of us vs them
In yesterday’s surprise hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Donald Trump’s then Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testified that Trump knew the crowd was armed with guns, knives, spears, flagpoles and body armor.
She said after Trump was informed that the crowd was growing violent, he nonetheless insisted the protesters be allowed to move freely and that security measures, including weapons-detecting magnetometers, be discarded.
Even as rioters called for Mike Pence’s hanging, Hutchinson continued, Meadows said, “[Trump] doesn’t want to do anything,” and “He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”
Hutchinson reported that Trump refused to calm the protesters, though repeatedly urged to do so by staff, including White House counsel Pat Cipollone. Hutchinson “overheard the president say something to the effect of, ‘You know, I don’t effing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here. Let the people in. Take the effing mags away.’”
In this testimony and others throughout the hearings, the anger and violence of the day are portrayed as aberrant breaches of America’s political traditions. And the actions of Trump and his associates to overturn to 2020 election surely were.
But the protesters’ actions were — ironically, tragically — tradition’s success.
That anger is rooted in and goaded by longstanding suspicion of government — the D.C. “swamp”— and the conviction that it’s doing the people wrong. That’s about as American as you can get. So either we fix what’s pushing people to this particularly American anger or we will have more of it, with catastrophic results for democracy.
We live in a liberal, covenantal republic, wary of government since the colonial era. Covenantal politics, brought by the Puritans and others not conforming to Europe’s established churches, saw society as a covenant among the sovereign people. Any ruler out for himself could be deposed for covenant violation. Covenantalists were wary of governments, authorities and outsiders who might disturb their way of life. Aristotelian republicanism also emphasized the community, the polis, and citizen participation in running it. It too was wary of tyrants. Liberalism emphasized individual freedom and was equally wary of government.
Anti-authoritarianism was especially persuasive in America as many immigrants had fled oppressive political systems. The harsh frontier too advised self-reliance, trust in one’s local community and caution about meddling authorities and outsiders.
On one hand, suspicion of government birthed a democratic critique of bigwigs and the robust civil society Alexis de Tocqueville admired. “What political power,” he wrote, “could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which the American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association?… No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.”
In 2019, 83 percent of Americans said they did not trust Washington. In 2021, even amid the COVID-19 crisis, a majority said that government should do less in society.
Yet this history, which brought America so much vibrancy, can turn into us-them thinking — the people as “us,” the government as “them.” Resistance to a tyrannical government can become suspicion of government itself. A community can become my community against outsiders — against “them.”
What prods us-them thinking? In a word, duress. Put people under stress or fear of duress and the usual focus on oneself, family and community flips outward to constrain a “them” ostensibly responsible for the duress. It’s a common enough defense mechanism. Vamik Volkan studies the psychology of extremism. In “Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism,” he writes, “The more stressful the situation, the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”
But which “them” to choose from? Historically for Americans, ours are government and “outsiders” (minorities, new immigrants). Attacks against them have long had a violent side.
The Shays and Whiskey rebellions, both armed revolts against Washington, erupted with the very birth of the country, in 1786 and 1791 respectively.
The Jan. 6 violence was not an aberration. It was us, our government-wary culture distorted by the fear and anger that duress prods — the other side of America’s brilliant political coin.
Some of America’s duress comes from the sense that life is harder, less familiar and less fair than a generation ago. Some comes from the dimming of horizons in an increasingly automated, fast-changing economy or from changes in technology, gender roles and demographics. Those most attracted to the political right between 2010 and 2018 were whites with high school diplomas and middle-class incomes concerned that opportunities were shrinking and their “respectable” place in America was under threat. Sociologist Elena Mitrea and her colleagues write, “Young adults who expect to do worse than their parents in the future are indeed more likely to locate themselves at the extreme ends of the ideological scale.”
They gravitate to the extremes because the political mainstream hasn’t addressed their mounting duress and sense of unfairness. Us-them thinking, with its simple explanations and clear path of action — get “them” — is persuasive. That’s Trump’s appeal as the guy who’s fighting our two classic “thems”: the “deep state” and its “fake news” elite media, plus “Mexican rapists,” and foreigners who cheat America in trade.
Many Americans are willing to fight hard for the guy they believe is fighting for them, some by using violence. In January, roughly 25 percent of Americans said violence against the government is sometimes justified and 10 percent said it is justified “right now.”
There’s good news about our political culture. It’s a democratic success when people feel politically entitled to a government that addresses problems and when they feel entitled to express their anger politically when that doesn’t happen.
But Jan. 6 wasn’t political disagreement to be addressed through democratic means. It was duress-motivated violence — us-them in its ugliest form. Our choice is: We either relieve the duress or people, wary of government by history and tradition, will fight one way or another.
Marcia Pally is an adjunct full professor in the Steinhardt School at New York University. She is the author of 12 books; her latest is “White Evangelicals and Right-wing Populism: HOW DID WE GET HERE?” (Routledge 2022). She is the editor of two additional volumes.
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