Last night saw a climax to Donald Trump’s presidency that seemed straight out of a D. W. Griffith movie. Increasingly desperate as his time in the hot seat draws to a close, Trump yesterday urged Republican politicians – including vice president and erstwhile ally Mike Pence – to delay certifying Joe Biden’s November election win that would see the Democrat officially confirmed as the president-elect. Pence and others refused, instead continuing to count Electoral College votes inside the US Capitol building, located in Washington D.C.
Outside, Trump spoke to an armed group of supporters, who had gathered for a pre-organised rally to mark the occasion. “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical Democrats,” he said. “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s death involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore”.
The incitement was effective. As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that not only had Trump’s most loyal allies finally abandoned him but that the Republicans had lost the Senate, thanks to the mobilisation of Black voters in Georgia.
For the white supremacist mob that gathered outside the Capitol, it was too much to bear. They broke into the building (or, more accurately, waltzed past a suspiciously weak police presence) and began to run, literally, riot. A pro-Trump supporter was shot and killed by police as the crowd stormed the chambers, while another three people were later confirmed as having died from “medical emergencies” during the melee.
Reactions began pouring in. A repeated mantra began to be trotted out by American politicians, media personalities and global leaders – the violent scenes at the Capitol, they said, were not ones of an America they recognised. “This is not America,” they chanted.
From French President Emmanuel Macron to Joe Biden himself, the message quickly took root. American reporters declared that they felt themselves to have been transported to “third world” cities, like Baghdad or Bogota, with majority brown or Hispanic populations. The unsubtle subtext of these inaccurate racist comparisons was clear: the white supremacist insurrection was an event to be unmoored from history and context; it was to be memorialised as un-American and alien to the national identity and psyche. “This,” Biden proclaimed as looters posed with Nancy Pelosi’s personalised envelopes, “is not who we are”.
Yet, as social media users drily pointed out, this is America. Proud Boys, Confederate simps and QAnon disciples are all cut from the same cloth as the Founding Fathers, like it or not. On show at the US Capitol was a display of the white supremacist values baked into the America that was founded in 1776. It is an America that reserves its core principle of the right to freedom and liberation for white citizens, with scraps of those benefits extended only to those people of colour who help uphold this status quo, whether through arch capitalism or as a tool of the state.
“For Trump’s supporters, his imminent departure from office threatens to once again push overt white supremacy underground ”
The mob was a physical embodiment of the knee jerk response white America has when faced with the mildest promise of progression for the marginalised trampled underfoot. Donald Trump is explicitly aligned with white supremacist groups; over the past four years he has outlined and enacted a vision of “America first” that brazenly means ‘white America first’. Even when he is not actually delivering on promises made to white working class citizens, Trump’s rhetoric and endorsements have always been in service of the vision to “make America great again,” which essentially translates as “make America unashamedly racist again”.
Trump won millions to his cause with this rallying cry; not just white people but Hispanic and Black voters too. White supremacy and fascism can be intoxicating to a certain type of person, even when it goes directly against their interests. For Trump’s supporters, his imminent departure from office threatens to once again push overt white supremacy underground. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are – and I hope to be proved wrong here – unlikely to make any great waves in ensuring an equal slice of the pie for marginalised groups in the US. But they do represent, if not actual progression, an alleviation of some of the terrible pressure of the past four years, particularly for some of the demographics who have suffered most under Trump, such as the transgender community, particularly those of colour, and Muslims.
A Biden presidency is – if not an end to white supremacy in America – at least a step back for its chief architects who will no longer have a direct line to the most powerful man in the country. And they have responded in keeping with America’s historic retaliations against threats to its racial hierarchy: with violence.
This is the America that was on display when Black Wall Street burned in 1921, the America that shot Fred Hampton as he slept, the America that saw Black Lives Matter protesters brutalised by law enforcement while peacefully protesting. It is the America built upon the chattel slavery of Black Africans and the ideology of “Manifest Destiny” which dispossessed the indigenous population of their lands, culture and tradition because they posed an obstacle to the domination of the country by white settlers. This is America and it has existed for as long as its Constitution has.
The Trump supporters in the Capitol building know this. It’s why they felt so entitled to stroll leisurely inside in the first place and subsequently desecrate the offices of the politicians based within. They felt they had a right to be there and the police charged with protecting the building confirmed that, with some officers even treating the armed white supremacists as friendly tourists, acquiescing to requests for selfies and helping them down the stairs, as one would do to an elderly relative. Once it was over, they appeared to let those inside the Capitol building walk out again, without arrest.
Comparisons are already being drawn between yesterday’s response by Capitol police, and their previous violent crackdowns on protests representing causes like Black Lives Matter and disability rights. Capitol police are essentially the guard dogs of America’s political heart. They represent the direct protection of the status quo. This force assessed the threat posed by the white supremacists storming the building and responded with retreat or, in some cases, welcome. How telling.
American politicians and the commentariat might not want to acknowledge this truth yet. But they must. Only by reconciling and grappling with the white supremacist values that have governed or influenced so much of America’s development since the 18th century can these demons be exorcised. Admitting that the Capitol mob are as much a part of America’s story as George Washington isn’t to hand them a centre stage either. There are other narratives that make up the American Dream too, hopeful ones, centring communities of colour, that are of perseverance and eventual triumphs in the battle for civil rights.
But to ignore this particular wound is to let it fester and grow gangrenous. That rot already helped produce Donald Trump and it will continue in a similar vein if the healing process doesn’t start. Take off the rose-tinted glasses, Uncle Sam, and let the real work begin.