If you are watching the current chaos sparked by the January 6 attack on the capitol, you may be feeling – like many Americans and foreign friends of America – shocked and terrified. But the full implications of what has just occurred have yet to sink in. Perhaps because they, at heart, deal with brute issues of power and force that have largely been taken for granted in American domestic politics.
A dangerous man that refuses to let his ambitions be constrained by morality or even reality itself, is in control of a powerful office. Backed by one of America’s only two major political parties, his ambitions finally escalated to a brazen assault on another branch of government. Zooming out in broader scope, however, the January 6 incident demonstrates the existence of an internal security crisis.
Let’s start with the January 6 incident itself. What follows is a condensed summary of the events of January 6, using information available from news reporting.
A mob, partially instigated by President Donald Trump and his political allies, attacked the capitol building in the midst of the 2020 election vote certification process.
The attack was extensively foreshadowed by online communication indicating a willingness to take hostages and/or murder legislators, as well as bellicose political rhetoric.
Security services failed to pre-empt the attack, did not initially suppress it, and could not even keep attackers outside of pre-designated safe rooms. The reasons for this lapse are still under speculation.
Desperate pleas for help were made and largely ignored, again for reasons that are somewhat mysterious. The military was finally deployed to restore order either without the President or over his objections.
If minor details in this sequence had been even marginally different, the event could have been much worse. Imagine legislators tortured and executed live on social media streams. After all, legislators were preparing to fight off breachers using improvised weapons in hand-to-hand combat.
There are significant uncertainties. To what degree was the failure to effectively pre-empt and/or contain the attack – which took place in one of the most heavily defended cities in the world – deliberate? How much inside help – in general – did the attackers have? And, most importantly, how exactly was the National Guard activated to contain the riot and what role – if any – did Trump play in it? What is less uncertain is the general trajectory of events.
Prior to the violent incident, the President had been caught on tape trying to coerce a state official into overturning election results. The GOP has largely backed him in challenging his electoral loss, and even on the day of the attack itself some GOP senators were still objecting to the certification of the election results. Note as well that in 2020 there had been a series of mob attacks on local governments, again encouraged in some way by the President and his political allies. One of them, in particular, involved a failed effort to kidnap and/or execute government officials, breach a state capitol building, and deploy explosives.
Much of the discussion of the attacks are focusing on subsidiary topics such as the role of online extremism, changes to social networks, or whether or not the attackers really understood the nature of what they were doing. These discussions are worthwhile but also are somewhat misplaced. They focus on the nature and function of the mob. Mobs operate today in a postmodern cultural environment, but they themselves are premodern and not particularly mysterious.
Mobs are inherently chaotic and emergent, but they also can be a base of political power. In fact, they are the oldest form of political power there is. Politicians, via their charismatic and manipulative gifts, can aggravate and influence mobs to threaten or use violent force. In American history and elsewhere, mobs with varying degrees of coordination with political officials have successfully coerced political rivals, driven them out of town, or murdered them outright.
However, mobs can also be suppressed by the proverbial “whiff of grapeshot.” Mobs are undisciplined and can be contained by well-armed and well-led security forces. That is, if government elites are united in their willingness to use force to suppress the mob, and if the mob is not operating as a proxy of one group of government elites trying to suppress another group. This is clearly not the case here, which makes much of the focus on the mob somewhat of a distraction from the underlying problem.
It is honestly tiresome to debate whether or not what has been occurring is a coup, autogolpe, or any other French or Spanish word. It is important, however, to note that a foreign observer coldly and unemotionally summarizing the episode for their government patrons would likely come to a conclusion similar to Tom Scocca’s quick Slate writeup the day of the event: “[t]he answer to a coup was a countercoup. Inauguration Day may still come on time, and the voters may see Joe Biden sworn in as president. But it won’t be because the system survived.”
Scocca noted that the President instigated an attack on the certification of his electoral loss, the attack was repelled using lethal force, and the Vice President – who had been previously denounced by the President and targeted by the mobs attacking the capitol – was the driving force behind the deployment of the military to ensure the certification process concluded. Therefore, bromides aside, there will be no “peaceful transition of power.” The transfer of power that occurs on Jan 20-21 will be ensured by force of arms, and already has been subject to violent attack that was repulsed with loss of life.
Who, exactly, is in charge right now? Ostensibly, its the President of the United States. But he has always coveted authority without responsibility, and in any event has never been interested in issuing clear, consistent, and non-reversible orders. So since he took office in 2017, his authority has been undermined or outright flouted in ways that range from merely counterproductive to outright mutinous. Everyone implicitly knows that he is unfit to serve, but the lack of political capital necessary to depose him makes varying forms of trickery necessary.
This has created an increasingly dangerous situation. In June 2020, the President’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act and unleash active-duty troops on the streets fell short of his desired course of action but nonetheless unleashed an aggressive show of force. One of the actions that ended the crisis was Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s decision to disarm National Guard units without consulting the President. It should go without saying that far worse could have occurred under even minor adjustments of the June scenario specifics.
Similarly, the January 6 incident can be seen partially as the June crisis in reverse. It was reported yesterday that Trump initially resisted activating the National Guard to protect the capitol building. There are conflicting reports about who ultimately was behind the decision, but it appears that Trump was not a major factor and that the driving force was either Vice President Mike Pence or the acting Secretary of Defense. It is unclear who or what is guiding the executive at the moment.
Today, the Democrats say they are attempting to limit the President’s sole nuclear launch authority. Under the so-called “thermonuclear monarchy,” this is impossible to do without collapsing the legally codified authority of the President. But – long before Trump – this authority has been so excessively diluted and undermined in practice that it is hard to predict what will happen in an actual nuclear scenario. So once again circumventing Trump’s authority without actually removing it creates the worst of both worlds, in which his actual power to do harm is subject to contingency and palace intrigue.
All of what has been previously discussed are rather simple issues of brute power. Who has political power? Who has authority on paper and does this grant actual obedience? Likewise, whether the matter concerns mobs or military men, the issue is the use or threat of violent coercion. Even as this post is being written, reports are emerging that senior Trump administration officials fear that talk of using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump will cause the President or his allies to instigate further violent attacks.
There is some precedent for this, of course. Consider the chaotic end of the Richard Nixon presidency:
James Schlesinger, then Secretary of Defense, felt similarly. He was concerned about Nixon’s access to the nuclear codes. At a meeting of the Joint Chiefs attended by Laitin, the chairman General George S. Brown the told the gathered company that Defense Secretary Schlesinger ‘wanted an agreement from the Joint Chiefs that nobody would take any action, or execute orders on the use of nuclear weapons, without all of them agreeing to it.’ According to Laitin, ‘they were shocked, but they all agreed.’
Schlesinger was also concerned about the possibility of the President trying to sidestep impeachment by surrounding the White House with troops loyal to the presidency. ..Fearing the ‘bloody mess’ that might ensue if two sets of US troops found themselves facing each other outside the White House, Schlesinger issued another unorthodox order. “I told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he disclosed in an interview 26 years after the event, “that every order that would come from the White House had to come to me, directly, immediately upon receipt. There were not to be any extraordinary military measures that would be taken at anyone’s behest.”
The potential for a scenario like the one Schlesinger envisioned, in which a pro-Nixon faction faced off against troops loyal to the rest of the government, has been memory-holed by the generalized post-Watergate narrative of the presidency. This narrative casts the Nixon presidency as a regrettable aberration. Horrible things were done or contemplated, but in the end the system imperfectly ejected Nixon and moved on. Narratives like Schlesinger’s fear of the “bloody mess” are acknowledged but only as frightful nightmares from a lost and ever-receding past low point.
In contrast the January 6 incident shows that these nightmares are tied to very real uncertainties about what happens when boundaries that are not supposed to be tested suddenly do get tested. When they are tested, what rushes into the interval is not impersonal authority but rather dubious hacks like the kind Schlesinger discusses. They should be talked about in the same way we talk about American and Soviet officers whose moments of hesitation prevented nuclear warfare during the Cold War.
The American republic will survive the Trump era. But it will do so in a weakened and diminished state. As with interwar France, internal American political divisions are far more of a national security challenge than any external rival. This is a function of both inherent weaknesses built into American institutions as well as the way these weaknesses have been steadily compounded by political crises of the last several decades. Internal political crises, and particularly internal security crises, may constrain American ambitions.
The risk of dangerous political contestation, particularly political contestation that results in the consequential threat or use of force, is the underlying problem. Focusing too much on subcultural elements like Qanon and other flotsam and jetsam of social media obscures the extent to which online insanity is now tacitly and in many cases explicitly validated by elite figures. Because of elite divisions, aspects of hard power underpinning the domestic political order that were previously taken for granted are now open to the play of chance.
How much so remains to be seen, but a failure to harshly punish those associated with the January 6 incident likely guarantees that more of the same is to come.