US Capitol riots: organised coup or bungling amateurs?

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Across many online platforms, the commentary and coverage of the recent riots at the US Capitol hold humour as their focal point. Photos have circulated of a somewhat confused, smiling, older woman (nicknamed Aunt Tifa by many memes, a pun on the ‘organisation’ Antifa, which is actually more of an umbrella term for a loose network of leftist, ‘anti-fascist’ groups than an actual organisation) who smiles in the camera’s direction with her mask under her chin, holding a water cup with a straw and an American flag in her small, aged hand.

This photo is one among many jokes about the protestors, framing them as comic figures whose amateurish attempt to storm the Capitol was destined to end in failure and embarrassment at their expense. On the other end of the spectrum, photos have circulated of two men in military gear carrying zip ties and people have pointed out that many protestors were armed. This dichotomy between the two faces of protestors begs the question: what do the rioters represent – a genuine, violent threat to American democracy or an alarming but benign joke? The short answer is both.

There is comfort in viewing the protestors as a disturbed minority rather than violent insurgents

It is possible that some of these protestors, like perhaps ‘Aunt Tifa’, were probably caught up in the excitement of the moment and jumped on a chance to express their discontent. They appear unprepared, albeit carrying flags and banners. Others, however, were prepared insurgents. The fact that at least two of the rioters came prepared to take hostages, that a police officer was killed by protestors, and that a woman was shot by police as she attempted to breach the last barrier between protestors and the senators, shows that people’s lives and safety were genuinely at risk that day.

Despite this belligerence directed towards both houses of Congress, eight senators and more than 100 representatives voted “for the lie that had forced them to flee their chambers”, according to Timothy Snyder writing in The New York Times. These people are not solely angry loyalists to a man who is not accustomed to not getting what he wants, they find their echoes in government.

As The New York Times’ journalist Brent Staples puts it: “the potential for political violence is a proverbial river of gasoline, waiting for a demagogue like Mr. Trump to drop the lighted match.”  These are ordinary people who work in bars, the police force and the fire service, who have been taken in by an ideology with a divisive populist figurehead who makes them feel as if it is them against the world.

It is an ideology that harks back to a grander time when the US was ‘great’ and people like them reigned supreme – a time in which you didn’t have to watch what you say, in which the US stood as a glittering symbol of freedom. They have been indoctrinated by an ideology that proudly places them at the top of the pecking order, that makes them feel on- par with the billionaire class.

The face of the rioter as a comical amateur distracts us from the powerful and organised far- right

It is a cruel delusion but, frankly, so is believing that the US is democratic. The electoral college system favours certain votes over others, namely white votes over black, which is unsurprising as it was designed to magnify white, southern voices. The entire American system is racist and undemocratic. It needs tearing up. However, the insurrectionists do not really care about this: there was no electoral fraud here, they lost their lives to a lie.

Ultimately, to mock them is to diminish the risk they pose and, more specifically, the danger that the post-truth world poses. They represent a broad cross-section of American society that reaches up to Congress and wishes to break the system for their benefit. The face of the rioter as a comical amateur creates a smoke and mirrors effect, distracting us from the powerful and organised far-right, whose flame will not be so easily distinguished as Trump’s; a new populist figurehead will emerge soon enough.

There is comfort in viewing them as a disturbed and inadequate minority rather than violent insurgents. At the end of the day, four people lost their lives to this ideology, people who are undoubtedly now being martyred by a sect of the American public. They died under a flag that they were simultaneously fighting for and against, because there is no monolithic United States, it is cracked right down the middle.

Image: Greenpeace USA via Flickr.

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