Something weird happened to me as I was watching the assault on the Capitol. I started feeling an affinity with the Trump supporters who were storming the building.
Obviously not the actual neo-nazis. But some of the others seemed so happy. They were having such a good time. Many people have described protests as forms of spirituality. I myself experience a good protest as something spiritual. Thousands of people coming together for a common cause. The music, the camaraderie, the costumes.
What must it have felt like to descend on the seat of government, to actually get into the building?
Of course, the kind of protest I would go to would be the one where the police kettle, tear gas and shoot you before you’ve even gone anywhere.
I share some common ground with those rioters. Unlike the ‘liberal elites’ they are railing against, I don’t really believe that they were stopping the course of democracy when they interrupted Joe Biden’s confirmation as president. I don’t really believe that the difference between the Hong Kong protests and this one was that the US is a democracy whereas Hong Kong isn’t, as a BBC correspondent argued.
I’m not saying that the US and Hong Kong have the same political system, but the US isn’t a democracy. That’s exactly the problem. Our ‘democracies’ aren’t actually democracies.
George Monbiot recently argued that Brexit is the outcome of a civil war among capitalists. On the one hand, you have the ‘war lord’ Brexiteer capitalists who are openly hostile to democracy, and on the other hand there are the more establishment ‘Remainer’ types who want to keep the trappings of democracy but who are nonetheless waging a silent war against it.
The same applies here. Trump’s supporters openly declared war on the recognised democratic process. But that process isn’t actually democratic. Elections don’t equal democracy, especially not when voter suppression is rife, there are only two viable parties (both of which are beholden to the lobby groups funding them), and the media is controlled by media moguls or massive corporations. Fancy civic buildings, rituals and ceremonies don’t mean you live in a democracy.
I don’t believe that Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles who have infiltrated America’s institutions.
I don’t believe ‘fake news’, but I also don’t believe a lot of what the ‘fake news media’ says either.
I was on the phone to an old family friend last night who lives in Los Angeles. There was something he just couldn’t get his head round. He had always believed that the mainstream media more-or-less controlled what the mass of people thought. But in the case of Trump, only one big outlet, Fox News, was supporting him. The rest was dead against him. How could it be, then, that he had so much support among the public?
I’m an academic researcher in this field, have written books about it, and am supposed to know what I’m talking about. But I wasn’t sure how to answer him. I rehearsed saying things about social media and filter bubbles, about polarisation and ideological sorting, about the difference between lies and bullshit. None of it felt right.
Having slept on it, I think the process was something like this:
1) People were hurting after the 2008 financial crisis, and they felt that the narratives being conveyed to them by the establishment about politics and the economy were a load of rubbish. In a sense they were right: much of what the mainstream media reported about the financial crisis and the austerity that followed wasn’t true.
2) Trump was a multi-millionaire celebrity who had been grooming the media for decades and was already a certain entity in the public imagination.
3) Despite his rhetoric, Trump was not an anti-establishment figure but he ultimately became a figurehead for one faction of the establishment. He did not have the full force of the establishment against him. He was able to mobilise the far-right ‘populism’ already manufactured by the likes of the billionaire Koch brothers.
4) Trump did, crucially, have the Murdoch media behind him. One important difference between Trump and Bernie Sanders is that Trump had a very powerful media mogul on his side, whereas Bernie didn’t have any legacy media backing him.
5) The things about social media, polarisation and parallel information realities come into play here. Because people knew that they couldn’t trust established sources, and because the business model of social media encourages filter bubbles and extremism, people were willing to believe not in alternative truths – but in the idea that truth isn’t a thing. It doesn’t matter if QAnon has any truth to it or is just completely bonkers, it’s a laugh and it feels right on some level.
6) Those who have genuine alternative narratives to offer do have the full force of the establishment against them, so it’s much harder for them to reach beyond their much smaller filter bubbles and provide people with the alternative interpretations and solutions they were so desperately craving.
I share some common ground with the ‘mob’, ‘rioters’, somewhat accidental ‘insurgents’ or even ‘terrorists’. I don’t know them but I’m sure I disagree with them on many things – the satanic paedophile thing, for one.
But where I most fundamentally disagree is on their solution to the current crisis of democracy. They believe that whoever can most effectively wield violence should rule. They want Trump to be president and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. This takes us even further away from democracy.
What we saw at the Capitol was a hollow spectacle of democracy being disrupted by those who believe in rule by brute force.
But instead of taking sides in a civil war within the establishment, we should ask a simple question: how can we build a real democracy? We can argue about what this looks like, but one thing is for sure: it definitely doesn’t look like Trump’s mob, or the status quo.