Some Thoughts on the Capitol Riot

It’s been almost two weeks since the destructive events of January 6 in our nation’s capital. As things have settled down some and the fog of war has partially lifted, I figured that it is time to share some of my thoughts on the events of that day and the fortnight following it. This post will touch on several different aspects of the riot, the coverage, and the aftermath, including overreactions and exaggerations. I don’t plan on trying to weave these thoughts together in a coherent and smooth narrative, as my opinions on these events don’t easily fit that paradigm; instead, I’ll go through a series of discrete views that hopefully will give you the full breadth of my feelings on this complicated subject.

If there is one thing to keep in mind, however, it should be this: the riot at the Capitol building – the seat of our nation’s government (yes, I am an Article I supremacist, so the Congress is the true seat of power to me) – was despicable, anti-American, unpatriotic, and insurrectionary. They assaulted our Congress while it was doing the people’s business of certifying the Electoral College vote, one of the most stabilizing and critical functions of the legislature. This was a direct attack on our system of government from people who clearly do not care about the Constitution or the American Republic. There is no excuse for those who violently breached our Capitol building and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for any crimes that they may have committed that day, ranging from trespass to sedition to felony murder. Their actions were embarrassing, threatening to our national security, and harmful to our republican form of government. I’m someone who cares a lot about foreign policy and international affairs; the Capitol riot will be used by our adversaries as a cudgel against us for decades to come. I’m not looking forward to the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats of the Chinese Communist Party claiming that their system of government is better and fairer because they don’t have events like this happening. The people who stormed the Capitol have seriously damaged our international credibility and standing, something which will likely take quite some time to recover.

The three discrete events which make up the Capitol riot.

One thing I’ve learned through studying history is that one single ‘event’ that is passed down through the ages is comprised of millions of smaller ‘events’ which, together, make up what we know as ‘history’. In the case of the Capitol riot, I saw 3 discrete events which made up the whole: the protest/rally, the riot, and the insurrection. It’s worth thinking about these events as a series of nesting circles, with the largest being the protest/rally and the smallest being the insurrection (see image above). That means that everyone who was involved in the insurrection was involved with the riot and the rally, but not that everyone at the rally was involved in the riot or the insurrection. I distinguish between the 3 groups as follows: the rally was misguided and silly, but is also perfectly acceptable speech; the riot was destructive and involved storming the Capitol for banal or unclear reasons, often to take selfies and vandalize Congressional property; the insurrection involved a small group of people, often linked to militia movements, who specifically wished and planned to do harm to members of government. People who attended the rally should not face adverse consequences for engaging in a Constitutionally-protected form of assembly. People who broke into the Capitol to vandalize or create chaos should be punished accordingly for the actions they committed. People who stormed the seat of government for the express purpose of harming politicians or killing them should be treated as the domestic terrorists that they are. Many of those I would consider ‘rioters’ gave off a strong sense of dog-catches-car energy, meaning that they seemed to have no idea what to do once they broke into the Capitol; these were the folks seen taking photos and videos of themselves sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk or walking out with her lectern. Like a dog who catches a car, they seemed lost and confused as to their success and behaved as such once within the Capitol. These people should face charges, but they should not be considered as terrorists or insurrectionaries who wished to topple our government. The militia members who planned in advance to breach the Capitol, brought flexi-cuffs, wore tactical gear, and were armed should be penalized as seditionists and must face the full force of the law. Unfortunately, I do not see these important distinctions being made by our media, which is a mistake that will only serve to heighten tensions and further divide an already-fractious polity.

The culpability of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, for this riot must be touched upon. I fully believe that the President, through his actions and rhetoric since his election loss on November 3 (including on the morning of January 6), has to bear significant blame for the riot at the Capitol. His narcissistic inability to deal with his fair and legal defeat at the ballot box is both unsurprising and shameful. His constant denigration of America’s electoral system led many of his more reality-challenged supporters to embrace a blatantly false narrative of a ‘stolen election’, something which supposedly justified storming the Capitol during the counting of votes. His language at the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally on January 6 was inflammatory and aided in driving the size and scope of the riot which followed. He should be impeached, convicted, and barred from holding future office. (Criminal penalties should not attach as he did not violate the appropriately supremely high bar for incitement under the law.) I am not concerned about the legality of a post-term impeachment trial, as the final penalty for these actions would be disqualification versus removal. I do not think that the President should have been impeached for his painfully bad phone call with the Ukrainian leader. I certainly think that he should be impeached for violating his oath of office by attempting to undermine the American government; if this isn’t impeachable, nothing is. Those Republican members of Congress who were most gung-ho about the stolen election lie – I’m looking at you Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Mo Brooks, and Paul Gosar – should lose their seats in the next election, preferably by being defeated in a primary for the GOP nomination (a primary defeat would cement their irrelevance in the party, whereas a defeat only in the general could make the conspiracy theorizing worse). Still, the idea being floated around that these politicians should be expelled from Congress via the 14th Amendment’s clauses against insurrection is a terrible one. These politicians used a legal avenue to challenge electoral votes, something which has been used by politicians of both parties for decades now (see Democratic challenges in 2001, 2005, & 2017). That is not insurrection, it is awful political judgment. The fact that they did not change their minds after their workplace was stormed by a violent mob is ridiculous and unbecoming of a member of Congress. This idiocy does not make one akin to a Confederate (the target of the 14th Amendment in the first place). I fear that expulsions in this case would lead to further political unraveling and abuses of the system going forward; could those who supported the violent protests at the White House this past summer be expelled for insurrection? I would think that would be on the table in a scenario where these GOP members were expelled and that is not something we should hope for, no matter what we think of the politicians involved.

A drawing of Napoleon’s ‘whiff of grapeshot’ during the mob action of 13 Vendemiaire.

The majority of the Republicans (at least in the Senate) did the right thing in this circumstance by properly assenting to the counting of electoral votes and the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. The speeches by Senators McConnell, Sasse, Romney, and Lee (to name a few) were powerful endorsements of our constitutional system of government over the whims of one powerful man; this took serious political courage, as it is rare to see forceful statements against the President of one’s own party, no matter how egregious his actions may be. The prize for political courage, however, has to go to Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the certification of his own election loss only hours after a mob broke into the Capitol baying for his blood. His statement when reconvening the Congress to finish their job was a masterclass in statesmanship and should be applauded by anyone of good faith, regardless of what you think of the man or his politics. The fact that Congress reconvened that night to do the people’s work is a profound declaration of the stability and power of our Constitution and republican form of government. No mob can destroy our government and none will be allowed to. This is one of the reasons I do not consider myself at all a populist; playing down to the masses for cheap political points inexorably leads to violent events and mob actions like this one. From the fall of the Roman Republic to the French and Russian Revolutions, pure populism results only in the violation of natural rights, widespread violence, and chaos. I’m against all 3 of those things, and I support putting down riots wherever and whenever they crop up, and whoever is organizing or participating in them. Whether the violence in coming from the left or from the right (as it was in this case), mob tactics and chaos cannot be countenanced by a responsible government. Napoleon Bonaparte had the right idea when he was tasked with putting down one of the final mob actions of the French Revolution on 13 Vendémiaire (this one also from the right – the mob was of Royalists): he defeated them with what the historian Thomas Carlyle famously called “a whiff of grapeshot”. It was far more than a whiff, however, as over a hundred rebels were killed by troops firing cannon into the crowd. Suffice it to say that there was little mob action after this forceful reply. We should take a page out of the Napoleonic playbook in this case and not tolerate mob violence of any sort – yes, that includes the kinds of riots we saw last summer as well as those of January 6.

Another key aspect of that day revolved around the law enforcement response, or lack thereof. The Capitol grounds were far too lightly defended, especially given the widespread online chatter that presaged this riot. That does not mean that the vastly outnumbered Capitol Police should shoulder the entirety of the blame here; their leadership and the political leadership of Washington DC should bear the brunt of the culpability. The Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, did not request any federal law enforcement personnel to assist with security around the January 6 protest and refused to allow armed National Guard units to assist Capitol Police in defending the building, instead assigning them to tasks like traffic management for which they would be unarmed. The Capitol Police were faced with an extremely challenging task: defending the members of Congress from a mob rampaging through the Capitol grounds. They did admirably, as no members of government were harmed during the hours-long assault. The out-of-context videos of police removing barricades to allow rioters through, taking selfies, wearing MAGA hats, or seemingly ‘directing’ rioters are just that – out of context. Each of those short clips has a clear rationale when seen in the light of day: those cops removing barriers were doing so to fall back to a more defensible position and avoid a trampling crush of people; the ones taking selfies or wearing MAGA hats were surrounded by hostile rioters and their actions helped cool tensions and avoid escalation; and the video of a Capitol Police officer directing rioters was shown to be heroic – he was bringing rioters away from members of Congress and towards further backup. (That officer, Eugene Goodman, should be given a Congressional medal post-haste.) In an online atmosphere where everything is blown up before context is discovered, these sorts of rapid responses can only be harmful to the truth.

Now to deal with some of the overreach in the aftermath of the riot. As a disclaimer, I have repeatedly said above that the riot was awful, anti-American, and destructive to our politics; that does not mean that many members of the media and the Democratic party have not overreached or painted with too broad a brush. There have been attacks on Capitol Police from various members of Congress, including influential Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and the Internet darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These rhetorical attacks have revolved around the idea that Capitol Police were too soft on the rioters and did not arrest them or use force in the way that law enforcement has for Black Lives Matter protests. This is a factually untrue claim that has been pushed by far too many prominent politicians and media figures. Although the Capitol Police were outnumbered, there was serious force used to push back against the rioters; one insurrectionist was shot and killed when she disobeyed police commands and attempted to breach a secure perimeter where politicians were being guarded, and no one who has seen the videos of police officers being beaten and fighting against rioters could say that force was not used. As I said earlier, much of the blame with respect to the force posture on the 6th lies with DC politicians and police leadership, not with the brave rank-and-file officers who stood in the breach and attempted to stop this assault. The force used against the rioters two weeks ago included tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbangs, and deadly force – these were the same tactics used against violent rioters last summer in cities across the country. In those months of violent demonstrations – led and cheerleaded by the political left – over a dozen people were killed, none of whom were killed by police; in the 4 hours or so of the Capitol riot, 1 person was shot and killed by police. The force used against BLM protestors in the summer of 2020 was not at all disproportionate or more significant than that used on January 6. The summer protests were also not uniformly nonviolent; indeed, they caused the largest amount of damage to property in any riots since at least 1992 and possibly ever. Those riots often attacked federal property and law enforcement, including a sustained siege at a federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon and an attack on the White House perimeter; when force was appropriately used against these violent rioters, many of those who are decrying the lack of violence from police at the Capitol were on the other side, demeaning the police for their use of force. None of these people should be taken seriously given their hypocrisy on the issue. As I stated above, I’m with Napoleon on the approach to dealing with violent mobs: put them down with extreme prejudice, especially when they threaten government property or the lives of law enforcement officers. My stance does not change based on who the rioters voted for.

An image of destruction from the riots of Summer 2020.

Many of the rioters who broke into the Capitol on January 6 saw the constant excuse-making for violence last summer and presumed that it would apply to them as well. They were wrong, but a permission structure for rioting was created by the actions and rhetoric of the media and politicians last year. Donald Trump exacerbated that permission structure with his incendiary rhetoric and exhortation for demonstrators to move to the Capitol. The idea of a permission structure does not remove blame from the rioters themselves or the politicians, especially the President, who egged them on. It does, however, acknowledge the reality of hypocrisy that helped to aggravate tensions and make excuses for violent action. Slippery slopes are indeed often quite slippery and they generally slope downwards towards worse activity; the riots of the summer paved the way for the riot at the Capitol, which was far worse and more destructive to the civic compact. This truism is still being ignored by politicians who are pushing for extralegal means to shut down far-right extremism, including commissions and structures which were used in the Reconstruction period. These people are seriously mistaken if they think that a new Reconstruction would lead to anything other than greater violence and discord. An assault on the Capitol, as awful as it was, is not remotely comparable to an armed rebellion by states against the federal government in defense of slavery. By using these emergency measures to deal with something far less pressing and severe than a multiyear Civil War which killed more than 600,000 Americans, those who are pushing for this will only create another permission structure for a future administration to abuse. If the defense of the summer riots led to a permission structure being entrenched for the Capitol riot, I’d like to avoid whatever reaction comes from the ideas currently being floated. As Isaac Newton posited, each action has an equal and opposite reaction; heightening tensions and breaking the glass emergency case will not be responded to mildly. In cases like this, bringing tensions down is far more important than exacting political revenge and attempting to destroy one’s political enemies. The American right will never disappear – just as the left will not disappear – and acting as though one could make that happen will only elevate the most radical figures in the movement.

To end on a more optimistic note, what happened on January 6 is not an existential crisis for the United States; our Congress returned to session mere hours after the Capitol was breached. It takes more than a riotous mob to severely hamper the US government. Those who are telling you that this event was unprecedentedly terrible and the worst thing that has ever happened in American politics are either lying or historically naïve; we have survived far worse as a nation and will again in the future. Historical perspective is key here: a one-day assault on the seat of government is nothing like a world war, a nation-rending civil war, a decades-long struggle against Communism, or an Islamic terrorist attack which killed more than 3,000 Americans. The events at the Capitol were outrageous and should lead to several long prison sentences, hundreds of lesser convictions, and the permanent disgrace of any politician involved – particularly the President. Still, that day was not the darkest in American history, even of my relatively short lifetime. The major takeaways from the riot should be that we need to come together as a nation to cool tensions, decry any and all political violence – especially from those with whom we agree politically – and refuse to support politics that excuses mob action in any form. Based on the words above, I’m not incredibly optimistic about that in the short-run, but we can all do our part to change the culture in the long-run. It may not be easy, but we’ve gotten through far harder challenges as a nation.

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