Attack on Capitol was a victory for white supremacy — can Joe Biden rise to the challenge?

White privilege blinded many Americans to the danger — and white supremacists struck a blow against democracy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 13, 2021 7:00AM (EST)

Joe Biden | Trump supporters rioting at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | Trump supporters rioting at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, thousands of Donald Trump's followers launched a right-wing white supremacist assault on the U.S. Capitol. On that same day, more modestly sized Trump mobs engaged in other acts of political terrorism and harassment across the nation.

Trump's supporters committed these acts of political terrorism in response to his many incitements to sedition, treason and other forms of political violence, which go back to the 2016 presidential campaign and appear to be escalating in these days before Joe Biden's presidential inauguration.

Trump's mob eventually overran the Capitol building last Wednesday, forcing members of Congress, staffers, and other people to flee or hide, in fear for their lives. This fascistic coup attempt would result in the deaths of at least five people including a Capitol police officer. If not for the valiant efforts of Capitol police, District of Columbia police and other law enforcement officials to fight back against Trump's mob, the death toll could well have been much higher.

The forces attacking the Capitol building did not constitute a "riot," as many in the news media have incorrectly called it. Trump's coup attack on the Capitol (by implication, an attack on American multiracial democracy) was coordinated and planned weeks if not months prior.

The obvious objective of the assault was to disrupt the counting of the Electoral College ballots that would formally make Joe Biden president, but we may reasonably speculate that for some who participated, the goals were much larger than that. Some involved in storming the Capitol evidently wanted to take Democrats (and some Republicans) hostage, perhaps to execute them; pillage and defile the seat of democratic government; cripple the country's civilian leadership and chain of command; spark a nationwide uprising; and create a chaotic scenario in which Trump could declare a state of emergency allowing him to remain in power indefinitely. The fact that some of those goals were wildly implausible doesn't mean they weren't what the mob desired.

To that point, some U.S. allies have concluded that last Wednesday's attack on the Capitol was part of a coup plot that included people at senior levels of the government and the Trump regime.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Monday, Hillary Clinton warned of the power of white supremacy and its role in Trump's coup attempt. She described Wednesday's events as "the tragically predictable result of white-supremacist grievances fueled by President Trump" and continued:

But his departure from office, whether immediately or on Jan. 20, will not solve the deeper problems exposed by this episode. What happened is cause for grief and outrage. It should not be cause for shock. … What were too often passed off as the rantings of an unfortunate but temporary figure in public life are, in reality, part of something much bigger. That is the challenge that confronts us all.

As from before the founding of our republic through to the 21st century, white supremacy remains a dire threat to the security of the United States and the American people.

In the form of Trumpism and American fascism, white supremacy fueled the election of this president more than four years ago. White supremacy in its various forms helped keep Trump in power — and allowed him to become even more popular despite his obvious failure to protect the health, safety and prosperity of the American people. White supremacy and other antisocial and pathological political values and beliefs motivate Trump's followers in their unwavering loyalty and their relentless efforts (through legal, illegal and quasi-legal means) to overthrow the U.S. government and multiracial democracy.

White privilege is one of the primary ways through which white supremacy manifests itself on a day-to-day basis in America. It was white privilege that did the work of normalizing the Trump regime. It was why so many of the country's elites — including the mainstream news media and other opinion leaders — denied the obvious threat to the country's democracy, safety, and security represented by Trumpism and his imminent coup attempt. The logic was simple: Coups are exotic events that happen "over there," not in the United States. White Americans would never behave in such a way. American exceptionalism, which itself is a fantasy of whiteness and a result of its ability to twist and distort reality, deems American fascism and a coup attempt to be impossible.

For years, Black and brown people have desperately sounded the alarm about the existential danger to the United States and its multiracial democracy embodied by Donald Trump and his movement. With few exceptions, those warnings were ignored by the mostly white spaces that constitute America's mainstream news media and other major political and social institutions. As journalist Farai Chideya recently summarized on Twitter, "We'd never be here today — I truly believe this — if Black and POC reporters and editors had the authority and roles needed to shape the coverage of 2016."

Moreover, the loudest public voices who attempted to mock, silence and dismiss the prescient warnings of Trump's imminent coup attack were mostly white. Whiteness literally blinded too many elites to the attack on the Capitol and democracy itself, which was being planned in plain sight.

Donald Trump and the Republican Party's politics of white grievance and white victimhood have radicalized many tens of millions of white Americans (and too many Black and brown Trumpists as well). These Americans are increasingly rejecting democracy if it means that "people like them" do not maintain eternal control over the nation's political, social and economic institutions. In this version of America, nonwhite people are effectively to be treated as second-class citizens. There are established terms for such a societal arrangement: Apartheid and Jim Crow.  

As exemplified during the attack on the Capitol, white supremacy and American fascism are inherently violent. Such violence is also infectious: It spreads like a type of social contagion first from the leaders (Trump and other far-right Republicans, Christian nationalist churches, the right-wing media) and then throughout society. That dynamic helps to explain why the Age of Trump has seen record increases in hate crimes and other right-wing violence. White supremacist violence will not suddenly cease when Trump leaves the White House. If anything, this epidemic of political violence will likely continue to spread, and attacks such as last Wednesday's will become more frequent — and more lethal.

In a recent essay for Time Magazine, John Douglas, the founder of the FBI criminal profiling program, whose career is the basis of the book and Netflix series "Mindhunter," warned:

Words really do matter — be they the blatant screed of an out-and-out hater or the dog whistle of a political leader only too happy to sow anger and divisiveness for personal advantage. And as the election confirmed, our society is so divided that words have entirely different meanings to each segment. To half the population, diversity translates into "social progress." To the other half, it means, "Not me."

In this environment, any movement that can give explanation, pride, and hope to those who feel left out and disparaged, and make them feel that there are those lower than them or responsible for their condition, that gives them promise of ascendancy and retribution, is a powerful, dangerous force. And in this fraught atmosphere — when candidates for the highest office in the land need to be asked to repudiate white supremacy — constant awareness and eternal vigilance are required. Merely changing the national leader is not enough to solve the problems of racism, white supremacy, and other forms of extremism and domestic terrorism.

Donald Trump will in all probability be impeached for a second time (and perhaps even convicted by the Senate) because of his most recent incitements to violence and sedition. He may even be removed from office under the terms of the 25th Amendment (although Vice President Mike Pence appears to lack the courage for that). But even with Biden becoming president next week, Trump and his authoritarian, fascist and white supremacist movement will not stop their attacks against America's multiracial democracy.

Last week, their vile cause scored a great triumph. Like barbarians of old, their forces sacked the Capitol building, overran the security forces, took prizes, terrorized the country's elected officials and won a heretofore unimaginable symbolic victory for the cause of white supremacy in America.

Years and decades ago, such an outcome was only fantasized about in white supremacist fiction or how-to manuals like "Victoria" and "The Turner Diaries," or in online forums. Viewed in that light, the Age of Trump was and is a strategic breakthrough for white supremacy.

Donald Trump is, in effect, America's First White President. Senior adviser Stephen Miller, one of the few members of Trump's inner circle to endure through his entire term, is an overt white supremacist. The Republican Party, despite its current, fumbling attempt to jettison Trump as an embarrassment, is the world's largest white supremacist organization. Human and civil rights have been undermined and rolled back in the Age of Trump. The coup assault and siege of the Capitol was but one battle in a longer struggle for (and against) white supremacy.    

A report this week from the Associated Press describes the current state of affairs:

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said authorities in state capitals and other major cities besides Washington should prepare for the possibility of violent protests next week.

"A lot of people were energized by what happened last week," he said. "State capitals are a natural place where people might want to show up, especially assuming that they think there might be a huge presence of police and military in D.C. because of what happened last week."

Pitcavage tracks militia, white supremacists and other far-right extremists, but he said the Capitol siege demonstrated the emergence of a new movement of "Trumpist extremists, so caught up in the cult of personality around Trump that they may be willing to break the law or engage in violence purely in support of Trump and whatever he wants."

President Joe Biden will have much work to do to save the American economy from collapse, end the coronavirus pandemic and improve the country's much diminished image and power abroad. Biden and his administration will also have to confront and defeat a white supremacist fascist insurrection within the United States.

Many Americans voted for a "return to normalcy" in the 2020 election. That resulted in a landslide victory for Biden, whatever Trump and his allies may claim. But normalcy is nowhere in sight. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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