Imagine another America: One where Black or brown people had attacked the Capitol

If this alternate history sounds ludicrous, that's the point: That imaginary event would look nothing like this one

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 7, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Crowds gather for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Crowds gather for the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

As you have been repeatedly reminded in recent days, one year ago, thousands of Donald Trump's followers launched a lethal attack on the U.S. Capitol as part of a larger coup attempt whose obvious goal was to overturn America's multiracial democracy and install their Great Leader as de facto dictator. Several people would died during the Capitol assault. More than 150 police officers and other law enforcement agents were injured.

Many in Trump's attack force were armed, including with guns. Explosives were found nearby, with other deadly weapons cached not far away.

It's a mistake to call Trump's attack force a "mob" or to describe them as engaging in a "riot." Knowingly or not, they were part of a coordinated effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and overthrow American democracy.

In the year since then, we have begun to learn the scale of the larger fascist plot against democracy: It was nationwide, and conducted both by legal and extralegal means. At moments, a military coup appeared possible. Fox News and other right-wing propagandists systematically lied about the coup attempt, both as it was occurring and ever since. Right-wing street thugs and militias were activated. At least 1,000 Republican public officials were involved in planning and coordinating the coup, including members of Congress who volunteered to help facilitate a nullification of the 2020 election and a potential government takeover. There were detailed step-by-step plans as to how Vice President Mike Pence, in conjunction with Republican officials on the federal and state level, would reject the people's will and keep Donald Trump in power. 

As is abundantly obvious from many kinds of evidence and testimony, Trump's attack force was driven by white supremacy, racial authoritarianism, Christian nationalism and the worship of violence that is foundational to such beliefs.

RELATED: How Christian nationalism drove the insurrection: A religious history of Jan. 6

In a new essay for the Guardian, Michael Harriot locates Trump's coup attempt and the Capitol attack in the history of the color line and questions of patriotism and national belonging:

There is a more accurate term than insurrectionists to describe the people who stormed the US Capitol building on 6 January, forever smearing the seat of the American republic with fear and fascism.

Although their activities inspired terror and were planned in part by members of white supremacist groups, they object to being labeled as "terrorists" or "white supremacists." Calling them "rioters" doesn't quite capture the political motivations of the pro-authoritarian mob of Maga fanatics. Perhaps we should view them as historical re-enactors. After all, they were only recreating the effort to undermine democracy, freedom and the US constitution that has repeated itself for centuries. Yet, if you asked them, they would undoubtedly say they were "patriots"….

There is nothing more unpatriotic than someone who calls themself a "patriot." The flag-waving hypocrites who proudly proclaim their loyalty to their country are determined to kill America. Since the 2020 election, at least 19 states have passed 33 laws that make it harder to vote. These legislative acts of voter suppression are largely introduced and passed by adherents to Donald Trump's "Stop the Steal" movement that now includes a considerable share of the GOP's constituency. Although these "America first" acolytes claim to want to make their country great again, their real end game is to destroy any semblance of a government where white people's voting power is equal to their share of the electorate. In other words, the principal goal of the so-called Patriot Party is the opposite of democracy….

This historically inaccurate, mathematically incorrect caricature of patriotism is white nationalism wrapped in a star-spangled banner.

If the American empire ever falls — and it will — we can thank the patriots for the demise of democracy. Ultimately, these fanatical jingoists are the least patriotic people in America. They detest democracy and loathe any prospect of a more perfect union. They have pledged their allegiance to the flag, but not the republic for which it stands. Patriotism as performance is their only protection because a country that provides liberty and justice for all is too unbearable a thought.

They'd rather kill it first.

Yet a full year after Trump's coup attempt, many members of the chattering class and the commentariat — the vast majority of whom are white — still describe the events of that day as "unimaginable," "unbelievable" or "shocking." Such language, and such patterns of thought, reveal a deep unwillingness to grapple with and accept the truth about American's centuries-long history of white-on-Black (and white-on-brown) political violence.

Too many of these public voices have chosen to remain ignorant of their own country's history, and in doing so have passed along that ignorance to the very public they supposedly serve. This denial also explains why so many members of the media and political class refuse to comprehend the existential threat to American democracy represented by Republican fascists and the larger right-wing movement.

RELATED: With fascism coming, America responds: LOL who cares? Let's Netflix and chill

To properly confront the origins and implications of Trump and the Republican fascists' assault on democracy would demand an interrogation of white privilege and white identity — and asking hard questions about the relationship between what it means to be "American" and what it means to be "white." Such questions require disrupting and challenging the big and little lies that sustain whiteness as an identity, and the assumption that those who embrace it are inherently good, noble and innocent. 

Last Jan. 6, and in the weeks and months followed, I and others publicly asked the following question: What would have happened if a "mob" of thousands of Black people (or Muslims, or Latinos) had attacked the Capitol?  

The answer is obvious: There would have been no such attack, because law enforcement and national security forces would have prevented it from ever happening — or even coming close to happening.

But if we suspend disbelief, and imagine a version of America where such an attack somehow took place, those Black or brown or Muslim "protesters" would have been gunned down in large numbers. Those not shot would have been beaten into submission. The Capitol and its surroundings would have literally been bathed in blood.

What would that America be like now, one year after such a hypothetical event?

The national security and surveillance state would have expanded even more than it has already, likely in ways surpassing the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A new COINTELPRO-style program would be attempting to destroy Black and brown civil society organizations. The full force of the national security and law enforcement apparatus would have come crashing down upon Black and brown America.

Black and brown people would be viewed as de facto enemies of the state. Their constitutional, civil and human rights would be sharply restricted. Those deemed to be "suspicious" or a "security threat" or supportive of "terrorism" would be disappeared into the country's vast network of detention facilities, with or without hard evidence and with little or no due process. We would have seen mass arrests, interrogations, harassment and (more) police thuggery and violence directed against Black and brown communities.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

There would indeed be a bipartisan Jan. 6 committee, with both Republicans and "moderate" or even "liberal" Democrats focusing on issues of "Black crime," "radicalization" and "terrorism." Its hearings would be televised daily. The Department of Justice would have ordered thousands of arrests, in all probability most of them would target people who were in no way implicated in the attack. 

These Black and brown "terrorists" (and very likely their white "collaborators") would have faced the most severe punishments available under American law, perhaps amplified by special "emergency" statutes. Some would face death sentences or life without parole for treason, insurrection and sedition.

This alternate reality would be quite different from our current reality, in which many participants in the Jan. 6 assault have been treated with great restraint. Black and brown and other people charged with crimes after our hypothetical version Jan. 6 would not, we imagine, be allowed to go home on their own recognizance, travel to weddings, take vacations abroad, pay minor fines or community service sentences, or be collectively treated as though they had done nothing seriously wrong.

The Democratic Party would feel pressured by the news media and "responsible" public voices (and of course by the Republicans) to distance itself as much as possible from Black and brown people — its largest and most consistent base of voter support. In that imaginary America, the Democrats might face an internal split, and might (at least for a time) cease to be competitive on a national level.

RELATED: Why Donald Trump exalts Kyle Rittenhouse: Nothing gets the base going like violence

There would be (more) white right-wing violence and hate crimes directed against Black and brown people. Militias and other paramilitary organizations would expand and gain even more influence over the Republican Party and the conservative movement than they have at present. Imagining themselves as "defenders" of "law and order" and true "patriots" — as in fact they imagine themselves now — these thugs and enforcers would attempt to engage in ethnic cleansing campaigns or pogroms against Black and brown people, Muslims, Jews, "socialists" and others deemed to be the enemy. As terrorism experts warn us today, the United States could face a sustained period of right-wing insurgency or a localized state of civil war.

Fox News and the rest of the right-wing disinformation machine would feature 24/7 coverage of these alternate-history Jan. 6 events, endlessly regurgitating memes about "Black hate" and "Black treason" and "illegal aliens" and other "toxic elements" that are poisoning or polluting the body politic and must be purged in order to "keep us safe." There would be no need to default to stochastic terrorism: The threats and encouragements to violence would be outright and direct. In many ways, of course, that would not be terribly different from the themes Fox News and the right-wing hate media are circulating now.

There would be a record increase in gun ownership on both sides of the color line.

Christian nationalist organizations and right-wing evangelical churches would see large increases in membership and financial support. White Christianity would become even more extreme, fascist, authoritarian and racist than it is now. The "conservative" movement and white right would become even more emboldened in their campaign to take away Black and brown people's rights.

RELATED: Religion scholar Anthea Butler on "White Christianity" and its role in fueling fascism

Such efforts would be supported not just by Trump-supporting Republicans and right-leaning "independents" who believe in the Big Lie and "voter fraud," but by many white Democratic voters as well (especially those fabled "college-educated voters" in the suburbs, much obsessed over by America's mainstream pundits). In total, the white backlash politics that would follow our imaginary attack on the Capitol would radically redraw the American electoral map for years and decades to come.

If we return to the world as it exists, Black and brown Americans have — with rare and isolated exceptions — never engaged in acts of political violence or terrorism against white America. Historically and through to the present, Black and brown folks have wanted to improve American democracy for the benefit of all people on both sides of the color line.

Like many other Black people, as I watched Trump's attack force of rage-filled white people attack and defile the Capitol one year ago, I said to myself, "Thank God they're not Black. Lord only knows the hell we would pay."

How many white folks said anything like that to themselves or each other? "Oh no! They're nearly all white! What's going to happened to white people now? We're in big trouble!" That number is somewhere between almost no one and literally no one. That is the hypocrisy, the double standard and the fundamental unfairness that sustains white privilege and white supremacy, in a society that claims to be a democracy where we are all supposed to be equal before the law. And it is that hypocrisy that fuels the rising neo fascist tide which is threatening to drown American democracy. 

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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Fascism Jan. 6 Media Racism White Supremacy