On Wednesday afternoon, as a mob sacked the U.S. Capitol, Donald Trump’s successor pleaded for peace. America was a good place, so much better than what we were seeing today, President-elect Joe Biden insisted. We’ve triumphed before, and we’ll triumph again. But the platitudes fall flat. So do the shocked tweets and the cable punditry. Trump could stop this with a tweet, people said; this is not who we are. But Trump cannot stop this, because this is who we are. This is who we’ve always been. The sacking of the Capitol is the latest entry in a bloody old ledger.
Trump is not a sophisticated thinker, but he understands a basic truth about America. If you understand the Civil War as a slaveholder’s insurrection, the events of January 6 feel inevitable. This country birthed the Ku Klux Klan and lynched thousands. This country murdered Martin Luther King Jr. This country beat civil-rights protesters and killed trade unionists and Communists and so, eventually, it elected Trump. And the violence was revived. Under Trump, this country killed Jews at worship in 2018, and it targeted Latinos in an El Paso Walmart the very next year. This country gave rise to neo-Nazis in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and to the murder of Heather Heyer.
Though America has also always been more complex than the ugliest version of itself — it is Heyer’s country, and King’s country, as much as it’s Trump’s — there’s nothing original about the violence his presidency inspires. When we wonder about the future of what we call Trumpism, a loose term for the racist nationalism that defines his presidency, conventional wisdom generally holds that there is no Trumpism without Trump. Without his celebrity, the coalition that coalesced around him would not survive for long. There’s still some truth to that view. But that doesn’t mean the threat Trump poses will pass. The mob that invaded the Capitol carried Trump flags, true, but it carried Confederate flags too. That’s what Trumpism without Trump looks like: old-fashioned white supremacy, outfitted with a new set of grievances.
When Biden takes the oath of office later this month, Trump’s presidency will be over. White supremacy, however, will not be. America will still be America, and Biden will have to figure out how to deal with it. Pretending that this country is nobler than it is will accomplish nothing; it will only guarantee that the forces Trump mobilized will rage on for years. So let’s agree now to call the events of January 6 what they are: an insurrection waged by the usual suspects, incited by a president who understands precisely what he’s doing. The fascistic undertones are not difficult to hear. Go home now, Trump told supporters on Wednesday, but you’re right to be angry; the election was stolen. “We love you,” he added. “You’re very special.” They know. They’re grateful. And they’re not going anywhere.