insurrection day

The Long Authoritarian History of the Capitol Riot

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer, Photos: Getty Images

After 25 years studying the American right, I think I’ve drilled down to the irreducible core of the thing. Because in these United States everything eventually comes down to questions of commerce, I found it, appropriately enough, in a 1981 yearbook of Advertising Age, in a case study examining the work of a marketing expert the magazine had enshrined as its Adman of the Year: Richard Wirthlin, chief strategist for Ronald Reagan’s recent successful presidential campaign.

Wirthlin began his work in 1979 with an exhaustive “Survey of Voter Values and Attitudes,” in which he discovered that Reagan supporters “obtain high scores on … authoritarianism — and a low score on egalitarianism.” It continued, “Eastern European ethnic groups living in large cities … follow the same pattern, and hence were a prime target for conversion.” Thus Reagan launched his nomination campaign with “highly visible visits to such neighborhoods.”

A Wirthlin assistant was then quoted: “Reagan decided to stop the practice because he considered it exploitative.” In fact, Reagan made constant campaign stops in white ethnic neighborhoods, and God knows his appeal to authoritarians never sagged. The crucial point is that a Reagan associate even thought to claim Reagan put the kibosh on the enterprise. There’s an old saying: Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Meaning, those who say one thing and do another are at least acknowledging that right and wrong exist. If you want to understand the evolution of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, that’s the whole rancid enchilada.

It’s always been about building a political base of authoritarians. But at least Republicans used to be sheepish about it. Donald “They’re Rapists” Trump was but a milestone in the Republican Party’s long journey toward dropping the pretense altogether. January 6, 2021, was another. Build your party’s power by actively seeking out thugs, and of course things eventually get out of hand.

After Republicans in the Senate blocked the establishment of a bipartisan committee to investigate the January 6 riot, the Democratic-controlled House in late June moved forward with plans to establish a select committee of 13 members — five of whom will be chosen in consultation with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who was among the 139 representatives to vote against the certification of Joe Biden’s November victory. This is part of a schizophrenic pattern, perpetuated by Biden himself, to treat Republicans as both partners in democracy and threats to it.

What Democrats have been slow to understand is that this is an insurgency against democracy with parliamentary and paramilitary wings. The parliamentary wing is represented by McCarthy and others who have voted to overturn a free and fair election as well as lawmakers who have passed or proposed laws in nine state legislatures since the 2020 election shielding drivers from liability if they plow vehicles into protesters. These abet the work of the paramilitary wing’s latest tactical innovation: vehicular assault. Everyone knows about the 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer who killed Heather Heyer by driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 — the incident was a national outrage. A near-identical event this past month — a white man accelerated his Jeep into a crowd protesting a police shooting in Minneapolis, killing a mother of two — received far less attention. A University of Chicago researcher tracked 72 such attacks, in 52 separate cities, in a six-week period in 2020 alone.

The violent menace displayed at the Capitol riot, in Trump’s anti-immigrant fantasies, and in these vehicular attacks has been coded into conservative politics for a long time. In 2003, right-wingers won a demagogic campaign to recall California governor Gray Davis less than a year after his reelection. The campaign was driven by frantic claims on talk radio that Davis wanted to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. The candidate who won the election to replace him was best known for starring in films in which he clocked body counts in the dozens. He was also the first prominent civilian to bring the military-grade SUV known as the Hummer to American streets and, in 1992, had even persuaded its manufacturer to sell them on the mass market so anxious Americans could purchase vehicles that looked just like the ones the military used to patrol riot zones in Los Angeles that year. Arnold Schwarzenegger helped inaugurate the phenomenon of cars as bodily threats.

Rush Limbaugh was another conservative who loved big cars. He was downright reverential toward giant SUVs and their power to dominate the “little cracker boxes” liberals allegedly wanted all of us to drive in order to “make everybody equally at risk for injury on the road because it’s simply unfair.” He added, “There’s a bias against SUVs. They’re killers by virtue of their very existence.”

Pickup trucks, which used to have gently rounded corners and were advertised with communitarian images worthy of an Amish barn-raising, are now bulldozers with cliff faces at the front end that guarantee a child on a bicycle or a snowflake in a Prius can’t even be seen, let alone avoided; painted black with tinted windows and a “Punisher” decal on the back, it’s Trumpism with a ten-cylinder engine.

The nakedly authoritarian trend on the right was long evident in the hustings, too. Reagan’s opening campaign tour in 1979 featured stops in Cicero, Illinois, where Martin Luther King Jr. was persuaded not to attend a march in 1966 because the sheriff warned it was “awfully close to a suicidal act”; then in South Boston, where he appeared alongside a city councilmember, Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who was famed for his support of South Africa’s apartheid government and was an early adopter of the conservative trend of never traveling anywhere without a gun. Back then, appealing to violent extremists was merely an open secret. Now it’s what any reasonably ambitious Republican candidate does in television commercials, assault rifle strapped across her back.

The paramilitary wing of the party mobbed the Capitol seeking traitors to lynch. Meanwhile, the parliamentary wing, represented by the majority of the Republican members of the House and Senate who voted not to certify Biden’s electoral votes, raised a clenched fist. Together, these two wings compose the right-wing model of governance — and at this model’s heart lies the citizen as bearer of violent threat.

More on Insurrection Day and Its Aftermath

See All
The Long Authoritarian History of the Capitol Riot