In the aftermath of the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, I have watched as Republicans and some Democrats expressed their shock and horror at what happened: Unthinkable, unprecedented, appalling, and unbelievable, they’ve said. Of course I understand that jolt of fear and surprise; it is human, and correct, to feel destabilized by the reality of chilling, violent revolt and democratic upheaval. But none of this was unpredictable. Part of what I have marveled at most, over the past week, is how explicit, loud, and public a strain of the American right has been in broadcasting its violent political agenda — even before the election of Donald Trump.
What happened last week should not have been a shock to any of us. It has been years that hard right-wingers — including but most definitely not limited to the man who is still president of the United States — have been openly threatening violence grounded in racist and misogynistic resentments. For years, they’ve made it clear that they see their only path to victory as being through bloodshed. What’s interesting is how those threats have been heard, and by whom they have been taken seriously before now.
Before the 2016 election, Trump friend and Republican operative Roger Stone went on Milo Yiannopoulos’s podcast and predicted that there would be voter fraud leading to a Hillary Clinton victory. “This election will be illegitimate,” Stone said. “The winner will be illegitimate. We will have a constitutional crisis. We will have widespread civil disobedience … It will be a bloodbath.”
That summer, a New Hampshire state representative and Trump delegate named Al Baldasaro told a talk-radio program that “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason” for her handling of the 2012 attack on a United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, and then later reiterated his commitment to her execution, though for a different reason, to the Boston Globe. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s information for the enemy,” he said, of her use of a private email server. “In the military, shot, firing squad.”
At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, Rudy Giuliani told the crowd and global audiences, “There’s no next election; this is it. There’s no time left for us.” At the same gathering, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said in his speech that he was going to “do something fun tonight,” before beginning a mock trial in which he repeatedly asked the crowd if Clinton were “guilty or not guilty” of a series of crimes. The writhing, pulsing mass on the floor chanted “Guilty!” with the fervor of spectators at a witch trial.
Four years later, would-be kidnappers in Michigan are alleged to have planned to hold a mock trial for Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after kidnapping her and before murdering her.
Last week, insurrectionists held a Confederate flag aloft as they marched through the seat of federal power, a sight that came as a chilling shock for many; the Confederate flag had never before been flown in the Capitol. But this has been the stated drive of every group that has rallied and held torchlight marches to defend Confederate statuary in recent years
It’s not just that Donald Trump said the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 while chanting “You will not replace us” were “very fine people.” It’s that his party and its supporters have taken that yowling insistence on maintaining minority authority; supported it as electoral strategy (winning power via an Electoral College that overrides the popular vote, gerrymandering and redistricting to ensure Republican control, and increasingly investing in voter suppression); and melded that with a stated eagerness to destroy anyone, including themselves, rather than cede to “replacement” in any form.
“Whose blood will be shed,” if Trump loses, former Kentucky governor Matt Bevin asked the crowd at a Values Voters conference in September 2016. “It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood that is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something, that we through our apathy and our indifference have given away.” At another 2016 gathering, Georgia senator David Perdue, who just lost his seat to Jon Ossoff, suggested to the crowd that they pray for Barack Obama in a “very specific” way: “We should pray like Psalms 109:8 says,” he proclaimed. “It says, ‘Let his days be few, and let another take his office.’” The next verse in that Psalm is, “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”
None of this rhetoric was limited to Donald Trump. It was his surrogates; it was members of the party who elevated and have supported him since, gaining more power over courts and statehouses under his reign. They drew that power from the devotion of his base, a base they now fear crossing: crowds of riled fans that Trump drew to mass gatherings, where they expressed the very same bloodthirsty drive to punish and harm. In August 2016, the New York Times published a video compendium from Trump rallies, showing crowds yelling “Fuck Islam!” “Fuck those dirty beaners!” “Fuck that n- - - -!” “Get out of here you fag!” “Send them bastards back!” “Hillary is a whore!” “Hillary Clinton needs to get her ass spanked!”
Sometimes, the whole picture is right in front of our eyes, in a video posted on the website of the paper of record. Sometimes, four and a half years before a crowd storms our nation’s capital with a noose — before Richard “Bigo” Barnett puts his feet up on the desk of an assistant to Nancy Pelosi and brags to a reporter from that same paper that he “scratched [his] balls” and left a note reading, “Nancy, Bigo was here, you bitch” — millions have been able to look at footage of furious crowds shouting “Hang that bitch!” and “Kill her!”
And yet here we are, so many absolutely shocked, gobsmacked by the images coming from the Capitol. Part of it is that surely some of us, like many of those inside, had felt assured that security was in place, in a country that invests far too much in military and policing, to protect the most central lawmakers in the nation.
But part of it is also that those who warn and write about the violent impulses and drives of America’s punitive, oppressive, violent white patriarchy are regularly told that they are being overdramatic fantasists: On the right, worried Cassandras are deemed snowflakes; on the left, they’re written off as hysterics whose concern is born of a bourgeois investment in identity politics and woke victimhood.
All of which means that when armed terrorists break into the Capitol Building after years of advocating for a violent uprising, bringing a noose, wearing Auschwitz sweatshirts, carrying zip ties — and when the people who wind up most endangered by their incursion are the Black, brown, and female people who have been most targeted and villainized in an outsize way — somehow, too many people can still be shocked.