Some thoughts on the events of January 6th, 2021

This is a bit unstructured.

First off, I think this should be understood as an attempted coup. As with many other terms in history and politics, there’s not a single, universally accepted definition of what a “coup” is. Traditionally it’s a group of armed people taking power by killing, imprisoning, or exiling everyone who might contest their authority. Historically, things get a bit murkier. Coups tend to be illegitimate by definition, and so those involved in them generally try to find some way to claim that they are the legitimate rulers, and those who were ousted were illegitimate. This can play out a lot of ways. In the case of Bolsonaro’s rise to power in Brazil, it involved a bogus corruption charge against the most popular politician in the country that was used to imprison da Silva so he couldn’t even participate in the election. Over the 20th century, a lot of coups – almost entirely by right-wing groups – have had at least some support from the government of the United States. If you pay attention to global discourse on current events in the U.S., you’re likely to run into people pointing out that the U.S. seems to be in the process of doing to itself what it has done to so many other countries around the world.

I’ve seen some people saying this isn’t a coup attempt, because it wasn’t coordinated enough, or it wasn’t successful enough, or any of a number of other reasons. Obviously I don’t accept these lines of reasoning. Seemingly spontaneous “uprisings” have long been a part of power grabs, as the perception of having the support of the masses is generally a prime justification for any power grab. A recent example from U.S. history would be the “Brooks Brothers Riot” of 2000, that was instrumental in the efforts by the GOP to stop a recount from going ahead in Florida, thus circumventing the official procedures through a Supreme Court order, and putting George W. Bush in power. When it happened, the riot was cast as a spontaneous demonstration of outrage by Florida citizens. Later, it became clear that the participants were paid Republican operatives.

I think there were some things about Wednesday’s coup attempt that make it more difficult to categorize, especially given that the people who breached the capitol building didn’t seem to have any plan for what they should do if they did get inside. Once people got inside, it seemed to be mostly folks wandering aimlessly around the building, and stealing souvenirs.

That said, the whole event was planned ahead of time, and was kicked off by a rally held by Trump, and a speech in which he urged them to march on the capitol. It also took place in the context of a months-long effort to steal the 2020 election, in which Trump and the rest of the GOP seem to have tried everything they could think of, from interfering with the postal service, to calling up state officials and pushing them to “find” votes. Thus far, all those efforts seem to have failed, but the scatter-shot nature of the overall campaign means that Wednesday’s events fit very well indeed.

The other thing to keep in mind is how Trump went about instigating the assault. Throughout his time in office, Trump has shown himself to be an avid practitioner of what’s known as “stochastic terrorism“, sometimes also called “lone wolf” terrorism. For those who are unfamiliar, the basics of it are pretty simple – propaganda is used to encourage hate of the targeted group, and to escalate that hate as much as possible. “Stochastic” is a statistical term that describes the property of randomness. Stochastic terrorism is a tactic that relies on the probability that, within a given population, certain messages will drive one or more people to decide to take it upon themselves to commit violence.  The group in question is portrayed as not just bad, but actively dangerous, and each bit of propaganda comes with an added message: Somebody oughta do something.  Someone might just say that outright, or they might just imply it.

Like any tactic, it’s a tool that can be used by anyone, but it has long been a favorite of fascists and other right-wing extremists. The so-called “Pro-Life” movement has waged a decades-long campaign to either kill or drive into retirement abortion doctors and those that work with them. Calling them “baby-killers”, sharing graphic and shocking images that (generally falsely) claim to portray the results of abortions, and spreading rumors about how evil those involved are. This spurred on bombings and assassinations all across the United States. The white supremacist movement has used these tactics for far longer, relying on very old messaging about the evils and dangers of black people to make it easy to whip people into a frenzy. This results in very predictable violence that is always waved away as being “isolated incidents”.

Trump has leaned heavily on this tactic. It always comes with some level of plausible deniability, and it’s pretty easy for anyone with a platform and a knack for demagoguery to engage in. Bigoted, would-be mobster that he is, it’s an ideal tactic for Trump. His followers – especially the more violent among them – are pretty familiar with how this system works, and have paid close attention whenever he dragged his feet or outright refused to denounce the violence that his words seemed to call for.

It’s no surprise, then, that this tactic would come up in his efforts to hold on to power after losing the 2020 election. While I wasn’t sure what form it would take, I’ve been sure for a long time that there would be violence this January. Honestly, I think it’s likely there will be more to come. As with many things, I very much hope to be proven wrong about that.

All of that said, there may also have been some plans, if only half-formed, for what to do under cover of the chaos, should the opportunity arise. There may have been a hope that the danger to legislators would cause a delay in the Senate’s certification of Biden’s win. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Someone may have hoped for a chance to destroy the official electoral ballots, or to tamper with them in some other way. That didn’t happen either. Those who showed up with a large collection of zipties may have wanted to take hostages. That also didn’t happen:

Stochastic terrorism is a matter of playing the odds. It’s not guaranteed to cause violence, it’s just likely to. The violence that does occur isn’t guaranteed to have the desired effect on politics, but it’s likely to. In this case, the odds of this somehow keeping Trump in power were very, very low, but at this point I think anything above zero makes it worth trying, for Trump. His entire life seems to be made up of trying everything, and continuing what works. The vast wealth he inherited meant that this amoeba-like strategy never really cost him anything he couldn’t afford to lose.

All of that said, I think it’s also important to note that there may have been less obvious motives behind what happened, and there may have been objectives that were met.

I think these are worth considering, not just because of the concern over the activities of foreign agents, but also because of the damage various domestic entities could do with classified or confidential information, either in pursuit of profit, or in furthering any number of political goals.

And if nothing else, this breach is likely to hamper the activities of the Legislative Branch for months to come, just as Trump’s lame duck activities will interfere in the Biden Administration’s ability to get to work. At this point, Trump’s not playing chess or checkers, he’s playing 52-card pickup, and Biden is being left to clean up the mess.

While there’s a huge amount that Biden could and should do on day one (especially with the Democrats in control of the House and the Senate), there are numerous ways in which the events of January 6th could interfere in the affairs of the federal government, and could be used as an excuse for avoiding or delaying changes that the pro-corporate leadership of the Democratic Party simply don’t like. While it’s good that this latest effort to keep Trump in power was an abject failure, it has done real damage to the American government, and may have succeeded in ways we won’t know for a long time, if ever.

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  1. Who Cares says

    Speaking of bugging the place. Remember that the things mentioned are active sources and are (relatively speaking) easy to find. The Russians have long known this as their bugging of the US seal in the room of the US ambassador to Russia/USSR showed. So the only way is to rebuild the place and hope the contractor isn’t bugging the cement like happened with the US embassy being built in Moscow in 1972.
    Or just another USB device plugged in. Maybe with a reboot of the computer if said computer wasn’t locked.
    Paranoia on this level is ‘fun’.

  2. says

    I honestly don’t know how likely it is that anything like that actually happened, but the fact that it’s technically possible means that it’s someone’s job to worry about it.

    I have no tears to shed for secrets that the American empire fails to keep – most of them seem to be to cover up incredibly vile behavior around the world, and it would be better to have them out in the world.

    I do worry about capitalists getting their hands on information they could use to profit at the expense of the general public, and what might come out of all this in terms of increased security and surveillance.

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