It is important to understand that for more than fifty years, American foreign and defense policies such as EUCOM, PCOM, Central Command, and U.S. Africa Command, and a few others have maintained the perspective that these policies are “the world’s answer to maintaining peace and deterring insurrections and wars.” Ask yourself, how many times has America taken the so-called moral high-ground to interfere in the political and economic affairs of countries in Europe, Central America, South America, Africa, the South Pacific, and the Middle East in an effort to maintain preparedness and stability? How is it that the American people could always justify an attitude that insurrections, sieges, and political upheavals happen in other countries – not in America? The point here is that on January 6, 2021, all that changed. For the first time in over two hundred years, America shocked the world with a home-grown insurrection, siege, and attempted coup, not a “political coup” like the one that happened in Brazil with Dilma Rouseff, but an actual coup by “force” of an angry, unhinged, mob of American insurrectionists storming the Capitol Building in Washington DC, in an attempt to interrupt legislative proceedings, overthrow the government and kill government officials, and America was not prepared for it. Even more striking than this, this coup was instigated by the President of the United States – Donald Trump. Just hours before the actual siege took place, Trump and a few others incited an already angry mob of protestors who believe the Presidential Election of 2020 had been stolen by voting fraud. Trump encouraged and directed the insurrectionists who in turn seized, assaulted, vandalized, and threatened to kill legislators who were in the process of confirming President-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris’ electoral college results. No doubt, this will go down as one of the most significant protests that change the course of history and politics in America.
This protest turned insurrection will be a history-making decisive event along with other important protests such as the George Floyd Protest (May 26, 2020); the March for Science (April 22, 2017); the Women’s March on Washington (January 21, 2017); Tiananmen Square (January 26, 2010); the November 9, 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall; the August 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington; South Africa’s National Day of Protest with Nelson Mandela (June 26, 1950); and Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March (April 5, 1930). All of which brought significant changes to political structures.
In the context of discussing political protests in the U.S., violent and nonviolent, and how they effectively changed politics, we should consider the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s, the violent protests of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, and the violent, insurrectionist protest of Trumpism. This event single-handedly brought the idea of American exceptionalism to a shocking end.
Some scholars who study protest movements, their effects on politics and elections, believe that if a nonviolent protest can get media attention, there is a good chance it can be very effective in raising people’s awareness about their issues because there is a close relationship between media coverage and public concern. On the other hand, protester’s use of violence tends to “work against their cause and interests” and becomes fuel for the opposition to grow its coalition. For example, the civil-rights activists were able to capture the attention of moderate whites outside of the South and build a coalition of allies for their cause strategically because they made a point of avoiding violent protests. For the most part then, they chose cities such as Birmingham and Selma because these cities had police chiefs that were quick to use violence such as police chief Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama. The larger point is they were able to cast themselves as the “objects” of violence rather than the “instigators” of violence.
To sort out the apparent inconsistency between nonviolent and violent protests, perhaps the leaders of the civil-rights movement did not necessarily take into consideration a conditional side effect. The images of black, nonviolent protesters being beaten, brutalized, bombed, and killed in the media and on television instigated a more militant faction of black protesters that broke away and endorsed violence in self-defense and were less committed to non-violence. This wave of black violent protesters manifested itself in groups like the Black Panthers, Deacons for Defense, SNCC, RAM, the Black Guard, etc., and white moderates that supported the civil rights movement particularly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party effectively splintering the democratic coalition and support. What is important to understand is that white moderates that were part of the democratic coalition were more concerned with “order” and when they felt there was too much “disorder” they shifted to the party that represented order – the Republican Party. When we turn to Trumpism, there are a lot of people that think he is an “instigator of chaos” rather than a “restorer of order.” However, when white moderates perceive violence and disorder coming from African-Americans or “others,” turning to Trump is appealing. The real danger is that people who do not like Trump and his grossness yet have a strong commitment to order and especially those that are concerned with racial disorder – then Trump is their guy.
When we consider the impact of the insurrection of January 6, 2021, so much is reported about the efforts of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to find and prosecute people that participated in the lawlessness. It may be too early to assess the social-cultural impact on American society just yet but the backlash will be felt for decades. For example, how many American families will be ostracized by their neighbors because of knowledge that members of their family participated in the attack on the government; how many wives will leave their husbands; how many girlfriends will dump their boyfriends, how many children will disavow their fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts and other family members; how many employers will fire their employees because of their involvement in an event that caused the death of six human beings? We might note in passing that this event will initiate a bevy of research studies, social, cultural, investigative documentaries, as well as legislation by government officials to make sure something like this does not happen again. What is important here is the attack on the Capitol shocked, appalled, and disgusted many decent Americans White, Black, Latin, Asian, East Indian, Arab, Native Americans, immigrants and “others” by the level of disorder and violence that was perpetrated. This single event revealed a deep chasm within the fabric of American society that will be felt for generations and did much to harm and work against the cause of the MAGA movement. Human beings are social animals. We depend upon each other to survive. We believe that when there is a threat to us, it is the responsibility of each of us to sound the alarm.
As stressed earlier, the idea of exceptionalism can be dangerous and destructive. Unfortunately, it attracts the worse and corrupts the best of us. Clearly, it is a social construct created by societies and groups within societies that believe their worth is greater than that of other people – even greater than people within their own societies. Historically, this construct has caused more ruin and destruction to societies for far longer than the American experience. For instance, the Romans felt they were exceptional and used it to justify their conquests throughout the world. The Chinese used it to create a class system that oppressed and brutalized the Chinese people for centuries. The Europeans used it to wage war upon each other for wealth, the acquisition of lands, and to launch imperialism. The Arabs used it to conquer, enslave, and convert African peoples to their form of life. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Mayans, Aztecs, and Nazis used it to exploit, demonize, and murder those considered of less importance. Even religious organizations have used it to launch wars of conquest, acquisition, appropriation, and practice human sacrifice on those it deemed of less value. They all had elements that practiced exceptionalism. It seems that from the earliest beginning of civilization, societies and groups within those societies have seen fit to use exceptionalism to destroy, to conquer, enslave, suppress, and even commit mass murder in the millions to justify their brutality upon those they deem of less value. So, why should the United States be any different? What happened in the U.S., as shocking as it may seem, is just the latest occurrence of a socially destructive dynamic that festers in the bone marrow of societies. For, in the end, exceptionalism always leads to suppression, oppression, and eventual insurrection.
- How Violent Protests Change Politics. (2020). Isaac Chotiner, New Yorker Magazine.
- 13 Significant Protests that Changed the Course of History. (2020). Heather Whipps, Brandon Specktor, Livescience.com.