An historian’s view of the Capitol riot

From Niall Ferguson at Bloomie:

Major pandemics often coincide with religious or political contagions. In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides records how, during the plague that devastated Athens between 430 and 426 BC, people seemed to lose their moral compasses.

…During the Black Death that swept across Europe in the 1340s, flagellant orders roamed from town to town, ritually whipping themselves in acts of atonement intended to ward off divine wrath…The flagellants were a millenarian movement with a potentially revolutionary agenda that flouted the authority of the clergy and directed popular wrath against Jewish communities…

…The worst pandemic of the modern era, the misnamed Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, coincided with a wave of violent revolution as the ideas of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks swept the Russian Empire and sparked proletarian risings all over the world.

…What, I’ve been asked, is the best historical analogy for last week’s events in Washington? None fits perfectly. Oliver Cromwell’s dissolution of England’s Long Parliament in 1653? The obvious difference is that Cromwell succeeded in establishing himself as lord protector. The dissolution of the French National Assembly by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851? Again, Bonaparte actually succeeded in establishing the Second Empire. How about Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922?  The difference there is that King Victor Emmanuel threw Prime Minister Luigi Facta under the bus by refusing to declare a state of emergency, and then appointing Mussolini in his place…Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 was, like Thursday’s affair, a fiasco. But it didn’t happen in the national capital and it wasn’t inspired by either the German chancellor or the president…My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith draws a parallel with Japan in the 1930s, but there (as in multiple South American and Middle Eastern coups) a key role was played by ultranationalist junior officers in the military. Something similar goes for the Tejerazo, the storming of the Spanish parliament by 200 Civil Guard officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero in 1981. By contrast, the American military would do nothing to support an unconstitutional seizure of power. Support for Trump diminishes the higher up the command structure you go, with recently retired generals among his most vehement critics.

…Pandemics, remember, are associated with religious and political extremism. The fear of illness, mutual suspicion, quack theories, hypochondria, hyper-skepticism and general mental dislocation caused by social distancing, lockdowns and unemployment — taken together, these things tend to generate outlandish behavior.

…Look, if you want evidence of pandemic madness, at the people who ran amok among the legislature last week. The idea that this was a false-flag operation by far-left Antifa in disguise is obviously absurd. Although the mob seems to have included a few retired military members or off-duty police who had the training and the tools for a serious terrorist attack, this was mostly the lunatic fringe of the American far right in an unholy alliance with the QAnon conspiracy cult.

…For a brief moment on Wednesday afternoon, I felt a strong temptation to throw up my hands and admit that this really was Weimar America after all, and that Trump was indeed the tyrant depicted in so many articles over the past five years.

A closer look at this motley crew of misfits brought me back to reality — that, and the realization that, far from proclaiming presidential rule by decree and securing the TV stations (which is what coup leaders are supposed to do), Trump and his children were vacuously watching the mayhem on television. Just as the QAnon (and KKKAnon) mob were too busy filming their own antics to prevent the members of Congress making their escape…

It is possible — I cannot rule it out — that Trump and Trumpism will persist long after his departure from the White House, whether that happens tomorrow via the 25th Amendment, next week via high-speed impeachment, or on Inauguration Day. He would not be the first leader in history to linger long after his departure from high office, insisting that his loyal followers treat him as the rightful president, a kind of 21st-century version of the Jacobite Pretenders to the British throne.

…The dominant media narrative of our time is of profound political polarization, with the potential one day to escalate into civil war. Perhaps that is right, and what we really witnessed last week was the Trumpist equivalent of John Brown’s abortive revolt at Harpers Ferry, a precursor to the Civil War (even if the extreme Trumpists’ views on race are clearly the opposite of the abolitionist Brown’s).

If that pessimistic view is right, then we are only just emerging from the first wave of Trumpism. Like the new variants of Covid-19 discovered in England and South Africa, which spread more rapidly than earlier strains, it could surge back in an even more virulent form.

But my contrarian view is that, rather than worsening the country’s polarization, the events of the past few months have in fact substantially restored the center ground. Trump lost in the November election; but so did the far left of the Democratic Party. Biden personifies the middle of the road. He didn’t sweep to power on a blue wave, because many voters who didn’t back Trump nevertheless voted for Republicans down the ballot. But for Trump’s criminal behavior, his party might have held the Senate.

…Shorn of power, assailed by litigation, his finances tottering and his access to social media abruptly curtailed, Trump may fade as quickly as a virus with a reproduction number below 1 — to become no more than a seasonal malady, threatening only to those with the intellectual equivalent of comorbidities. The lesson of history is that pandemics eventually end — and so do political manias of the sort that briefly seized the Capitol last week.

That captures my view pretty well with the added point that although Biden is middle ground his economic platform is a push back to the more traditional left of fighting class inequality versus the extremist culture war left of today.

Houses and Holes
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  1. Whatever Biden is (or better, isn’t), it will be sorely tested by that ‘extremist culture left’ that constitutes much of his support base.
    Once Trump has exited stage right, they will only have themselves to fight amongst.
    That….is going to be a show worth watching!
    (Trump wasn’t the answer to anything; he was the question – which is “What do we want from our elected leadership?. Biden et al is unlikely to be it. But at least we are asking the question now rather than just accepting the best from a collection of worst alternatives)

    • ” rather than just accepting the best from a collection of worst alternatives”
      Seems like a pretty good summation of democracy right there.
      Can’t see Biden fighting class inequality any more effectively than trump did. It is merely the ,marketing line put out to win votes.

    • That extremist culture left has had more impact on the center than I gave it credit. Even in Australia, during the QLD election I sounded out some friends on the merit of some candidates (as much as you can have a political discussion these days). I think my social circle is averages out as right of center due to us getting older, but even there the tendency to assume that a candidate had more merit merely by virtue of being a minority was a real surprise. (For my seat somehow LNP/LAB had nominated white males so I was denied the opportunity to feel virtuous – I voted for the younger one though, so there!)
      That is just a mild example from another country, unfortunately I think the dems eating themselves will be more of an issue than the external threat of whatever the GOP comes up with. If they can sit on their hands and shut up, they could easily get the senate back in the mid terms.

  2. TheLambKingMEMBER

    the more traditional left of fighting class inequality versus the extremist culture war left of today.

    I am not sure there is an actual difference, besides the point of view of the person or media organisation framing it. The left have always called it fighting class inequality, the right have always called it an extremist culture war.

      • I’m hard pressed to find a real “left majority” anywhere in the Commonwealth and US. We seem to only have Centrist and faux-Left; where are the rest?

        Centrists are seen as left as the right is so bloody conservative and right that the comparison is stark. The faux-Left want what the conservatives have, but in a feel good way. They still want what is good for them first and worry about everyone else later (maybe).

        • We must maintain the idea that the left-right political split is roughly 50/50, rather than something like 15/85. Hence the reason we must call parties like [New] Labor and the Democrats “left” or “fake left” rather than “Centrist”.

      • When do you think this happened? I think it started with the emergence of Social Media which was in around 2006. It went parabolic with the Me too movement. Probably began earlier.

  3. It’s interesting that Noah Smith also sees strong parallels between recent events in the US and the events in 1930’s era Japan.
    I’ve mentioned the Mukden Incident a number of time but I’ve refrained from giving a blow by blow account of the Social and Political events in Japan which created an environments where the Japanese armed forces effectively answered to the Industrialists. It was the reinforcing feedback within the whole Military Industrial complex that marched Japan towards WW2, it was this positive feedback that made the colonization of Japan’s neighbours such a profitable exercise for everyone involved.
    Today we have China poised in a similar position to that of 1930’s era Japan.
    But isn’t it interesting that we see these same parallels playing out in the US.
    I suspect the parallels exist because the shift in global commercial force is stripping the US Military Industrial complex of funding at precisely the same time as these mirrored forces in China are enabling accelerated growth
    With this in mind I suspect that Biden is the wrong President and I believe that Trump supporters are seeing this change and demanding that the American Industrial complex be strengthened (as was the case in 1930’s era Japanese Politics), they can see clearly which President they need and it is this foresight gives them both the right and responsibility to guide their Country on the right (far-right that is) path.

  4. Democracy in the USA is now very simple.

    Black and Hispanic voters vote for whoever gibs them more stuff.

    Biden promised $2000 if he won in Georgia, and so he did.

    Given that the USA can print an infinite amount of money, this will devolve into formal UBI.

    UBI can work – but only if the recipients are not able to vote or reproduce. Otherwise this unproductive class will simply overwhelm the productive class.

    • It is more complicated than that. The Hispanic voted for Trump over Biden in Florida, and the $2000 idea came from Trump : that was an ‘own goal’.

      All the extra money printed by the Fed have gone to inflate the biggest stock bubble the world has ever seen. Elon Musk became the richest man in the world. The unproductive part of the economy is at the top, not the bottom.

    • The middle class & wealthy also vote for whoever gives them more stuff, ie Trumps tax reductions.

      The problem with America is that the policies of the last 40yrs or so have undermined the American dream, the American dream that anyone can make it is now much easier to achieve in “socialist” countries like those in Scandinavia! Strange but true! Lower skilled American workers have been abandoned by their political leaders as they followed demands from big business, which can be great in the short term, but is at odds with what is required for a long term prosperous country, in many many ways. Just like in many poor 3rd world countries there is not enough money flowing around the real economy, it’s sitting in bank accounts & assets of businesses and wealthy. Those less skilled workers don’t even have to be productive, luckily for Australia too given our people service industry, provided some part of the economy is, but they are essential to enabling money to flow around the economy & keep it healthy. The level or unproductivity is at the top, rentierism is rife, corporate welfare, financial instruments, stock markets fuelled by government money & buybacks instead of productivity has a far bigger impact, though at the moment it’s all holding together.

      • I suspect the one “policy” that has had the most effect on social mobility is the funding of education at the pre-tertiary level by local real estate taxes. With a few exceptions in major metro areas, wealthy districts have excellent schools and poor districts have terrible ones.

  5. Niall Fergueson is an optimist. I think that his assessment is generally correct, however the idea that all of this will blow over like the pandemic is wishful thinking. There is a reason Trump was elected in the first place, which I think most people do not understand. His message wasn’t wrong much of the time – China for instance. He was ineffectual and petulant as a President, but people who liked his message looked through that and cherry picked the better parts of the message.

    Trump was the wrong man to execute the message. He was vulgar and divisive. But the problems that caused his election remain. And neither side of the political has the will to stem inequality. Both beholden to wall street. Both populist in rhetoric while delivering little to the common man. One the party of the police. The other the party of the culture police.

    • This is a great take Kodiak.

      I lived in the US for a few years (did my masters there and worked for a few years in NYC) so have a few US friends and some US in laws. It is amazing how polarized the States is but the thing that most Australians don’t get is how many “normal”, “intelligent”, “sane” folks supported and voted for Trump. My Australian relatives (especially mother in law) just think “orange man bad”. That view IMHO is the scariest as it just reflects MSM propaganda and brainwashing.

      It takes someone smarter to look through all his antics to see that he had the answers all along on China and the economy (actually making stuff in America again rather than “free trade deals” like NAFTA).

      In much the same way it is like having Pauline Hanson arguing for a lower population. She is right – but as the messenger is appalling ….

      • That’s very similar to my own experience. Otherwise extremely intelligent people will look through almost anything at this stage to hang onto core beliefs – because they think they might be gone forever, especially those at the end of their lives who knew in many ways a “better” USA that most of the population today will ever know (which is in many ways arguable for those who lived before civil rights legislation). This is why you get idiots in horns storming Congress. Most of these people can’t articulate why they think this way, but the past rounds of globalization have left them behind with no future in sight. And they’re justifiable angry. How do you demonstrate that against such a powerful central state? It’s desperation. “Orange man bad” doesn’t cut it. It simply adds to global divisiveness.

    • Very good take Kodiak.

      While I share your and DLS’s views in regards to the proportionality of the civil disturbance at Capital Hill, like you I am no so saguine about the future.

      While I agree Trump was the wrong man for the job of fixing America, I am highly doubtful that Biden and the Harris administration are equally up to the task. People voted for Trump for the same reason people vote in other elections – “which candidate is more likely going to make me better off” – lots of working class Americans had seen their standard of living decline over decades and this guy was telling them that he was going to look after them.

      In contrast, the political establishment of which Biden is firmly in the center stood by and oversaw the transfer of US industry and jobs to China and what did the media and political establishment do when they expressed their concerns?

      Sneered at them and told them to “Learn to code”. Trump actually listened to them and responded to them – no doubt for his own base reasons and personal gain, but at least he went through the pretense of acknowledging their grievances.

      Now they see that same media, big business and the political establishment silencing someone they believed in. Despite whatever people may personally feel about Trump the reality is a large percentage of Americans are going to feel their voice has been silenced and they are being subjected to Tyranny.

      The other issue is DLS’s faith in the Biden administration attending to the American worker – if you define the American worker as the next immigrant across the border or stepping off the plane, then yes, imho Biden has their back. The problem is that far from being destroyed, the lefts intersectional politics are still in ascendancy, and Biden’s statements are quite at odds with the belief that he is going to stand up for the average American. This will be Biden’s priority, divisive Identity politics:

      “Our priority will be Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American owned small businesses, women-owned businesses, and finally having equal access to resources needed to reopen and rebuild.” — President-elect Biden”

      Basically he mentioned and priortised everyone other than existing white American – for all Trump’s many, many faults, he did not play identity politics. When he spoke of Americans, he spoke of American workers – not black workers, not Indian workers, not Trans men workers, Trump spoke of American workers.

      Because Trump did not play the identity politics card, other than criticising it as the social cancer that it is, it was the MSM that chose to interpret his reference to American workers as an appeal to white America.

      And Gunna – if you ever wonder why I think Vox is such a toxic, evil, divisive, pit of Juicy cultural propoganda, here is a article for you to mull over:

      “Whiteness is at the core of the insurrection”

      Imagine if a mainstream economic mag that significantly influences social and economic policy, stated that Juicy cultural values is at the core of Identity Politics and the divisiveness it sows.

    • I tend to agree. I think this will blow over eventually, but I think in the short-term there will be more escalation.

      Ask Niall Ferguson in December 2020 if he thought there was any chance of the Capitol being invaded by a mob. My guess is he would have put the chances of that at slim to none.