During the January 6, 2021 putsch at the U.S. Capitol, it was the former Obama administration official Van Jones who put his finger on the right question. Speaking on CNN, he asked, “Is this the end of something, or the beginning of something?” The days that have passed since then have tilted the answer heavily toward the second alternative. There is little doubt that America is now in its most severe internal crisis since the outbreak of the Civil War 160 years ago. What we cannot foresee is how severe this conflict will be.
Neither the freak show aspects of the attempted coup, nor the surprisingly low death toll, have prevented commentators from recognizing that something awful transpired. But there is reason to believe that even the most powerful of the dictator’s opponents don’t yet realize quite how grave the situation is. President-Elect Biden is still speaking of the dictator as an embarrassment to the country and unfit for the office he holds, while ducking the issue of his immediate removal from power. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pursuing impeachment and says she discussed with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff how to prevent him from starting a nuclear war in the now eleven days left in his legal term, yet allowed the House of Representatives to adjourn for the weekend without taking up the matter until Monday! The putschists themselves have made it blindingly clear that they will be back for an even more violent sequel, and reports from Twitter management and elsewhere point to increasingly cataclysmic confrontations from January 17 through Inauguration Day itself, and doubtless beyond.
More grave yet is the fact that eight Republican senators and more than half of the entire House Republican delegation continued, within hours of the putsch, to back its central demand: that the dictator continue in power regardless of the election results. That Biden’s election was nevertheless confirmed by the majority in both chambers is scant consolation. There is also the widely reported fact that a snap poll found close to half of registered Republicans supported the putsch. With due regard to the inaccuracy of recent polling, we may certainly assume from the fact that over 74 million voters backed the dictator in the 2020 election that tens of millions of ordinary Americans are in favor of putting a violent end to our republican form of government, in the name of the dictator and his lies. It is difficult to see why the term fascism does not fit such a movement, and difficult too to overstate the danger of this development in a country awash in both military-grade weaponry and irrational thought.
Add the fact that hundreds of heavily armed fascist “militias” (paramilitary movements) have been allowed to proliferate unchecked since the 1990s. Even if the federal authorities do now become serious about combatting them, it is far too late to avoid serious bloodshed as a result. We might see what is blandly called a “low-level insurgency” as a result, with roadside bombs, ambushes of police and the real military, and mass terrorist attacks becoming a feature of everyday life. If you think “people wouldn’t stand for it,” I would remind you merely that pre-pandemic, Americans had already become accustomed to their powerlessness to stop regular massacres in their schools and shopping malls. No, the only real limiting factor is how deep of a “sea” the insurgent “fish” have to swim in, to borrow Mao Tse-Tung’s metaphor. In less flowery language, the key variable is how many millions of those who say they support the Capitol putsch will prove willing actually to donate arms, money and food, provide hiding places, etc., to the “MAGA” irregulars.
At the upper limit of the conceivable, we cannot rule out the splintering of the official military itself–it has already been reported that out-of-uniform but active members of the military were “flashing their ID” for admission to the Capitol Building on January 6 to join the putsch, and the warm welcome shown the putschists by some members of the Capitol Police is already a matter of public record. In such a worst case, we confront the prospect of all-out civil war and the disintegration of the United States, which could occur much faster than most people currently imagine–the lack of imagination itself is a major hazard.
All that might, just possibly, completely prevent either of these scenarios or anything in the range between them from happening now would be the immediate arrest of the putschists and the forcible disbanding of the groups that sponsored them. The putschists and any direct supporters would all have to be charged with sedition and punished with decades in prison. (This writer is opposed on principle to the death penalty, but all known societies have punished such crimes with death since time immemorial.) Such a crackdown might, but only might, be enough of a show of force to avert the worst. But it seems unlikely to occur.