I’ll be honest: when I first heard about the U.S. Capitol insurrection, I wasn’t shocked.
As a Black woman, I could have seen it coming from a mile away, like an overdone trope in a badly written superhero movie: thousands of villainous Trump supporters violently storming the Capitol, armed with guns and makeshift bombs to “preserve American democracy.” Meanwhile, the rest of the population waited for their saviors in uniform to swoop to the rescue, only to realize that—plot twist!—some police officers were in on it the whole time.
It felt inevitable, so much so that it became comical. Many young people, myself included, resorted to sharing memes as a coping mechanism: in between educational tweets and pro-BLM Instagram shareables, we roasted the rioters’ outfits, the abhorrent lack of security, and the blatant lack of response from the police force. We laughed at the prospect of a civil war not because it seemed impossible, but because the alternative was admitting that we were scared as fuck.
At the end of the day, though, we were still hurting. Not even laughter could distract from the horrific act of terrorism we had all witnessed in Washington. Once again, white supremacy was playing out on our phone screens, and we were disgusted. Even a number of high-profile Republicans like Mitch McConnell were voicing their disappointment; some went as far as to support the impeachment of Donald Trump, albeit a political tactic in itself.
There’s no doubt these politicians were just trying to save face, but it did leave me wondering about the future of the Republican Party. What did these Trump supporters at the Capitol really want—and how will the GOP respond to these desires in the coming years?
Despite the mainstream media’s portrayal, the attack on the Capitol wasn’t really about a “stolen” election. It was the result of decades of built-up white anxiety about a perceived loss of privilege and power. This wasn’t an isolated incident of white terror; we’ve seen similar displays of racial violence throughout history, be it the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the anti-abolitionist race riots of the Reconstruction era, or the mass lynchings of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Capitol insurrection was just the most recent incident of white terror, triggered by the transition of presidential power. To the Capitol rioters, losing Donald Trump meant losing their mouthpiece—the one person who not only understood their grievances but addressed them with policies.
The loss of their cult leader triggered the very feelings that mobilized white working-class Americans to vote for Trump in the first place: the fear that American institutions no longer serve people like them. In their eyes, this loss of economic opportunity—whether in the form of declining employment rates, widening income gaps, or the death of the middle class—is not a result of capitalism’s failures, but a direct result of policies set in place to help people of color and other marginalized groups.
This fear didn’t start with the Trump administration, and it won’t end with it either. According to a study conducted by political scientists Marc Hooghe and Ruth Dassonneville, racist resentment is a key motivator for voting for far-right candidates. Especially since President Barack Obama’s election, the Republican Party has harnessed white people’s racial anxiety, using racist ideology and coded dog whistles to create false binaries in which a loss of economic opportunity is linked with racial equality. Instead of placing the blame on the true perpetrators of inequality—the 1%, corporations, etc.—the GOP has created new scapegoats: undocumented immigrants, welfare recipients, and other marginalized communities. These false dichotomies allow the Republican Party to keep corporations happy with tax breaks, loose environmental restrictions, low minimum wages, and other corrupt agreements. Consequently, any Democratic policy that helps marginalized groups is deemed a “threat” to white power and privilege.
“People feel like they are losing something if whiteness no longer carries privilege and power,” said Bree Newsome Bass, the human rights activist known for taking down a Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse in 2015. “If there’s racial equality, they feel like they have been denied what the country was supposed to be… When there’s a perception that the power of whiteness is being lost, the act of violence is what reinforces and reassures.”
When you view the U.S. Capitol insurrection through the lens of white rage and perceived loss, it makes perfect sense: this isn’t a new phenomenon. Conservative white Americans have always lashed out with violence when they felt their power decreasing. But contemporary frameworks of thought diminish the depth of this white rage, obscuring the true evils of racism in the process. Instead of making surface-level comparisons between the police response to BLM protests and the Capitol riots, we need to adopt a more historical lens to truly see white supremacy for what it is.
“Compare this to Southern states seceding from the Union to preserve white Americans’ right to own other human beings, leading to the bloodiest war in U.S history,” @overcomingracism elaborated in an Instagram shareable. “Compare this to the states that had two governments during Reconstruction because white Americans wouldn’t accept Black democratically elected officials. Compare this to when white Americans beat and brutalized Black people at lunch counters. Lynched Black people for registering to vote. Bombed buses and churches, murdering children for the purpose or maintaining Jim Crow.”
It seems like a long time ago, but today we’re seeing the same fears played out through different means. The Capitol insurrection, just like Trump’s election, wasn’t some fluke in the system. These events were built into the system, encouraged by conservative politicians who work to appease white people’s racial fears through oppressive rhetoric and legislation.
Unfortunately, this dynamic won’t change any time soon unless we restructure American life as we know it. This, according to Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1967 Report to SCLC Staff, would require a “radical distribution of economic and political power,” and agreement (from all sides) that “evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.”
I hate to say it, but I don’t see the Republican Party having this kind of racial awakening any time soon. To be honest, when I think about the future of the GOP, I think about its past of white supremacy: I think about how white conservatives will always continue to fight for racism, in explicit and implicit ways—if not in the Capitol Building, then from the comfort of their own homes. Through social media echo chambers, fired-up tweets, biased algorithms, cleverly placed Facebook ads, and loads of misinformation, until we are so split that we don’t even recognize each other outside of our rage.
Illustration by Joy Velasco.