Our Weekly Discontents, 1/11/2021

So, um, how was your week?

Happy 2021 friends! Derek here, from Foreign Exchanges. If anybody was hoping for a quiet start to the new year after the…well, pretty much everything from last year, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Presumably you’ve all seen what happened last Wednesday, when a mob of Donald Trump fans stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the formal certification of electoral votes and, I guess, prevent Joe Biden from becoming president through some indeterminate and probably nonexistent mechanism. If you haven’t, then here’s what you missed:

Five people were killed amid the violence: one Capitol Police officer reportedly beaten to death by the mob, one rioter shot and killed by Capitol security, and three more rioters who died of “medical emergencies.” A second Capitol Police officer has since died under still unclear circumstances, though whether there’s any connection between that death and Wednesday’s chaos is unclear. Dozens of people, security and rioters alike, were injured, and dozens have since been arrested for their involvement. Any hope they had of somehow disrupting Biden’s election was dashed late Wednesday and into early Thursday morning, when—over the objections of dozens of Trump-friendly Republican legislators—Congress completed the electoral college certification process.

The week’s festivities didn’t end when the Capitol was cleared of attackers. Having spent four-plus years using social media to lay the groundwork for Wednesday’s violence, by Friday Trump found himself banned from every major online network. Of course the banning that stung the most came from Twitter, which indulged the president for four years up to and including his use of the site to threaten nuclear war, but decided it couldn’t abide the possibility that he would use it to foment more violence ahead of Biden’s January 20 inauguration. At the same time, tech giants Amazon, Apple, and Google all took steps to expunge Parler, the small social media platform that’s become home to the most rabid elements of Trump’s fan base.

That’s where we stand today. Trump is suddenly and very uncharacteristically offline but very likely to spend his remaining days in office causing as much disruption as possible. His followers may intend some further attempt at forestalling the inauguration, and while there’s virtually no chance they could succeed we’ve now seen the damage they can do in trying. Calls for Trump’s cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment and remove him from office have unsurprisingly gone unheeded. Congress could impeach him for the second time—a step that, in in the (unlikely) event he were convicted by the Senate, would prevent Trump from running for president again in 2024—but that remains undetermined. Questions are swirling about the advisability of new domestic terrorism laws, about the feasibility of expelling members of the House and Senate who supported Trump’s baseless electoral fraud claims, and about the desirability of letting a handful of social media companies play gatekeeper when it comes to the virtual public square.

Before I turn things over to my Discontents colleagues to offer their thoughts on what’s transpired over the past few days, I do want to talk about one of those unanswered questions: what was that? Even as the Capitol was still being stormed discussion began about what we were witnessing—a riot, an act of terrorism, an insurrection, a coup. I’m not a big believer in policing language and in truth you could probably find some justification to call it pretty much anything (OK, “bake sale” might be a stretch), but the question does matter. The labels we affix to things affect how we think about them, and how we think about them affects how we respond to them. And in this case there are many reasons to be worried about how we as a nation might respond.

As somebody who writes about the lingering effects of 9/11 nearly 20 years after the fact, I get particularly concerned when the word “terrorism” starts getting thrown around. Because if Wednesday’s events constituted an act of domestic terrorism, then one obvious conclusion Americans could draw from that is that we need tougher domestic terrorism laws. And as anyone who’s been surveilled under the PATRIOT Act or lost a loved one to a US drone strike since 2001 could tell you, the “counter-terrorism” ball is almost impossible to stop, or even direct, once it gets going. Even if you think they’ll only ever be used against The Real Bad Guys, which they won’t be, there have to be some powers we simply don’t want the state to possess, regardless of how it might affect national security. Everybody will draw that line in a different place, but as we debate Where We Go From Here my suggestion would be that, if it’s not a power you would’ve wanted the government to have in the wake of 9/11, it’s probably not a power you want the government to have now.

OK, that’s enough from me. Thanks for reading and we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

It is hard for me to understand this week through any perspective except war nationalism. 

In my last newsletter of 2020, I wrote about how, on December 27th, Park Rangers assaulted Darrel House at Petroglyph National Monument. House was praying, and doing so off the trail, like his ancestors have for hundreds if not thousands of years. With a taser where a conversation would have sufficed, the rangers continued colonial violence. That House, a Marine veteran, was subject to this violence out of uniform only further foreshadowed the violence that came just 10 days later.

The full scale of what happened on January 6th has yet to be known. The immediate facts, of a violent mass urged to violence for partisan ends, is horrifying enough. Luke asked me to write about it for Hell World, and here’s what I said there

“Make America Great Again was a call for a new baptism in blood, and specifically the blood of people in the United States who did not subscribe to the same specific strain of nationalism that Trump ingested on Fox News and then found throughout the entire voting base of the Republican Party.”

War nationalism has been durable throughout American life, but there’s a particularly durable strain that can trace its origin back to the launch of the War on Terror in 2001, which was vague in naming its enemy and durable in terms of the violence it permitted. Constant official violence and a lack of a fixed foe made it easy for the right to assume the state was always meant to do xenophobic violence. It is telling that Democratic representative and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, while sheltering in the Capitol, suggested everyone remove their identifying badges, so they could blend into the crowd if they needed to to escape. That might have worked for the white Spanberger; it was not an option for many other staffers or representatives.

Amidst all of this, the violence in the halls and the announced and broadcast threat to democracy, it appears a second sort of softer coup took place. In an effort to avoid extraordinary action, people inside the Pentagon assured the House that the military was ready to refuse nuclear launch orders. There’s no formal, legal mechanism to do that; the nuclear launch authority is entrusted solely to presidents, and an Air Force officer was discharged in 1973 for asking his superiors how to identify an unlawful order. If there’s any truth to this game of red telephone, it’s probably for the best that Trump has been denied nuclear launch authority. But it also sets a grim precedent, if the military is happy to treat civilian leadership as untrustworthy and route around it. Praetorianism is no answer to the worst excesses of war nationalism; ending the forever wars, instead, is integral to ensuring another January 6th doesn’t happen.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

In speaking with Jared Holt and running this essay from our own Kelsey in Hell World the other day as he mentioned above we covered most of my initial thoughts on the matter at hand. I’m still sort of at a loss on what to say about it all besides it sucks and is bad.

I guess more than anything I’m just glad we finally have an excuse to listen to Ted Cruz and his friends cry about not being able to post. If I were required to present an argument in court or in some academic or journalistic forum or whatever about ~the implications~ of all this I would probably have a more nuanced take about f r e e s p e e c h but I'm not required to do that so I can just say lol get fucked Trump and all fash.

I explain more in today’s paid-only piece: You do not under any circumstances have to come to the aid of your enemies.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

I have some thoughts over at The Flashpoint about what the fallout from the riot means and why I think it was an attempted coup.

One thing that’s been really getting at me is the suggestion by some people on the “left”—and I use that term with some hesitation—claiming that there’s common cause to be made with the rioters. There is not.

The band of small business owners, idle rich kids, off-duty police and military officers, and others were clear about the reason for the assault. It was to reject what they see as “left-wing” rule under incoming President Joe Biden.

Nothing about this group of people and the ideology they represent can ally with the left; an anti-communist, racist mob of extreme right-wing reactionaries are not going to find common cause with progressives. Not to mention any such “alliance” would come at the expense of people of color in the coalition and our LGBTQ+ comrades.

There are some lines you need to make clear cannot be crossed, and this is one of them.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

Happy new year, folks. I know we all thought that maybe 2021 was going to be a little bit calmer and more subdued, but it turns out that we all just perpetually live in 2020 now. So this week we focused on the news story that had the whole world talking: Bean Dad. Just kidding. Remember that guy?

What we actually did was bring on our friend Jared Holt, who has spent years researching far right extremism, to discuss what many are calling the Stupid Coup. Was it a bunch of MAGA Dads and Gam-Gams, harmless loser streamers doing it for the clout, or was there something more sinister going on? It turns out none of this is mutually exclusive. Another question that we don’t have answers for: Where does this insurrectionist energy go after January 20th? Despite disingenuous calls from prominent #StopTheSteal cheerleaders for “Unity”, it’s certainly not just going to dissipate. While we’re thinking about this, let’s strap in for 2021, week two.


Felipe De La Hoz & Gaby Del Valle

Last week, we took a look at the selection of Merrick Garland as Biden’s pick for Attorney General, a post that directly oversees the country’s system of immigration courts. His approach remains a bit of mystery, as he’s made no public rulings or comments on immigration policy issues, but his deference to prosecutors and the government — particularly in a string of cases brought by Guantánamo Bay detainees — cast doubt on whether he’d undertake the aggressive action necessary to reverse the Trump administration’s mangling of the system.

And like, while that was all happening, there was also a pseudo-coup. There’s a perturbing finality to the language being thrown around in relation to last week’s events: the mob “did not succeed” in toppling the government, the coup “failed.”

Sure, I guess it’s good that a crowd of fashy hooligans didn’t manage to overthrow democracy on first attempt, but this is far from over. It seems a bit premature to take a lap when, at this moment, much more hardened and well-armed groups of fascists are strategizing about next steps. Next time it won’t be real estate agent soccer moms and car wash CEOs off to LARP insurrection and get content to share on Facebook, but Atomwaffen and the Oath Keepers armed and ready to start killing. The lessons they’ve taken from this ordeal so far is that they have allies among those ostensibly guarding our seats of power, and at best they can expect a delayed and disorganized response. Plenty of insurgents throughout recent history have considered a couple failures and some time in prison as par for the course on the road to power. The prospect of full Democratic control (as if that was going to guarantee anything is going to change at all, but that’s a topic for another time) will only add to the urgency. We all better get used to images like those from 1/6, because we’re just getting started.

Discourse Blog

We spent most of the past week, like everyone, covering the Capitol insurrection and its aftermath. We wrote about the cops, the GOP, the country’s founding myths, and what’s going to happen the next time someone tries a coup.

But our big plug this week is on the business side: Discourse Blog is announcing a new tier structure for subscriptions, new premium newsletter offerings, and a whole lot more. Existing subscribers, don’t worry: you’ll get an email explaining how all of this relates to you soon. For people thinking about taking the plunge, we’ve got a hefty discount on yearly subscriptions at both tiers. This is probably the best deal you’re going to get to subscribe, so we hope you’ll join us! Check out the main site to see what’s going on.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

I have a lot of thoughts about what happened, but in essence, they’re pretty straightforward.

First, we should take the mob at their word. They didn’t think the election was legitimate and they stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn that election, acting with the explicit approval of the president. They weren’t cosplaying or LARPing, to the extent that those terms are mutually exclusive with being deadly serious about carrying out an act of insurrection. Had they gotten ahold of any elected officials, it’s entirely probable that they would have lynched them.

Second, this was neither the end nor the beginning of anything. It has antecedents, both recent ones and in the more distant past, and it will be a step on the road to still other things. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see worse before long; the question is how much worse, and whether those future acts are carried out with the explicit approval of one of the nation’s two major parties.

I mean, shit. It’s not great.

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

My colleagues inform me there was an insurrectionsball this week [eyeroll emoji]. I don’t follow that particular sporps, but I hope everyone had a good time!!

More seriously, it’s been yet another weird week, in a procession of weird weeks. I guess that might make my latest newsletter, about John Gardner’s Grendel, at least a little bit timely. Grendel is about an existentially tormented narcissist who copes with his rage by eating every living thing he can get his hands on. I think it would be a profound mistake (and lame) to turn that into a parable about Orange Man Bad, but at the very least, we’re all witnesses to the bizarre ways in which inchoate, often existential rage plays out at the heart of our polity. Or something. I don’t write about politics. Sign up for my newsletter and read about something that isn’t the news cycle, which my colleagues are doing such an admirable job covering.