On January 6, 2021 the best and worst of race in America were on full display. Many of us awoke to the news that Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had both won their Senate races in Georgia through the historic efforts of a powerful multi-racial coalition. And then hours later, we witnessed the President of the United States incite a white riot against the Congress while the joint session to declare Biden and Harris the rightful winners of the 2020 Presidential and Vice-Presidential election was under way.
The Warnock and Ossoff victories were historic for three reasons: first, their wins gave the Democrats complete control over the government of the United States and drove the Party of Trump entirely out of national power; second, their victories demonstrated the crumbling of the Southern Strategy by which the Republican Party had held national power for most of the last sixty years; and third, their victories verified the organizing work undertaken by Fair Fight Georgia and others based on the strategy of continuous multi-racial organizing, community building and leadership development, with a focus on building power in the Black and other minority communities.
In the face of his utter defeat, Trump did the expected: he raged against reality by organizing a campaign to overturn the results of the Presidential election. His ‘inside’ campaign was to use legal means to overturn the election. After he failed to win any of the 60 plus lawsuits he had filed to nullify state elections, and after his efforts to bully state officials in Michigan and Georgia were rebuffed, he turned his attention to nullifying the Electoral College vote in Congress. The Congressional ‘inside’ game was led by Senators Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX) and was joined by 139 of the 211 Republicans in the House of Representatives. The nullifiers concocted a bizarre set of arguments that had no chance of success to challenge the Electoral College votes. But Trump also had an ‘outside’ strategy: he called on his carefully cultivated army of right-wing activists—white supremacists, militia members, QAnon conspirators— to descend on D.C. to storm Congress during its Joint Session, an operation that had been planned for more than a month. I am not really sure what Trump thought he was doing other than raging, because this campaign had no chance of success. My guess is that he hoped that the Congressional Republicans could somehow stop the validation of the election while a riot outside Congress gave him the pretext to declare martial law.
But we will never know Trump’s political calculation because things went badly for him and his co-conspirators. First, even before the Joint Session of Congress met, loyal Trump minions like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and (very late and reluctantly) Mike Pence made it clear that they would have nothing to do with the effort to nullify the election. But then the rioters desecrated the Capitol and made it clear that the Congressional Republicans’ arguments against the validity of the 2020 election were not just the symbolic protest of sore losers but were part of something quite dark and serious. After the white rampage left five people dead, the always meager Senate opposition to the election quickly eroded, with 6 of the 14 Senators who had indicated their opposition changing their position. House Republicans (in a House controlled by Democrats) with nothing to lose stuck to their guns—139 out of 211 voted to oppose certifying the election—but they were just going through the motions in a plot that had clearly failed.
Images of rioters waving Trump banners, QAnon signs and Confederate flags rampaging through the Capitol and desecrating the people’s house alarmed people not just in the U.S. but around the world. Even after the riot and the deaths, Trump referred to the people who ransacked the Capitol as “special” and “beautiful”. The reality of a President who was trying to overturn democracy and prevent the peaceful transition of power was now undeniable to everyone except for his rabid base.
All in all, Trump’s instigation of the assault on the Capitol coupled with the loss of the Senate on the same day was too much for even many of Trump’s minions. One by one, Republican members of Congress who had steadfastly supported Trump for four years appeared on Fox News denouncing not just the riot, but also the President who had clearly instigated it.
So, where are we as the dust settles on this exhausting day?
We are where we have always been—a country struggling to right its racist past and realize its dream of democracy for all. For many, the shock of watching the desecration of Congress was a familiar echo of the shock of many racial crimes: white people burning down Greenwood Tulsa, thousands of lynchings, the massacre of Native peoples, and so many other traumatic episodes of white rage. For many, the failure of the police to defend the Capitol and even the sight of Capitol police helping rioters, was a bitter reminder that police in America will side with white people even while they are committing acts of open sedition against the United States!
But something new did happen on January 6. The party of white supremacy and their fascist-minded leader have finally been driven out of national power. The elections that did this—the Georgia Senate races—were won by a multi-racial coalition led by Black women. Even better, this coalition—and others like it across the United States—sees this historic victory as merely an inflection point, a step towards the reconstruction of the nation. And Trump’s bizarre plan to overturn the elections so badly backfired that a day later he was finally forced to agree to the peaceful transition of power.
For the Republicans, the next year will be challenging. There is a slim chance that the party will finally disavow Trump and try to re-define itself. Perhaps Trump will experience what Joe McCarthy had happen to him after he went after the U.S. military with his Red Scare campaign in 1954. (Don’t forget that Roy Cohen was McCarthy’s lawyer and Trump’s mentor). But I doubt it. There is a reason 139 House Republicans voted to nullify the election even after the white riot. They understand that in their gerrymandered districts, all they have to offer their constituents is to keep whipping up white rage against the Biden-Harris government. Many state elected officials will continue to make the same calculation. And it is important to remember that even the Republicans who have disavowed Trump have not apologized for the serious crimes they committed against people of color the past four years.
The problem, I think, is that Republicans are caught in a trap of their own making. Ever since the Democrats became the party of civil rights in 1964, the Republicans have defined themselves as the party of white resistance (hence, the Southern Strategy that is now collapsing). As demographics have made whites into a smaller and smaller plurality of the country and successful multiracial coalition building has given voice to a new vision for America, Republicans are finding themselves defined by a cause that is increasingly beleaguered and is becoming increasingly deranged. Republican politicians would do well to reflect on the words of Winston Churchill (of all people!), who said this about the rising tide of fascism in 1937:
Grim war-gods from remote ages have stalked upon the scene. International good faith; the public law of Europe; the greatest good of the greatest number; the ideal of a fertile, tolerant, progressive, demilitarized, infinitely varied society, is shattered. Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.Winston Churchill 1937
And yes, the liberal ideal of good faith and the greatest good for the greatest number is today unraveling in America. The middle class is being hollowed out while the rich get richer and the poor are being plunged into deadly crises. Neo-liberal cuts in taxes and government services have harmed most Americans. In this setting, the Republican strategy of trying to harness white rage will almost certainly continue even as their base shrinks and becomes less and less powerful.
So, what can be done, then, about the Republican Party’s grip on the majority of white people? Of course, the Biden Administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress now have the opportunity to show alienated and aggrieved whites (along with everyone else) the benefits of enlightened government. To the extent that the government can deliver on its promises to end the pandemic, to reign in inequality, to produce millions of new green jobs, and to repair the destruction of public health and public education in this country, the ability of demagogues to feed white rage will diminish.
But far more is needed at this moment than the Biden Administration will be able to deliver. What is needed now is nothing less than the historic reconstruction of America, an effort that has now begun for the third time in this nation’s short history. This work won’t be easy—it requires a massive shift in power away from the rich and towards the poor, and it requires whites to finally renounce their privileges and to become humble and to acknowledge the need for reparations for the crimes committed by whites throughout American history. It requires a new respect for Mother Earth.
But the rewards for doing so will be immense. Already, nearly half of whites in this country believe they are anti-racist. These people need to acknowledge leadership from people of color and join the many on-going efforts to forge multi-racial coalitions to end anti-Black police violence, to abolish mass incarceration, to deliver justice to essential workers, to safeguard women’s reproductive rights, to radically reduce environmental harms, to protecting transgendered people’s rights, to end racial gerrymandering in elections, and so much more. And through all this work, let’s build the capacity of people to care for one another, to find brotherhood and sisterhood with one another, to forge stronger and more inclusive communities with one another. Let us build the beloved community and through this, reconstruct this country at last. This is how we will finally end the era of white rage and render the Donald Trumps of this world irrelevant once and for all.