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One Year After January 6: The State of the Right and the Re-Legitimization of the State

Today politicians will commemorate the anniversary of the Storming of the Capitol as the day that democracy was saved from an attack of wild Trump supporters. But the advance of the far Right won’t be stopped by the Democrats or by putting our faith in the undemocratic institutions of the United States.

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Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It felt like a scene out of a bad movie. Swarms of right-wingers — some dressed in horned headdresses, others waving Confederate flags — storming Congress in hopes of overturning the results of an election. Within just a few hours, January 6, 2021 quickly turned from a day of standard procedure to certify the results of the presidential election to one of the most chaotic moments in recent U.S. history. Five people died during the storming of the Capitol and hundreds were injured. 

In the days following this incident, it became clear that this wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment action from some isolated extremists. Donald Trump was trying to overthrow the results of the election and mobilized his far-right base for that purpose. Even Sean Hannity from Fox News was worried about how far Trump would go. 

As information began to circulate about exactly what happened that day at the Capitol, evidence was revealed that showed the rioters easily entered the Capitol and overtook the cops — who were officially told to hold back on their response; some of them even took selfies with the far-right protesters. The reaction to the storming of the Capitol was a vastly different response from the tear gas, batons, and arrests that the Black Lives Matter movement faced just a few months before. Further, the protesters were encouraged almost every step of the way by Trump. For his part, Trump had been actively relying on his far-right base as part of a strategy to pressure U.S. institutions into keeping him in office as president after he lost the election to Joe Biden. 

The far Right was emboldened through much of 2020, from being given explicit support by Trump to staging the anti-lockdown protests and mobilizing against Black Lives Matter and in favor of Trump; however, storming the Capitol represented an almost unprecedented escalation. It showed just how much the extreme Right has broken with the traditional political apparatus of the U.S. state and just how far it is willing to go to pursue what it sees as its interests. Those of us on the Left should take that very seriously.

But the events of January 6 also served to provide an opportunity for the incoming Biden administration. January 6 allowed Biden and the Democrats to capitalize upon the very legitimate fears about the far Right to re-legitimize state institutions and build consensus around the incoming government.

In this sense, when analyzing the legacy of January 6, it is important to look at how Biden and his allies used the Storming of the Capitol to strengthen not just their own position, but also the institutions of the U.S. state more broadly. This was part of a process of bipartisan backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 and an attempt to restore “law and order.” Just look at how images of the “hero cop” at the Capitol went viral; this “protector of Democracy” and the rest of the Capitol police were hailed as heroes, despite the fact that the Capitol police were explicitly told to restrain their efforts to contain the riot and did not stop the attack. Their response paled in comparison to the repression of the BLM protests just months before.

What is clear on the one year anniversary of the storming of the Capitol is that the far Right has not gone away, and it isn’t just composed of a few thousand right-wing vigilantes trying to keep Trump in office. Far from being defeated, the Right is passing legislation, terrorizing school board meetings, and is poised to take Congress during the midterms. While the questioning of state institutions has been suppressed on the left, on the right the conditions are being created to interfere with future elections and do what January 6th failed to do: overturn the results of an election and install the Right’s preferred candidate as President. While this process is well underway, it is far from being written in stone. But the lesser evilism of voting in more Democrats is not the way to reverse it; a strong left and labor movement is necessary to fight the rise of the Right and attacks on the working class and oppressed by the bipartisan regime. 

January 6 

It is clear that the storming of the Capitol on January 6 was not simply the actions of some deranged right-wing nuts acting out of the blue and in isolation. Rather, the far Right acted with the encouragement and support of Trump, in defense of his political program, and with one goal in mind: to keep Trump in office. 

Throughout U.S. history, a white supremacist far Right has always worked hand-in-hand with the State. Take the KKK’s terrorizing of Black people, activists, and union leaders, for instance, or the militias at the border that act alongside ICE to terrorize immigrants. The social base of the far-right has always worked to discipline the working class and oppressed. In 2016, this racist far Right found mainstream political representation in Donald Trump, who in turn grew their ranks and validated their beliefs. 

But the rise of the far Right and of Trump himself is merely another symptom of the decline of the U.S. imperialist regime. It is a product of a neoliberal capitalist system in crisis in the post-2008 world. As Slavoj Zizek paraphrased Gramsci, “now is the time of monsters.” Telling (overwhelmingly) white people that their way of life is under attack, representatives of the far Right obfuscate the real causes of declining living standards by way of racism, xenophobia, and other reactionary ideologies. They point to shifting demographics and increasing numbers of people of color as the reason for society’s ills, rather than the system itself. What emerges from this is a feeling of dissatisfaction with the establishment and a wish to return to the “good old days,” a mythical time when the middle class, small business owners and sectors of working class people — particularly white people — were less precarious and not on a path of downward social mobility. And these sectors look for new political representatives to take up this vision.

Trump was able to weaponize discontent and turn it against some of the most oppressed sectors of society to win and hold power. By running as an outsider — despite being a billionaire from a wealthy family — Trump was able to present himself as an opponent of the status quo. This strategy was effective at winning over much of the far Right, whose ideology is racist and anti-establishment.

Throughout the Trump administration, with ebbs and flows, there were quite large far-right mobilizations. Charlottesville was perhaps the largest and most notorious of these — ending in the murder of Heather Heyer and with Trump claiming there were “good people on both sides.” Following Charlottesville, the far Right was drowned out by massive counter-protests.

After a slight ebb in organized right-wing action, the far Right re-emerged with full strength in 2020, again with the support of Trump. They raided the Michigan state Capitol, fully armed, in what turned out to be a practice run for January 6. During the Black Lives Matter movement, they paraded the streets, ran over protesters, and even shot and killed BLM activists. Again, President Trump refused to distance himself: “Stand back and stand by,” he said to the Proud Boys in a debate just weeks before the election. 

After it became clear that Trump lost the election, Trump and his closest circle sought ways to overturn the election using institutional mechanisms. He called for recounts, tried to pressure officials to stop counting votes, and even asked Pence to overturn the election for him.

But with the institutional mechanisms having failed to work in Trump’s favor and Mike Pence breaking with Trump to ratify the results of the election, Trump helped organize a “Stop the Steal” protest where he encouraged his followers to march on the Capitol. For hours, as the far-right stormed the Capitol, Trump refused to tell protesters to stand down, despite calls from his inner circle to do so. 

The Far Right Today 

2021 was a year of contradictions for the far Right. January 6 was, in some ways, a failure. After all, Biden took office with the blessing of most congressional Republicans, Trump was barred from Twitter, and sectors of the military, the police, and capitalists moved to discipline those who took part in the Storming of the Capitol. In the immediate aftermath, far-right groups fell apart and infighting and confusion reigned. Yet, 147 Republicans refused to certify the results of the 2020 election.

But the seeming consensus against the far Right has since waned. The vast majority of  Republicans remain loyal to Trump even after the events of January 6. Those who have sought to discipline Trump, such as Liz Cheney, have been kicked out of the Republican Party and been widely repudiated. Today, only Liz Cheney and her Dad, former Vice President Dick Cheney, attended the events at the Capitol. There is widespread agreement among the base of the Republican Party that the elections were rigged in favor of Biden — only 6 percent of Republicans believe that Biden definitely won the elections. More people today think the election was rigged than in January of last year.

On this basis, Republicans have made the rolling back of voting rights a central part of their agenda. Nineteen states passed laws to restrict voting in 2021. These new laws will primarily effect people of color. To put this another way: the January 6 rioters weren’t successful in overturning the 2020 election but new laws make it much easier for elections to be stolen in the future. One of the most troubling laws is one passed in Georgia, where the Democrats recently won the election by the skin of their teeth. The Republican-controlled legislature has more control over the State Election Board and the legislature can suspend county election officials. One could imagine a scenario in which county election officials who want to certify or recount votes to be suspended and replaced if their rulings go against a particular candidate. 

However, the advance of far-right policies in the political sphere isn’t just limited to attacks on voting rights. 2021 was also a banner year for right-wing attacks on trans and reproductive rights. Several Republicans won office running specifically against teaching critical race theory in schools — a thinly disguised attempt to prohibit teachers from informing students of the U.S.’s long history of racism and systemic racism in the present. Sectors of the far Right stormed school board meetings to protest critical race theory and other “subversive” depictions of U.S. history. Further, opposition to any of the government’s meager measures to rein in the pandemic — including lockdowns, masks, vaccines, or any other protective policies — continues to be a rallying cry for much of the Right.

Moreover, several measures have been implemented at the state and federal levels to repress protesters like those who took part in BLM in 2020, and enable far-right vigilanties to act outside the law and attack demonstrators. Several anti-protest laws were passed last year, and the Texas anti-abortion law included a provision that offered rewards to anyone who turned information about healthcare professionals offering abortions over to the police. The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who crossed state lines with a semi-automatic rifle, shot three protesters, and walked past the police to get away, is yet another sign of the strength of the Right in the current moment. Rittenhouse wasn’t just acquitted of murder but of all charges, including possessing a firearm while underage — something he unequivocably did. This acquittal was followed by three different Republican congressmen offering him internships, Tucker Carlson airing a positive documentary about him, and Rittenhouse beginning to speak at right-wing conferences. 

Further, Donald Trump — the political figurehead of much of the far Right — is still the most popular Republican. Though he was forced to retreat in 2021 — being thrown off of social media particularly impacted his ability to talk to his base — he continues to exert influence over the Republican Party. His support was crucial to the Republican victory in Virginia and he continues to play kingmaker in many congressional or primary races. Further, there are currently 57 Republicans running for office who participated in the storming of the Capitol. 

As Left Voice argued at the start of Biden’s administration, Trumpism isn’t something you can vote out of office. It’s the product of the crisis of neoliberalism and the product of the absolute failures of liberalism. As inflation soars under Biden, coronavirus cases rise, and the Biden administration refuses to give any aid, there is a great deal of space for a radicalized Right to enter the scene and question the institutions of the regime, from the CDC to Congress and the presidency. And without an organized Left — independent of these institutions — to counter this force and provide its own solutions to the failures of neoliberalism, the Right will have more space to turn this discontent towards reactionary policies that target the most oppressed.

Looking forward, 2022 seems like it’ll be a banner year for the Right. If the 2021 elections were any indication, it seems that the 2022 midterms will mean big gains for the far Right. In order to rally support, it is possible — or even likely — that we will see increased mobilizations of the far Right against “critical race theory,” trans rights, abortion, and coronavius regulations. Most of the January 6 rioters escaped without consequences and, likely, could return to the political field soon. In short: the need to fight against right-wing attacks is sure to only grow in 2022.

Biden and the State

In the immediate aftermath of January 6, the Storming of the Capitol was a huge boon to Biden and the Democrats. January 6 allowed Biden to take power as something of a unity president — though with meaningful limits given that so many Republicans still don’t believe he actually won the election — because he was the one protecting “democracy” against the far Right. 

As an institution, Congress particularly benefited from the events of January 6. Members of Congress gave tearful speeches about the fear they felt on January 6 and pounded their chests about the importance of defending “democracy” — defined here as the defense of the anti-democratic institutions of the U.S. state. Even progressive members of Congress joined the choir valorizing Congress. AOC called the Capitol the “Citadel of Democracy.” 

Biden and the Congressional Democrats were able to use January 6 to build consensus around their attempts to strengthen and re-legitimize several institutions, most notably the police forces. New powers of repression were extended to law enforcement to “protect democracy” and endless investigations of Trump’s role in the attack took up weeks of Congress’ time. All of this was done to show that it was Biden and the Democrats who were trying to protect democracy — all while they gave lip service to the need to defend against the attacks on voting rights and the specially oppressed. 

Meanwhile, the January 6 commission, made up of Democrats and two “disloyal” Republicans, has become a show of just how little Republicans are interested in investigating the events on January 6. Indeed, what has been uncovered has been nothing short of damning of Republicans, of Trump and his associates, and of Fox News. Yet, despite their posturing, the Democrats are using the commission as a piece of political theater that in effect has no authority to stop the advance of the far Right — in Congress or in the streets. Although a big production has been made of the 738 people who were charged and imprisoned for their role in January 6 to show the administration’s commitment to “law and order” and the sanctity of U.S. institutions, the Right is still behind the scenes, rebuilding itself. Meanwhile, these new powers of repression in the hands of the state will be used, not to stamp out the threat of the far Right, but against the working class and the Left, particularly people of color.

For a Left that Can Confront the Far Right

As leftists, we should take the threat of the far Right very seriously. History has shown us that the first targets of all right-wing movements are workers, the oppressed, and leftists. As the ongoing crises of capitalism deepen and U.S. hegemony continues to decline, we will undoubtedly see the continued advance of the far Right. 

However, we cannot only think of the far Right as the people storming the Capitol or as Kyle Rittenhouse. Those are certainly two very visible expressions of the Right, but the attacks on abortion, trans, and voting rights are also expressions of a rising far Right. 

Given this, any strategy that hopes to combat these attacks must take into account, first and foremost, the role of the state. The very institutions that Biden is swearing to defend are the ones that are oppressing us. The Supreme Court is overturning the right to abortion, state governments are banning trans children from getting necessary medical treatment, and 19 states have restricted voting rights. In fact, in the future, it is not out of the question that the Right will use legal measures, legitimate mechanisms of the capitalist state, to overturn the results of an election or to bar the most oppressed sectors of society from voting. 

It is clear that voting Democrat won’t stop the far Right. Unlike the protests in the wake of Charlottesville in 2017, people left the streets in 2021 and placed their faith in Biden and the Democrats to discipline the Right. Instead, we have gotten a slew of right-wing laws and an open space for the far Right to rebuild itself.

In this light, we can’t put any faith or support behind Biden or the Democrats. They are the members, leaders, and chief defenders of the bourgeois state. Given this, they have no interest in actually fighting the rise of the Right because that would involve, among other things, dismantling the anti-democratic institutions of the state.

But the Democrats won’t do this because they can’t. Biden was elected with the backing of capitalists and his role is to maintain capitalist relations in order to keep them happy. That’s what he was elected to do. You can’t change a rotten system from within. To make matters even more dire, Biden and the Democrats’ egregious betrayals of all of their campaign promises is likely to lead to a right-wing backlash. Millions who voted for Biden in hopes that he would make their lives better are growing increasingly disillusioned with Biden which, in turn, gives more space to the reactionary propaganda of the far Right.

To defend against the Right, we — the working class and oppressed, the ones who see no alternative in the Democrats or Republicans — have to seek other solutions. We have to build our own political organizations, independent of the capitalists, that can help lead a combative mass movement, both on the streets and in our workplaces. This movement should seek to unite the struggles of the specially oppressed with each other and with broader economic demands of the entire working class. This fight must include strategic sectors of the working class like healthcare workers, education workers, logistics workers, and transport workers who have the unique power to disrupt the churn of capital. 

January 6 was a moment that will live in history for generations. But our response to what it represents — a strengthening Right — will be even more historically important. It is our historic task to build power and build a movement capable of taking on not just the far Right but the sick system of capitalism that birthed it. Neither Biden nor Trump, neither the FBI nor the January 6 rioters. Rather, we must build the Left. Only an organized Left can defend against the Right.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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