“The alt-right in the US believes now is the time for the second revolution”

The alt-right, QAnon, paramilitary and Donald Trump-supporting mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6 claimed they were only doing what the so-called “founding fathers” of the US had done in 1776: overthrowing an illegitimate government that no longer represented them.

By Clare Corbould and Michael McDonnell

Extremists Posted Plans of Capitol Attack Online. https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/biden-trump-electoral-college-certification-congress/card/x1dwwPqnJM1XfQh5LaUj. Photo; Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Zuma Press

This was the start of what they called the “second American Revolution”.

This is why the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was visible in the chaos — a symbol of resistance that dates back to the (first) American Revolution and was resurrected a decade ago by Republican Tea Party activists.

It is not hard to understand the appeal of this history to Trump’s followers. The era of the “founding fathers” has always loomed large in the minds of most Americans. And stories about the past are, after all, how individuals, families, and communities small and large, make sense of themselves.

Read news from Australia’s most trusted political reporter, Michelle Grattan.

Yet, it is worth noting these recollections of the past are necessarily selective.

The right to life, liberty — and to abolish government

Alt-right extremists, following conservative politicians, have also drawn succour from the Constitution, particularly when it comes to their “rights”, such as the right to free speech and bear arms.

These and other rights were not actually enumerated in the original Constitution, but rather tacked on in the Bill of Rights — a set of ten amendments passed to appease opponents of the Constitution and get it ratified.

These rights are fused together with the more vague yet “unalienable” rights enunciated in the 1776 Declaration of Independence — chief among them being the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.


Read more: Why were the Capitol rioters so angry? Because they’re scared of losing grip on their perverse idea of democracy


Drawing on philosopher John Locke’s ideas, the Declaration of Independence proclaims “we the people” come together to form a government to protect these rights.

And crucial to Trump supporters today, it says,

whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

This was the sentiment voiced on January 6 when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol. They chanted “This is our America” and “Whose house? Our house!”

Trump himself encouraged this thinking when he told the crowd before they marched to the Capitol, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”

The question is: who do Trump and, more broadly speaking, the alt-right think has taken the United States from them?

Many protesters outside the Capitol carried signs against the government. John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

Rights for only a select few

The answer is evident in how the alt-right imagines the past: their vision of history omits or callously ignores the fact their constitutional rights have come at the cost of the lives and rights of others.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence it was a “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” Generations of enslaved and free Black activists and their allies have worked towards realising this goal.


Read more: Why the far-right and white supremecists have embraced the Middle Ages and their symbols


But for the founding fathers, and many of their white supremacist heirs, true “citizens” were exclusively white and male. A few years after penning the declaration, Jefferson denounced Black people as inferior. He owned hundreds of slaves. Even his own children, whom he fathered with Sally Hemings, were born into slavery.

Almost all of the founding fathers, in fact, were slaveholders or profited from the slave trade. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution freed any of the half million enslaved people in the new United States — one-fifth of the population.

Rather, the Constitution purposefully entrenched the institution of slavery. By protecting the rights of slaveholders to pursue their happiness by holding on to their “property”, it doomed four more generations to enslavement.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Signing of the Declaration of Independence, by Armand Dumaresq. The White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

By the start of the Civil War in 1861, there were 4 million people enslaved in the US.

The Constitution also gave the government the power to raise an army. After the American Revolution, this power was used time and again to wage a long genocidal war against Native Americans across the continent.

When enslaved and free Black people and their white abolitionist allies acted against slavery, slaveholders invoked the Revolution. They claimed they were undertaking God’s will to complete the work begun in 1776 of creating a free nation, and made slave-holding former President George Washington their hero.

It took an unprecedented and destructive Civil War to finally put an end to slavery, and another century or so for African Americans to achieve full rights as citizens in the United States. Every step of the way, they were contested and blocked by individuals, groups, states and judges who claimed they were upholding the principles of the Constitution.


Read more: Why is the Confederate flag so offensive?


Rights trump equality

It should be no surprise, then, the alt-right movement is invoking the same “Revolution” today.

After Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump gave a voice to the grievances of his largely white supporters who feared they were being displaced in their own country.

And following the summer of the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump’s baseless claims the 2020 election was stolen, the Capitol Hill insurrectionists firmly believed “they” had lost control of the United States. They were no longer the “we the people” in charge.

'We the people will bring DC to its knees'
A sign at the Capitol insurrection declaring, ‘We the people will bring DC to its knees’. John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

As in the past, they also had the support of prominent politicians beyond Trump. One of their supporters, the newly elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (who is also a QAnon supporter) declared before the January 6 move to block the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, “This is our 1776 moment”.

And Congressman Paul Gosar, a prominent Trump supporter, wrote an op-ed entitled “Are we witnessing a coup d’etat?” in which he advised followers to “be ready to defend the Constitution and the White House”.

It has never been entirely clear when exactly the United States was last great in the minds of Trump supporters wearing their “Make America Great Again” caps. It might be the Ronald Reagan presidency of the 1980s for some, or sometime prior to the civil rights, women’s and gay liberation movements and the US defeat in Vietnam.

But there’s no doubt as to when this mythical greatness started.

The yearning for the founding era — a time when slaveholders overthrew a government to protect their rights (including the right to hold people as property) — is palpable.

___________

First published at The Conversation, Friday 15 January 2021. See; https://theconversation.com/why-the-alt-right-believes-another-american-revolution-is-coming-153093

Published under a Creative Commons licence.

2 thoughts on ““The alt-right in the US believes now is the time for the second revolution”

  1. It used to be that whatever happened socially and politically in the US we inherited it fifteen or so years later. Whether this was by intent, or through a cohesion of cultural elements (noting that US and Australia’s culture is as different as Japan’s and Australia’s) such as news items and films which we hurriedly brought in, or some other influence, it is now I think a somewhat diminished inclination. The US has for some while had its horses unleashed, and being such a politically chopped-up nation is hard to control. We are much more fortunate, though fragments of extremism live within us.

    We can be very grateful. Moreover, the US is losing planetary influence, so Australia, albeit one of the last to do so, now takes a second look and considers the quality of that influence.

    Gee it’s in trouble. It’s also a good thing to have happen – not to be confused with how it’s happening – because the flushing out of these intense beliefs although painful is necessary. Whether the country can handle it and remain intact is really now open for debate.

    The first fundamental momentous change, and signalling of growth, occurred for me upon announcement of, get this: a black woman judge. A woman, black, sitting in judgement of the right and wrongs of others, with the power to convict. Incredible moment. And as the country undergoes this big determining time it serves to remember that the US has a power of self-reflection that is, I feel, not exceeded by any other nation. It is intensely self-reflective, examining itself daily. Through this self-reflection movements grow and change occurs.

    There are some differences, now. Most of them we know: the internet being a facility by which society has changed, threat of Soviet nuclear power lessened, sophisticated growth in Europe which the US takes note of. But some elements are pure US and we could learn from them.

    Much stems from the so-called American dream. “You can be anything you want, you can rise to the highest station”.

    If ever there were a dangerous proposition, if left unqualified, that’s one. Admirable, if qualified and presented in a context of greater understanding, but in the US that simple rudiment has linked with something else, and it’s big, big trouble. That something else is the US worshipping of celebrity.

    Is there any other country that does that?

    Celebrity – a ridiculous, inane value – has become god-like for the American citizen.

    How this is relevent to the above topic is that the country now has people who, while not readily admitting it in all cases, yearns for their face to be known, along with their names, inscribed in the minds of all, for such a thing is greatness. He or she raises to the ultimate status, and, even better, is written into history.

    All that’s needed then is a belief system, coupled with a feeling of disaffection, and someone for whom you can be the great one. The more, the better.

    SIt those so-called alt-right activists down, gently, and ask them to explain their beliefs and I’d reckon a vast majority could not get past a parroted line. Examine them further, and I fear they wouldn’t really know what they’re actually fighting for. Lines have stuck, make sense on first impact, and they’re swallowed whole and used as a reason, driven, however, by that need for perceived greatness.

    None of that recognises the true and genuine hardship and disaffection that exists, but the parroting yearning for celebrity (though not admitted) swamps that genuine pain.

    So the US has to deal with a inflamed ideas, easy to swallow and difficult to extinguish by reason, along with an inherent genuine need to address pain-causing functions of race and inequality to name just two.

    It is a nation in extreme trouble. Every step of the way are opportunistic politicians who’ll (with a word, or mere suggestion) make it worse, riding it to power. Through the last four years I’ve seen people like Ted Cruz, who spoke reasonably through the primaries from a hard right point of view, lose himself to this celebrity hero hunger, speaking now insanities. Mitch McConnell, who probably saw no way out as people were swept along, instead of standing his usual Republican ground saw also the opportunist’s beckoning.

    These are signs of a groundswell, a movement, that goes beyond what the Republicans also saw and responded to: unheard of numbers next to their party’s vote tallies.

    If anyone can actually explain what an alt-right agenda is, in terms of this groundswell, please, do so. I’m not sure that’s the root of it. I think it’s a nation that’s grown richer at the top end, to the pain and detriment of the masses. There’s very little in US politics that saw inequality coming, as problematic (rather, it’s built on that American Dream pitch), and nothing to address it when it clamped down its jaws.

    For mine, until the US captures the true delinquents – inequality, racial hatred, celebrity worshipping – and places those fair and square in the nation’s eyes, and takes effective action against them, they’ll always masquerade as one cause or agenda ongoing.

    It is already a nation confused. If its powers of intense self-reflection can get to the root (and it is definitely hard on its way in trying) and show those as the culprits, it’s got a chance, and could again lead the world.

    “Lead the world” – hasn’t that been hit and diminished. We now feel sorry for it.

  2. In a media onslaught of all things US, to a reader who is interested in the American task ahead and doesn’t wish to absorb hyperbole and partisanship may I recommend this article:

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jan/16/can-joe-biden-make-america-great-again

    It’s available free, and carries a pleasant tone.

    While here, and somewhat arrogantly, I’d like to personally add two things I believe Biden should do:

    a) Get out amongst the people. Not in a rallying sense, at which neither he (nor Kamala Harris) are any good, but in real terms: leave the White House, spend as much time every week as possible genuinely engaging with the far flung forgotten backwaters of American people. He has to take what could be called “the energy of power” and physically plant it out there in yonderland.

    b) He has to explain policy. The only way I can see, at present, a way forward against this thoughtless morass of falsity is to not try to take it head on with an upfront alternative response, which is in effect arguing a point that won’t ever be taken, and instead would be taken in a predetermined opposing way, and focus on the process of reasoning. Thus, over and over, explaining reasons and bringing the entire national discussion back, not to point-making, but process. “Here are the reasons.” “Look at the reasons.”

    In time, the opposing views would also have to look at their reasons, and therewith the healing can come. Of course, the policy must match the need.

    Certainly, if he remains in the White House, overlording policies and merely speaking unity, he’s going to continue the failures that have brought the US to where it now is.

    Lastly, and I know this is indulgent, there was a discussion in Australia about the effect of Howard’s influences when he first took office: how he spoke about the Aussie battler, holding himself out as their representative and benefactor, while delivering policies for the rich. The matter of human oppression, and then uprising, came about.

    It was fascinating. Like many, I thought that human uprising came from oppression. “Stamp down on us and we’ll rise up.” But not so.

    A paper was presented to us, and I’d love to be able to find it now, by research done on this very thing. It turns out, according to that research, that people seriously dislike oppression and rile against it, but only verbally: they are not moved to act. In some cases, oppression is considered a strength of leadership under which they’d prefer to live. Some historical evidence was presented, which I can’t fully recall but do the jist, where rule was given from on high down to the people who were demanding it, who then, their hands full of responsibility for managing their society, couldn’t handle it, failed, and desperately sought for the power to be taken back from them.

    Uprising, instead, we learned, and I presume the knowledge is still good, occurs when a people hold dreams and promises of a better life, and those dreams and promises are taken away.

    I mention this because it goes the very core of that American Dream. The promise that no matter how lowly your place of birth, you can rise to the highest and most revered. (Which itself contradicts spiritual principles upon which the US purports to rest, there in that being a ‘high’ and ‘low’, but that’s another story.) Thus, the US citizen has for decades been given this dream, while ever more seeing the dream lived by the richf and determinative and denied them. Education and healthcare are classic examples there, to which we can relate in the first instance, be thankful for in the latter.

    Being constantly given a dream while having it bit by bit taken away is the fertile cause of uprising, referred to in that research as has occurred historically. So what’s happening there isnt in my view a Trumpist phenomenon, although the root cause dresses that way, as it does in flags and paramilitary fatigues, but is instead one long in the making, and growing only stronger.

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