Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Essays

Democracy’s Thorn

The Mob and the Voice of the People

Nancy Isenberg

Police use tear gas at the US Capitol riots, January 6, 2021; Lev Radin/SIPA USA/Alamy Live News.

On January 6, 2021, thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters marched from a rally at the National Mall to the US Capitol. Roughly 800 members of that throng breached the inadequately protected building, some invading the Senate Chamber and others vandalizing the offices of elected officials. In addition to wreaking physical destruction and temporarily halting Congress’s certification of the presidential election, the attack left more than 140 people injured and four dead—arguably five, if Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died after suffering multiple strokes the next day, is included. Just over a month after the insurrection, the House of Representatives launched the second impeachment trial of President Trump, summing up its position in a single article: that the president had incited the mob with his words, both in the weeks leading up to the insurrection and on the day itself, when he urged the crowd to take action, to “stop the steal” and “fight like hell.”

It is nearly impossible to discuss the violation of “the People’s House” without inviting reactions of moral condemnation. Even attempts to understand the motives of the mob are dismissed as somehow placating or excusing the crime. But dissecting the mob is necessary if we care about understanding the darker undercurrents in American democracy. In addition, looking for a simple or singular explanation—or what journalists have labeled “grievance politics”—ignores the actual range of motives and emotions displayed on January 6. Beyond grievance lies a sense of belonging: something more than rage, and something with disturbing historical resonances. Trump told the crowd that because of indisputable evidence of massive fraud, “you were allowed to go by very different rules.” He called the movement “extraordinary,” forged out of its “extraordinary love” for him personally and for “this amazing country.” The crowd responded by chanting “We love Trump.” Most of the people who went on to attack the Capitol felt exhilarated, even proud, to be participating in such a momentous, historic event.11xTom Jackson, “Police Union Says 140 Officers Injured in Capitol Riot,” Washington Post, January 27, 2021; on size of mob, see Davin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu, “Justice Department, FBI Debate Not Charging Some of the Capitol Rioters,” Washington Post, January 23, 2021; “Impeaching Donald John Trump, President of the United States, for High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” House Resolution 24, 117th Congress (2021–2022), January 13, 2012; Aaron Blake, “What Trump Said before his Supporters Stormed the Capitol, Annotated,” Washington Post, January 11, 2021.

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