Let us think about the participants in the famous events of January Sixth. Those people involved in that unique invasion of the Capitol appear in many films (it has to be the most photographed major historic event in history) to be purposely fighting to get into the great marble temple of democracy. Once in though, they clearly have no idea about what to do. They wander from room to room picking up documents and setting them down. After the great heart-beating excitement of invasion they seem out of place and lost.
And they were lost. Many clearly had been fooled into believing they were part of a great battle to set things right but, like an army of Cro-Magnons invading the National Library, they seem centuries out of place. The normal functioning of the Capitol was simply incomprehensible to them.
It now appears that some of the most violent of the invaders were part of quasi-military groups (The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers) who had rehearsed and came prepared to be violent. A number had actual military experience and/ or experience in law enforcement.
What they do not seem to have had was a great deal of formal education. By and large they were in their thirties or older, adult men from rural-small town areas, who reasonably could be unhappy with their lot and their place in the hierarchy of American manhood (they were clearly self-consciously male). This was hardly an uprising of the elite and the well schooled.
That is not to say that many of the marchers had motives without merit. Many undoubtedly believed that their coming to Washington was motivated by patriotic loyalty. That the election had in fact been stolen and in trying to undo the stealing of the election they were righting a great wrong.
Many must have assumed that when they returned home they would be hailed as heroes. They would be asked to march in parades. Their grandchildren would remember their heroism. Instead, many are in jail, still more are being hunted down and prosecuted. Those who have not, wait for a knock at the door.
What we are seeing is not an uprising among the poor and ignorant (the poor are too poor to revolt). What we are seeing is an uprising of a small number of delayed adolescent headbangers who were attracted by Donald Trump’s call to intervene in the election because it gave them permission to be violent. And, a much larger group of misguided would-be patriots who found themselves drawn into a violent melee they would, on their own, have avoided.
For many in this country, the need for real purpose in life, a real cause, is frustrated in technological backwaters where even the excitement created by occupational advancement or the simple gaining of wealth is unavailable to healthy average citizens. Some of the most frustrated may join others in collecting weapons, preparing for nonexistent enemies. Others may engage in alcohol abuse or drug use in order to distract themselves from an empty future.
The march on the Capitol was an opportunity for a brief moment of excitement in otherwise unsatisfactory lives. Outsiders, far away in their comfortable suburbs, may reasonably be critical. It should, they could say, be clear that Donald Trump had lost. That had been obvious the night of the election. There was clearly no chance in this country that the election would be overturned. The vote in the Capitol on the sixth was a mere formality.
Had the Boys of January really thought things through, it would have been obvious that going to Washington and demonstrating made no sense, that they were being conned. And, deep down, many of them probably knew. But, their need to find meaning, to take some action, was great enough that their minds suppressed what was obvious to others. And, when the real violence began, many were simply carried along.
It is obvious that at least a minority of citizens in this country are disadvantaged enough and unhappy enough to be attracted to clearly counterfactual movements (read Q-anon). With the number of weapons in private hands, future breakouts of mass violence are clearly a possibility. If an obviously flawed personality like Donald Trump could inspire a violent movement, a more effective leader could create an uprising once again.
Still, there is hope. The Biden Administration is in its infancy but Joe Biden clearly understands the need to create programs that will spur growth across the economy. Even his emphasis on massive infrastructural programs will effect areas of the country now being ignored. Biden has tried to emphasize a kind of universal inclusion in the process of reform.
The invaders of the Capitol may have been psychologically ready to be misled but many clearly viewed themselves as loyal and patriotic. The Administration needs to provide leadership that will harness that loyalty to a country finally ready to deal with its real problems. With that the danger of mass violence should recede into memory.