On January 6, in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, a mob of white supremacists, militiamen, and insurrectionist Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building, aiming to injure and disrupt the 117th Congress’ certification of November’s election. They brought weapons inside, carried extremist flags, and defaced the sacred building. News in the Trump era gets lost in a “sea of unprecedented-ness” every day, but the optics of January 6 were significant.
These extremists were not tucked away on a private Reddit server. They had their feet up on the speaker of the house’s desk. The visuals were visceral examples of the inescapable truth: violent fascism is on the verge of engulfing American politics. And it will continue to be true, again and again, until the roots of this insurrection are addressed. January 6 was the result of elected officials putting their electoral interests above their oath of office. It’s an example of what happens when media companies prioritize their data and monetization over their moderating duties. January 6 was the result of misinformation, of white supremacy, and of Donald Trump’s presidency of hatred. And while it’s easy to engage in polite society, to turn off a news channel, to unfollow a radical relative, to let it all happen “over there,” when the capital of a global superpower is under siege, when elected officials are sheltering in committee rooms for their lives, extremism becomes unignorable.
Social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, carry partial blame for harboring the hate. Zignal Labs, a media insights company, reported that the phrase, “Storm the Capitol,” had been searched one hundred thousand times in the thirty days preceding January 6. The major social media companies knew this was coming. Facebook kept groups online that were organizing carpools to the Capitol and laying out which types of guns could be brought across state lines. The threads, the followings, and the fire were all there. While it’s notable that several sites banned Trump indefinitely and de-platformed extremist groups from social media, this insurrection would never have occurred if they hadn’t waited so long to moderate dangerous content.
Trump spent his lame-duck period feeding his supporters’ doubts about election security. He retweeted incendiary rhetoric and motivated extremist supporters to storm Capitol Hill. Jack Dorsey could have disabled Trump’s account on November 16, when he tweeted, “I WON THE ELECTION!” nearly ten days after the election had been called for President Joe Biden. But instead, Twitter chose to leave the tweet up and label it with a false information disclaimer. They made a conscious business decision that insights, scrolls, and interactions were more important to them than facts.
Facebook could have deleted Pizzagate and QAnon groups from their platform years ago, but those groups help their group suggestion algorithm, which helps them produce profit. Someone who already believes in one conspiracy theory is likely to believe in others, a fact which improves Facebook’s recommendation models and grows ad revenue. Facebook chose to nurture misinformation for profit. Many members of the alt-right have argued that enclaves, like Parler, should be left unmoderated because their discourse is free speech. This argument misunderstands the First Amendment, which does not constrain the actions of private entities like social media platforms. Twitter and Facebook prioritized data and monetization over truth; they are complicit.
Alt-right Republican operatives also hold responsibility for January 6. For years, visible Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany have continually watered a misinformation ecosystem. Weeks after forty-two Trump election-dispute cases had been thrown out of courtrooms, Republicans in Congress were still challenging the election results and refusing to recognize Biden as president-elect. This religion of alternative facts and deliberate denial of truth gave way to extremism. Republicans beat the news media so raw that their supporters took it upon themselves to defend their alternative truths all the way in Washington. By decimating public trust in information, alt-right Republican operatives built a fascist mob.
Trump incited this attack and was a dangerous, destructive president, but he is not the issue alone. He is merely a match that fell onto ten years of gasoline-soaked Obama-era birtherism, polarization, tribalism, and hate. He may tweet out conspiracy, or fire lifetime bureaucrats for having an opinion, but the Republican establishment lets him. From Ted Cruz (R-TX) to Josh Hawley (R-MO), there are tens of ultra-conservative members of Congress who were hunted down in their own place of work by insurrectionists, and who still woke up the next day, put on their red tie, and defended the president. The rising specter of fascism is tied to, but not reducible to, Trump.
Though in part driven by external enablers, the specific events of January 6 boiled down to the actions of Trump. He is the one who encouraged his followers to come. He is the one who asked then-vice president Mike Pence to invalidate an electoral process he had no authority over. These were his people and this was his white supremacist hate.
January 6 is what happens when a president spends four years saying that events like Charlottesville,“have extremists on both sides.” On January 6, only one side’s president was cheering people whose sweatshirts said the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust “weren’t enough.” Only one side’s president told insurrectionists who brought homemade napalm and firearms into the United States Capitol building, “We love you. You’re very special.”
Trump is now the only president in American history to be impeached twice, but that’s not enough. Impeaching Trump only slaps him on the wrist. It does not undo all of the hate that he has brought into the American body politic. Impeaching him does not stop future, less-overtly fascist demagogues, from running for office. Impeaching Trump does not negate Trumpism.
That is because Trumpism was not just about the pursuit of power or holding intolerant, racist and anti-semitic views. Trump’s political philosophy gave people permission to choose and invent their own realities. It was about turning results into a buffet: taking the truths you want and rejecting the ones you’re not in the mood for. Trump and his enabling actors made a choice every day, including on January 6, to put themselves above their duty of office. They decided not to believe secure election results, they encouraged hatred, and they chose violence.
Beliefs are not built in a day. To de-escalate America's political volatility, those who bore responsibility need to be held accountable in changing their practices. Republican politicians need to stop shaping their every move around appeasing their base. Social platforms need to seriously consider the phenomenon of group polarization when formulating community use standards. We need drastic gun control legislation that would prevent insurrectionists from personally owning a large volume of weapons in the first place. Americans are living in two different countries, hundreds of different realities, and the fascism and hatred need to be tempered before the next January 6.
On the day of the Insurrection, a man carried a Confederate flag inside the Capitol. That flag, signaling homegrown hatred and slavery, never made it into the rotunda during the lifetime of the actual Confederacy. Yet, in 2021, it flew throughout the building. A forever horrifying image exists of this man walking past a corridor of portraits. The flag was flaunted between portraits of slaveholder John Calhoun and abolitionist Charles Sumner, underscoring how, 150 years later, America is still straddling its violent past and its potential for a just future.
This image is licensed for redistribution under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which is credited to Tyler Merbler and can be found here.