As Trump supporters forced their way into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, photojournalists captured history.
The images run the gamut, from comical (a pom-pom hatted man stealing Nancy Pelosi’s lectern) to frustrating (a man with his feet kicked up on Pelosi’s desk) to horrifying (Capitol Police with guns drawn in a stand-off with rioters).
But one image managed to evoke America’s darkest history: a man carrying a Confederate flag through the Capitol rotunda.
Long rationalized by many who bear it as a symbol of “heritage, not hate,” for the rest of the country the Confederate flag is an indisputable emblem of a bloody civil war waged in the name of enslaving black people. Combined with sightings of other hate symbols and far-right organization insignia — nooses fashioned from vandalized camera equipment, Three Percenter flags, Oath Keepers logos — the specter of white nationalism hovered over the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the crowd that gathered in Donald Trump’s name was its eclectic nature: The scene on Jan. 6 mixed evangelical Christians with suburban Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theorists, elected officials (like newly minted West Virginia state delegate Derrick Evans), college professors (like CU-Boulder visiting scholar John Eastman, who spoke at Trump’s rally before the crowd moved to the Capitol) and overt white supremacists. Any divisions between these groups seemed removed.
And while physical proximity to white supremacy does not make one a white supremacist, the power of racial identity is impossible to remove from the events that unfolded at the Capitol.
“[White supremacy was] an element for, let’s say, an explicit faction of the people [who invaded the Capitol], and then sort of an adjacent movement for a lot of others,” says Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, a professor at CU Boulder who studies far-right movements. “And there were some there who would be really repulsed by [the label white supremacist] as well. We really don’t have enough data to speak with certainty, but if we try to understand the hypothetical role [white nationalism played], we would have to note that white nationalism is one of a number of [movements] that could feel alarmism, hopelessness, a sort of state of emergency right now, which would fuel something like an insurrection, a revolutionary political movement as opposed to a gradual or just parliamentary change.”
Teitelbaum spent a number of years interviewing far-right thought leaders like Steve Bannon, who was chief strategist and senior counsel for Trump until their falling out in 2017, and Alexsandr Dugin, a Russian political analyst with deep ties to the Kremlin and a history of fascist viewpoints. In the book that resulted from his research, War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers, Teitelbaum describes an esoteric ideology called Traditionalism, which lauds spirituality, antiquity, white race, masculinity, global northernness and social hierarchy. A fatalistic dogma that believes we are living in a dark age, Traditionalism seems to be taken up independently by right-wing opinion leaders across the globe and spread to political leaders like Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Boris Johnson in the U.K.
For self-proclaimed Traditionalists like Bannon, Trump need not understand the details of Bannon’s ideology. In fact, a useful idiot was better, a line of logic Teitelbaum says Bannon made clear during interviews. (“He flat out said to me, ‘Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, does not understand his own role in history — and that’s OK.’”)
Tearing things apart was Bannon’s goal.
“If Bannon has been disappointed in Trump, it’s been to the extent that he has not torn things apart as efficiently as Bannon thinks that he could have,” Teitelbaum says. “I haven’t spoken to Bannon in a while now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the events at the Capitol, the parliamentary process being disturbed, the rule of government coming on down, if Bannon did not see something good in that.”
And Trump’s followers certainly need not understand their role in this global right-wing masterplan. Teitelbaum says that those who descended on the Capitol were aligned under nothing other than the president himself, followers of the Trump cult of personality — the “MAGA Movement,” as Teitelbaum has dubbed them.
“One would say first and foremost they are motivated by upheaval and disruption of the governmental status quo from a nationalist perspective, I would say for the sake of nationalism,” Teitelbaum says. “And one might go deeper and say white nationalism. One might say something in between white nationalism and majoritarianism. But when Sarah Pailin speaks about ‘real America,’ a community that understands themselves as being opposed to cosmopolitans in our country, ‘true Americans,’ that has racial overtones, but I think it expands beyond that as well. They are against a coastal elite that they see as not being native in various respects and also being against their interests.”
Jennifer Ho, a professor of critical race studies at CU Boulder, says that even those Trump supporters at the Capitol who do not count themselves as white supremacists are driven by its deep influence on American behavior.
“I think that what white supremacy enables is for the largely white insurrectionists [to feel] that they could do what they did and do it with impunity,” she says of the vandalism and violence that took place.
Indeed, many who stormed the Capitol grinned directly at photojournalists’ cameras, often unmasked. Many took videos of themselves and others pilfering through desk drawers, pecking at computers, even smoking pot in the Senate chamber. The overall tenor of the riot was more merrymaking mischief than sedition.
“I do understand that for some of these people, they genuinely didn’t think that they were taking part in a violent insurrection,” Ho says. “They genuinely believe that Donald Trump was the true winner of the election and that they were there to save democracy. And I don’t know what to say about that. That seems delusional, but I also think that’s part of white supremacy. White supremacy is such an ingrained ideology that it doesn’t allow you to think that whiteness isn’t going to prevail, that there’s going to be consequences for your actions, that other people may stereotype you or not give you the benefit of the doubt. All of that is related to an ideology of white supremacy that lets people act as if they can do whatever they want consequence free, because sadly that has been the history of the United States.”
As for members of minority groups in the U.S. who support Trump, some of whom can be seen in images of the invasion, Ho says they are not exempt from acting on white supremacy. As an Asian American, her parents both Chinese immigrants, Ho says the way she chooses to talk about herself can express white supremacist ideology.
“The model minority myth suggests that Asian Americans, as racial minorities in the United States, are the ideal,” she explains. “What’s oftentimes unspoken in talking about Asian-Americans as model minorities is the minorities that are not models: black, indigenous, Latinx minorities. If I say my parents came here as immigrants and my father had to learn the language, and neither of my parents were college educated and now I’m a college professor, I’m actually promoting this idea that there was something exceptional about my Chinese parents. And that there is something exceptional about the United States that allows it. It’s not actively saying I believe that white people are better than me, but it’s all part and parcel of this American exceptionalism, this idea that we don’t have to question the greatness of America, which is very much bound up in the American dream mythology that’s all about upholding this certain version of who an American citizen is. There’s an unspoken hierarchy of white people, European Americans, who are the legitimate citizens, and then everyone else has to pass some kind of test in order to be on that ladder. But they’re never going to be able to be above the white Europeans; those are the legitimate, authentic patriots of the United States.”
In other words, white nationalism is often covert. And Donald Trump, in all his oblivion and blundering, has become a figurehead for its most nefarious dog whistles. But a historic second impeachment is likely bringing Trump’s reign to an even sooner end, and Congress may evoke the 14th Amendment to bar Trump from running from office again. It’s unclear what Trump’s role will be for his supporters in the future. His traditional platforms have been taken away, permanently in the case of Twitter, indefinitely in the case of Facebook/Instagram. And even the viability of Parler, the alternative social media platform that became an echo chamber for Trumpism and other forms of right-wing thought, seems in danger after Amazon, Apple and Google removed the app from their servers.
But the sheer number of voters who supported Trump gives Teitelbaum pause when he thinks about the future of the MAGA Movement.
“What we’re talking about now is the radical right cause has attached itself to a president who has received more votes than any president aside from Joe Biden, more votes than Barack Obama,” he says. “They could be a minority, but they’re a large minority.”
And the “purges” from social media could, in Teitelbaum’s estimation, have a deeply divisive effect.
“I felt a rush of relief when Trump was pushed off of Twitter,” he says. “I will feel relieved if he’s not able to run for office. I have to admit that. At the same time, access to social media, access to running for office, can have a pacifying effect on some of these movements, and I wish there were a little bit more consideration for that, because if we push that many people outside of our public discourse, outside of our political processes, it’s going to be dangerous. I think the naive assumption for a lot of people on the left is that we’re just going to bring down the hammer of order and they will comply.”
But the hammer is rarely used on American politicians, often in the name of preserving a sense of unity. Trump’s situation has often been compared to that of Richard Nixon, who Gerald Ford pardoned in order to promote national healing.
Teitelbaum politely bristles at the mention of a Trump pardon, but acknowledges the dangers that could come from charging him with his crimes.
“Trump is a sort of spiritual, gut level identity icon for people in an entirely different way than Nixon was,” he says. “Extreme demonization of Trump carries a risk in that you’re not demonizing/impeaching/convicting/ostracizing a figure. What you’re doing is you’re essentially [demonizing] a large chunk of our population who identify with him as an icon for themselves. I don’t think that Nixon played that role. So that makes [bringing Trump to justice] more dangerous. On the other hand, I think Trump’s threat to our government is more sinister than Nixon’s by a long shot.
“Trump, who knows what happens to him,” Teitelbaum says. “But there are so many people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that our democratic system doesn’t work. I don’t know that we can just pat ourselves on the back and walk away from that.”