The Capitol Riots in Context
Many on both sides of the political aisle have expressed shock and anger at yesterday’s storming of the Capitol by enraged Trump supporters protesting the result of the 2020 election and vote tally. Figures in the media and the general population are quick to blame Trump himself for inciting violence and stoking the flames of an angry base. While it may be true that Trump fanned the flames, it is not accurate to say that he is alone to blame. Rather, yesterday’s events were the unsurprising result of disenfranchising and systematically ignoring a huge portion of America’s working class population.
Before I explain further, I would like to clarify that I do not in any way condone violence as a means of airing grievances. That said, our aversion to violence and those who commit it should not get in the way of our quest to understand it. After all, the best way to predict violent behavior is by understanding those who perpetrate it and what events led them to their breaking point. Narratives that lay the blame at the feet of one single person or act often fail to capture the larger picture and prevent us from seeing patterns that can help us prevent violence in the future.
In this case, the best way to begin is by examining the events that led to yesterday’s rally. Nominally, of course, the rally was about the election results. The mainstream media’s recounting of the 2020 election holds that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in a fairly close election, and it was ultimately determined that fraud did not play a determining factor in his victory. Trump supporters, however, refused to readily accept defeat and continued to circulate unfounded conspiracy theories surrounding electoral fraud, which they claim is the true reason for Trump’s loss. By this reading of events, Trump’s supporters have no justification for their anger, they are simply behaving childishly and refusing to gracefully accept a legitimate loss and support a peaceful transition of power.
However, this explanation is not entirely sufficient, and leaves out key parts of the complete picture. I will not attempt to argue whether or not there was fraud in the 2020 election, as I do not believe it is necessary to understand what led Trump’s supporters down the path of violence. However, I will point out several facts that help explain why Trump’s supporters have the perception that there was fraud, which is possibly the most important element in understanding yesterday’s incident. Regardless of whether there was or was not sufficient fraud to overturn the election results in Trump’s favor, it is hard to deny that this was not a typical election.
Absentee ballots were mailed, filled out, and returned in record numbers, which gave rise to a number of new rules, not all of which were conducive to the transparency necessary to ensure the public’s faith in the electoral process. For instance, in Pennsylvania, a mere two weeks before the election, the courts ruled that ballots would be accepted up until three days after election day, even if they were missing a postmark. Additionally, it was ruled that signature matching was not necessary to validate the integrity of these ballots. A number of other jurisdictions, including counties in the swing states of Arizona and Georgia, also dispensed with signature matching, which is crucial in determining whether mail in ballots are legitimate. While the existence of these rules (or lack thereof) are not by themselves definitive proof of fraud, they do understandably lend themselves to some level of distrust and uncertainty from the public.
Americans who have voted in previous elections are accustomed to having to do so on election day, and hearing the final results that very night, in some cases early the next morning. This year’s election, due to the late arriving mail in ballots and other irregularities, took multiple days to conclude. This is not a process that engenders trust. One can argue that the delays were unavoidable due to the unprecedented number of mail in votes received this year, however, Florida, which has also historically been a swing state and like everywhere in the country, faced an unprecedented number of mail in ballots, did not have this problem. The results were known at the end of election day, and neither party contested them. In the contested states, particularly in Pennsylvania, many Trump supporters thus understandably felt that they were playing a game in which the rules were changed midway through and without their consent.
If our citizens cannot agree on the rules our elections must follow, it effectively becomes impossible to hold an election at all. You cannot agree to one set of rules for generations, change them suddenly two weeks prior to election day, and expect that there will be no backlash or suspicion of wrongdoing. Matters were further exacerbated when rather than patiently answer the questions of suspicious Trump supporters and foster discussion of how things could be improved in future elections to ensure greater trust, establishment politicians and mainstream media outlets promptly shut down any questions around election integrity and dismissed any people with honest inquiries as unhinged conspiracy theorists spreading dangerous misinformation that endangered our democracy. Social Media companies also played a tremendous role in this silencing of dissent. For example, on Facebook, all posts regarding election irregularities were either removed or tagged with a reminder that the US has laws and policies that protect our electoral integrity and that there was no evidence of fraud. To people who were already suspicious, this sounded a great deal like “Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” or for younger generations, “There is no War in Ba Sing Se.”
Although our social media moguls will deny it, the greatest danger to our democracy is not questions about our elections, but censorship of public discourse. By refusing to even discuss, or permit discussion, of the possible inconsistencies in the electoral process, establishment politicians and the media only solidified their own reputations as dishonest figureheads who were out of touch with the concerns of their constituents. Sweeping concerns about fraud under the rug may be a viable strategy if those who are concerned represent only a small portion of the population, 1-5% perhaps. However, when nearly half of the population (70% of Republicans and 30% of Independents, and even 14% of Democrats), have questions regarding the integrity of the process, and they deserve answers, and not just a brush off.
The other significant contributing factor to yesterday’s incident that most in the media have neglected to examine is the COVID-19 related lockdowns and restrictions on normal life. I would argue that these also indirectly contributed to the violent George Floyd Riots that took place during the summer. Regardless of your stance on electoral fraud, this factor is an easy exercise in empathy. Imagine that you are employed at a restaurant, or fitness center, or public library. You work 5 days a week, send your children to school, and on the weekend, attend Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple. Suddenly, your government informs you that this is no longer allowed. Your job, your faith, and your child’s education are non-essential. The routine around which you’ve built your entire life has been destroyed, and no one can tell you when it’s coming back. You lose your income. Your kids become irritable, frustrated with online learning, and your stress mounts as you struggle to provide for them emotionally, educationally, and materially. To make matters worse, the social support you used to be able to rely on in hard times is also gone, because you have been banned or strongly discouraged from meeting with family or friends from outside your household. Maybe you’d like to, but your house is small and the kids are crying and all the restaurants near you are closed. For many of America’s most privileged, this is so far removed from our daily experience that it is hard for us to imagine it happening to us. But in reality, it happened to millions this year, including those who had just started to recover after being hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, those who were struggling with substance abuse, those who struggle to make ends meet as a single parent.
Imagine that just one of these setbacks is already the most you could handle, and then losing everything else on top of it. And then, imagine that the very politicians who told you this sacrifice was necessary for the greater good are continuing to enjoy themselves dining at fancy restaurants, spending time with their families, and sending their children to private schools while the public school your child went to is closed indefinitely.
In normal times, it’s aggravating, but easy enough to ignore when politicians behave hypocritically or distastefully. We have our own lives to take care of, and we can’t waste time worrying about what they’re doing. But over the last year, that has changed. With no job, no church services to attend, no sports games to go to, we instead spend hours on the internet searching for answers about when we might be able to get our lives back, commiserating with others who are suffering, and staring at images and articles that are designed to provoke us, and getting angrier, and angrier all the while. On the face of it, things like religion and sports may not seem essential, but they are actually vital building blocks of a healthy society. Faith gives people a moral framework and a higher being to be accountable to, along with a community that keeps them grounded in their daily life. Sports provides a spirited outlet for our natural competitiveness and aggression in a way that doesn’t hurt or endanger others. And of course, the benefit of being able to see family and friends in person needs no explanation. When these are taken away, it leads to more people suffering from mental instability, which can translate to the violence we saw yesterday.