The RespectablesBreaking News
tags: Republican Party, Donald Trump, Capitol Riot
The mob that breached the Capitol last week at President Donald Trump’s exhortation, hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was full of what you might call “respectable people.” They left dozens of Capitol Police officers injured, screamed “Hang Mike Pence!,” threatened to murder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and set up a gallows outside the building. Some were extremists using the crowd as cover, but as federal authorities issue indictments, a striking number of those they name appear to be regular Americans.
And there’s nothing surprising about that. Although any crowd that size is bound to include people who are struggling financially, no one should be shocked to see the middle classes so well represented among the mob.
The notion that political violence simply emerges out of economic desperation, rather than ideology, is comforting. But it’s false. Throughout American history, political violence has often been guided, initiated, and perpetrated by respectable people from educated middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The belief that only impoverished people engage in political violence—particularly right-wing political violence—is a misconception often cultivated by the very elites who benefit from that violence.
The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol and beat a police officer to death last week were not desperate. They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.
There’s ample precedent for this. When the Ku Klux Klan formed during Reconstruction, according to the historian Eric Foner, its leadership “included planters, merchants, lawyers, and even ministers. ‘The most respectable citizens are engaged in it,’ reported a Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau agent, ‘if there can be any respectability about such people.’”
Respectable people can be very dangerous. President Ulysses S. Grant responded to the outrages of the KKK in the Reconstruction South by sending the military to crush the Klan and the newly formed Department of Justice to prosecute it. For a time, the effort was successful.
Nevertheless, the paramilitary wings of the Democratic Party, determined to disenfranchise Black voters and restore white supremacy, reconstituted themselves. Only this time they left the masks off, so everyone could see how respectable they were. Operating openly, they were far more successful than they had been while clad in their goofy costumes and masks, taking on names such as the White League and the Red Shirts. They terrorized, murdered, and intimidated Black voters and their white Republican allies in order to excise them from the polity and restore Black people to a state of near-slavery.
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