The 6 January 2021 Trump Riot at the US Capitol illustrates the genuine dangers of authoritarianism that mob rule generates.
The greatest danger from the riot is not the mob of childish cosplayers; nor their buffoonish leader, but our response to the violence. History shows there are two responses to such outbursts that can increase the danger.
First, we can pretend nothing has changed and we can continue business as usual. Frighteningly, this is the response brain-dead politicians; such as US Representative Ken Buck (R-Colorado), favor.
The Do Nothing Danger
Instead of inquiring into the violence’s cause, or strengthening defenses, Buck repeats culture war cliches. Incredibly, Buck blames Madonna, Robert De Niro, and Kathy Griffin for the violence in a 13 January response to Democratic impeachment efforts.
To explain, Buck is trying to continue politics as usual by blaming leftist celebrities, Billboard reports. I suspect Buck does not understand what is happening, and the danger he faces. Instead, the Representative makes the all-too human mistake of continuing normal behavior during a paradigm shift.
Doing nothing will only embolden the mob and incite further violence. However, doing nothing is easy and reassuring, which is why it is attractive.
The True Danger
Second, we can abandon our democratic impulses and retreat into authoritarianism. To explain, we can tolerate a tyrant as long as the tyrant uses his or her guns on the people we fear.
For example, one of my first thoughts on seeing news reports of the mess at the Capitol was “where the fuck is the military? Why isn’t the sky over the Capitol filled with helicopters and why aren’t the Marines or the Navy SEALS there using those assholes for target practice?”
I’m sure I’m not the only American progressive or Libertarian thinking this way. Okay, siccing the Marines on cosplayers will be the equivalent of an American Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, I think such a brutal response will be popular in today’s America.
Many American liberals and libertarians will welcome such a brutal response. Sadly, history shows military repression of rioters is the first step on the road to tyranny.
Napoleon’s Whiff of Grapeshot
A classic example of the dangers of military repression comes from the events of 13 Vendémiaire.
On 5 October 1795 (13 Vendémiaire in Year 4 of the French Republican Calender), a mob of royalist thugs was marching on the Convention, the national assembly of the French Republic. The Paris military commander Paul Baras refused to take action.
One of Baras’s officers; an aggressive young artillery expert named Napoleon Bonaparte ignored Baras and took action. Bonaparte set up several batteries of canon in the streets and ordered his artillerymen to give the mob a “whiff of grapeshot.”
To elaborate, grapeshot was a variety of artillery ammunition similar to a modern shotgun shell. Grapeshot consisted of metal balls similar to ball bearings. Artillerymen gave the ammo the nickname grapeshot because was the same and shape as grapes.
When fired from a canon, grapeshot became a cloud of metal balls that could rip any person it hit to shreds. In the 18th Century, artillerymen used grapeshot to cut down approaching infantry. Thus, Napoleon turned a deadly military weapon on a crowd of civilians.
For two hours, Napoleon’s artillery blasted the mob with grapeshot. Cavalry and infantry joined the massacre. When the smoke cleared, over 300 royalists lay dead, and Bonaparte was a “hero of the Republic.”
The Convention rewarded Bonaparte by promoting him to general. Within five months, the Convention gave Bonaparte command of the French Army in Italy.
Four years later on 18 Brumaire (10 November) 1799. Napoleon turned his army on France’s national legislature, now called the Directory. When the Directory’s presiding councils refused to accept Napoleon as dictator. Napoleon’s bother Lucien Bonaparte and cavalry commander Joachim Murat changed the legislators’ minds by sending grenadiers (elite infantrymen) into the Directory.
Faced with the grenadiers’ bayonets, the lower house of the assembly; the Five Hundred dissolved while the upper house, or Ancients, accepted Napoleon as First Consul (Chief Executive) of the French government. Five years later in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France.
The True Danger to American Democracy
The events of 13 Vendémiaire demonstrate that the genuine danger to American democracy today.
Events such as the 6 January 2021 Capitol Chaos provide openings for aggressive leaders with authoritarian impulses. Just imagine the cheers any US general, or admiral, who ordered his or her forces to go to the Capitol and put down the Trump mob would have received on that day. Frighteningly, there would have been plenty of public support if the same general, or admiral, went over to the White House and placed Trump under arrest.
Thus the real danger to American democracy is a public that becomes sick and tired of violence and receptive to anybody capable of controlling the chaos. To elaborate, the illegal actions of of the Trump mob could open the door to illegal actions by people who actually have the power and the guns.
Frighteningly, the United States has been such a peaceful country for so long that most Americans do not understand how violence works. The events at the Capitol show many Americans have a TV or video game view of violence as a “quick and dirty solution” to problems. To explain, they think the good guys can solve all problems with a few quick punches or shots.
We ignore the reality that violence complicates matters and often creates more chaos. Instead, Americans practice violence without realizing they are giving the other side a pretext to use greater force against them.
For example, news reports claim some Trump cosplayers believed they could overcome the US military industrial complex with zip ties and costumes. Likewise, many members of Congress in both parties believe they can return to normalcy after 6 January 2021.
The presence of National Guard troops in the capitol shows any “return to normalcy” is a dream. History shows American democracy is on the brink of collapse and few Americans realize it.