The Jan. 6 Capitol riots shocked the United States, to say the least. For some, the events felt predictable given the rhetoric of former president Donald Trump’s administration, disinformation over the course of the election and widespread conspiracy theories. Ultimately, it is imperative that we analyze the Capitol riots to unpack how we got to this point and how we can move forward.
Stephen Menendian, assistant director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, believes that we can view the riots of Jan. 6 through a broader lens of ethno-nationalism.
“White supremacy is one expression of ethno-nationalism,” he said.
Ethno-nationalism is a political ideology in which loyalty and preference lie with a specific ethnic group rather than a nation. An ethno-nationalist leader is often someone who has demagogic rhetoric and appeals to a traditional base of reactionary voters. Ethno-nationalists can hold a wide variety of views such as nativism, xenophobia, the interconnection of church and state and opposition to gay marriage and abortion. Many ethno-nationalists are populists and performative patriots, and they often maintain ideals of blood and soil and hold on to traditional values while resisting change.
“There are plenty of (ethno-nationalist figures) around the globe,” Menendian said.
In a number of ways, Trump is an ethno-nationalist figure and is a broader symptom of ethno-nationalism across the world. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can also be seen as an ethno-nationalist, regularly exhibiting right-wing rhetoric of Hindu nationalism and supremacy against India’s Muslim population.
Looking at the United States, Menendian said, “Trump is an expression of these larger patterns and movements. Someone else could come along and play a Trump-like role, a demagogic role that appeals and galvanizes white nationalism in another way. … We’ve had (ethno-nationalist demagogues) in the past, and we’re likely to have them again in the future.”
Perhaps what is most concerning about the Capitol riots is the question of whether Trump, as a demagogue, has stoked or fanned the beliefs of his supporters over the last four years. In the case of fanning, demagogues typically appeal to passions and views someone already holds and seeks to make them more intense. On the other hand, stoking is when a demagogue stirs up fear and mistrust that previously did not exist. The problem is that it is not clear which one Trump did or which one he did more of. If Trump simply fanned his supporters’ existing beliefs, then he is not the last ethno-nationalist demagogue that the United States will see come to power. If Trump stoked fears in people, then this raises the question of why some people are so easily manipulated and how society can address underlying fears that are masked behind false beliefs such as the election being stolen and conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
In a way, the Capitol riots are not directly about Trump; rather, they are about the people he appealed to. The fact remains that Trump orchestrated fear of the other, and the riots revealed the consequences of a reactionary mob that follows demagogic rhetoric. Whether Trump fanned or stoked these fears or did a combination of both, these fears are present and clearly a part of a larger conversation that we need to have about the impact of ethno-nationalist ideals.
The challenge we now face as a society is reintegrating people who are living in a false reality into society. Right now, the United States is racially and politically polarized to an extent that many people have never seen. Polarization is a significant threat to society because it can inhibit change at a time when the country demands radical improvements in so many domains, including education, health care and climate change action.
While some Republicans are preaching unity right now and urging us to move past the Jan. 6 riots, we cannot truly have unity without accountability. What we can look forward to doing this year is striking a balance of bringing people back to reality while also holding relevant parties accountable. Only then can we start the process of gradual depolarization. Rather than shunning people, we must find ways to engage and draw Trump supporters back in and try to understand what underlies their false beliefs. We also must accept that there may be some people who cannot be reasoned with and cannot be brought back, no matter how hard we try.
It may be helpful to think of this moment as a time of overall reconstruction and rebuilding. Ultimately, it is crucial that we do not become complicit under the new presidential administration. Although Trump is no longer our president, we still have a segment of the population that is susceptible to demagogic rhetoric, and we have seen the frightening consequences when they are mobilized in large numbers. The presence of ethno-nationalism anywhere in the world is inevitably a deterrent to progress and justice everywhere.
Contact Amrita Bhasin at [email protected].