Both du­ring and af­ter the mob’s oc­cu­pa­ti­on of the U.S. Ca­pi­tol on Ja­nu­a­ry 6, the Ame­ri­can pe­op­le and the world pub­lic were re­pe­a­ted­ly tre­a­ted to the ref­rain: “This is not who we, as Ame­ri­cans, are.”

As an as­pi­ra­ti­o­nal sta­te­ment, this is pre­su­mab­ly true. As a fac­tu­al sta­te­ment, ho­we­ver, it is ob­vi­ous­ly fal­se. If we wish to move bey­ond an era of al­ter­na­ti­ve facts, it is ne­ces­sa­ry that Ame­ri­cans ack­now­led­ge that this is in­deed “who we, as Ame­ri­cans, are” at this mo­ment in time.

What should we make of this unp­le­a­sant fact? To be­gin to put in­to pers­pec­ti­ve the mob’s at­tack on the Ca­pi­tol and the tasks now fa­cing the Bi­den ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­on, let’s start with three ba­sic points.

Historical perspective

The first is that, in a his­to­ri­cal pers­pec­ti­ve, the mob’s in­va­si­on of the Ca­pi­tol was unu­su­al on­ly in the choi­ce of tar­get, and that the dif­fe­ren­ce in choi­ce of tar­get is exp­li­cab­le simp­ly in terms of chan­ges in tech­no­lo­gy that re­du­ce the sig­ni­fi­can­ce of ge­og­rap­hic dis­tan­ce and that fa­ci­li­ta­te the na­ti­o­nal, rat­her than lo­cal, or­ga­ni­za­ti­on of pro­tests and the as­semb­ly of lar­ge groups at dis­tant lo­ca­ti­ons.

In­sur­rec­ti­o­na­ry mob at­tacks on the ins­ti­tu­ti­ons of go­vern­ment have his­to­ri­cal­ly been a re­gu­lar form of po­li­ti­cal ac­ti­on in Ame­ri­ca. It was an ang­ry mob in March 1770 that as­saul­ted Bri­tish troops gu­ar­ding the Cus­toms Hou­se in Bos­ton, pre­ci­pi­ta­ting the “Bos­ton Mas­sac­re.” In 1794, it took Pre­si­dent Ge­or­ge Was­hing­ton at the head of an ar­my of 13,000 to reim­po­se fe­de­ral law when, in the so­cal­led “Whis­key Re­bel­li­on,” mobs of or­di­na­ry Ame­ri­cans at­tac­ked fe­de­ral mars­hals. In Oc­to­ber 1859 at Har­pers Fer­ry, Vir­gi­nia, John Brown and his or­di­na­ry, com­mon-folk fol­lo­wers, sei­zed the fe­de­ral ar­se­nal and — ho­we­ver lau­dab­le their cau­se — sought to start an ar­med re­volt against the Re­pub­lic. Two ye­ars la­ter, an ang­ry Bal­ti­mo­re mob took it upon it­self to as­sault fe­de­ra­li­zed Pen­n­syl­va­nia and Mas­sac­hu­set­ts mi­li­tia, spil­ling the first blood in what would turn in­to the Ame­ri­can Ci­vil War. The list could go on and on.

It would be ea­sy to at­t­ri­bu­te this long his­to­ry of mob vi­o­len­ce to the na­ti­on’s fron­tier men­ta­li­ty or to some sort of in­he­rent Ame­ri­can thug­gish­ness. This, ho­we­ver, would miss a far dee­per truth. The ac­cep­tan­ce of vi­o­lent in­sur­rec­ti­on as “nor­mal” (if unu­su­al) po­li­ti­cal be­ha­vi­or is roo­ted in Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal the­o­ry.

From ne­ar­ly the very be­gin­ning of co­lo­ni­al set­t­le­ment, Ame­ri­cans as­su­med that any go­vern­ment – even one they elec­ted them­sel­ves and even one ope­ra­ting un­der a Cons­ti­tu­ti­on they them­sel­ves wrote – would even­tu­al­ly be­co­me ty­ran­ni­cal. The pro­tec­ti­on of in­di­vi­du­al “na­tu­ral rights” (inc­lu­ding what many Ame­ri­cans in 1861 be­lie­ved to be their na­tu­ral right to own sla­ves) was as­su­med to re­qui­re a wil­ling­ness to take up arms against the go­vern­ment. In the face of sus­tai­ned ty­ran­ny, ar­med in­sur­rec­ti­on was not simp­ly a po­li­ti­cal op­ti­on: it was a po­li­ti­cal duty. In­deed, this is pre­ci­se­ly why Ame­ri­cans in­sis­ted on the Se­cond Amend­ment to their Cons­ti­tu­ti­on, which gu­a­ran­teed that the go­vern­ment could ne­ver deny or­di­na­ry Ame­ri­cans “the right to bear arms.”

Facts and beliefs

The se­cond im­por­tant ob­ser­va­ti­on is that a subs­tan­ti­al num­ber of Ame­ri­cans do in fact be­lie­ve that the Ame­ri­can go­vern­ment has be­co­me ty­ran­ni­cal. It is ea­sy to dis­miss such be­liefs as comp­le­te­ly de­lu­si­o­nal, part of the same un­hin­ged mind­set that cre­du­lous­ly ac­cepts QA­non’s claims that the go­vern­ment is com­po­sed of Sa­ta­nist, can­ni­ba­lis­tic pe­dop­hi­les. And cer­tain­ly, some of the Ame­ri­cans who be­lie­ve the U.S. go­vern­ment is ty­ran­ni­cal are de­lu­si­o­nal: the claim that the 2020 elec­ti­on was “sto­len,” for examp­le, is both comp­le­te­ly imp­lau­sib­le and ap­pa­rent­ly comp­le­te­ly im­per­vi­ous to evi­den­ce or ra­ti­o­nal ar­gu­ment.

This said – and in no way mi­ni­mi­zing the cri­mi­nal cul­pa­bi­li­ty of de­ma­go­gu­es, inc­lu­ding for­mer Pre­si­dent Do­nald Trump, in po­pu­la­ri­zing and gi­ving cre­di­bi­li­ty to out­ra­ge­ous­ly fal­se claims – what ul­ti­ma­te­ly se­pa­ra­tes Ame­ri­cans who see the Ame­ri­can go­vern­ment as ty­ran­ni­cal from those who do not is not their abi­li­ty to think ra­ti­o­nal­ly but their de­fi­ni­ti­on of what cons­ti­tu­tes ty­ran­ny. It is al­wa­ys ris­ky to try to exp­lain the thin­king of in­di­vi­du­als when those in­di­vi­du­als are them­sel­ves not cons­ci­ous of the roots of their thin­king. In this case, ho­we­ver, a ca­re­ful dis­sec­ti­on of rhe­to­ric and ar­gu­ments is very re­ve­a­ling.

If one digs deep­ly enough in­to the minds of the ma­jo­ri­ty of Ame­ri­cans – that is, of those Ame­ri­cans who were shoc­ked by the mob as­sault on the seat of Ame­ri­ca’s Cons­ti­tu­ti­o­nal re­pub­lic – one finds at the core of their thin­king (some ad­mit­ted­ly va­gue no­ti­on of) the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on. Ho­we­ver inc­ho­a­te­ly exp­res­sed, ide­as like “rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ve go­vern­ment,” “rule of law,” and “equ­al pro­tec­ti­on un­der the law” are, in this view, the es­sen­ce of Ame­ri­can li­be­ral, re­pub­li­can de­moc­ra­cy. Ty­ran­ny, in this view, is go­vern­ment be­ha­vi­or that vi­o­la­tes the ba­sic prin­cip­les of the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on.

If one digs equ­al­ly deep­ly in­to the thin­king of those Ame­ri­cans who see the cur­rent go­vern­ment as ty­ran­ni­cal, ho­we­ver, it is not an as­sump­ti­on of the fun­da­men­tal right­ness of the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on one finds, but an emb­ra­ce of the more ra­di­cal­ly li­be­ral claims enun­ci­a­ted in the Dec­la­ra­ti­on of In­de­pen­den­ce. This re­jec­ti­on of the foun­da­ti­o­nal na­tu­re of the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on is hard­ly surp­ri­sing: even at the time of its adop­ti­on, the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on was vi­go­rous­ly op­po­sed by many Ame­ri­cans who saw in the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on an aban­don­ment of the prin­cip­les of the Dec­la­ra­ti­on and the cre­a­ti­on of a go­vern­ment that would pos­sess ty­ran­ni­cal po­wer. In this view, the foun­da­ti­o­nal po­li­ti­cal do­cu­ment is the Dec­la­ra­ti­on of In­de­pen­den­ce, a do­cu­ment that can be in­terp­re­ted as ar­guing that the sole le­gi­ti­ma­te pur­po­se of go­vern­ment is to pro­tect the in­di­vi­du­al’s free­dom to live as he or she choo­ses.

From the view­point of this se­cond group, go­vern­ment has no bu­si­ness trying to chan­ge an in­di­vi­du­al’s or a com­mu­ni­ty’s way of life. “Don’t tread on me!” is this group’s at­ti­tu­de to­ward go­vern­ment; go­vern­ment’s role is simp­ly to pro­tect and de­fend the in­di­vi­du­al’s and com­mu­ni­ty’s free­dom to choo­se their way of life. Ho­we­ver ill-ad­vi­sed or even re­pug­nant a com­mu­ni­ty’s cul­tu­re, mo­res, or ins­ti­tu­ti­ons might ap­pe­ar to those who cont­rol the go­vern­ment or to the ge­ne­ral pub­lic, any go­vern­men­tal at­tempt to al­ter these is, by this al­ter­na­ti­ve de­fi­ni­ti­on, a ty­ran­ni­cal ove­rex­ten­si­on of go­vern­ment po­wer (un­less the go­vern­ment can de­monst­ra­te that these ac­ti­ons are cle­ar­ly and im­me­di­a­te­ly ne­ces­sa­ry to re­pel a fo­reign in­va­si­on or to pre­vent one ci­ti­zen from un­just­ly har­ming anot­her). A dis­tant go­vern­ment that, for examp­le, de­mands that they and their neigh­bors re­gard ho­mo­se­xu­a­li­ty as a per­so­nal choi­ce, rat­her than as an abo­mi­na­ti­on or il­l­ness, is ty­ran­ni­cal – as is one that for­bids them from disc­ri­mi­na­ting ho­we­ver, they like on the ba­sis of race, or that de­nies them the right to as­sign dif­fe­rent so­ci­al ro­les to men and to wo­men, or that re­qui­res their com­mu­ni­ty’s schools pro­hi­bit pra­yer and te­ach evo­lu­ti­on and sex edu­ca­ti­on.

Economic revolution

The third im­por­tant ob­ser­va­ti­on is that, like de­ve­lo­ped na­ti­ons around the world, Ame­ri­ca is in the throes of a tech­no­lo­gy-dri­ven post-in­dust­ri­al eco­no­mic re­vo­lu­ti­on. Like the ni­ne­teenth cen­tu­ry in­dust­ri­al re­vo­lu­ti­on, this re­vo­lu­ti­on is ge­ne­ra­ting trau­ma­tic, even bru­tal, so­ci­al chan­ge. While this new re­vo­lu­ti­on has brought eco­no­mic and sta­tus re­wards to East and West Co­ast eli­tes and, more bro­ad­ly, to the pro­fes­si­o­nal class, it has been de­vas­ta­ting for lar­ge swat­hes of the wor­king class. Skil­ls and at­t­ri­bu­tes that were on­ce va­lu­ed now are not. Be­ha­vi­or on­ce re­gar­ded as vir­tuo­us is now moc­ked or pu­nis­hed. Com­mu­ni­ties that took many ge­ne­ra­ti­ons to build are dying in a sing­le li­fes­pan. With them, an en­ti­re way of life is being dest­ro­yed.

In truth, there is pro­bab­ly lit­t­le that the fe­de­ral go­vern­ment could or can do to stop this eco­no­mic re­vo­lu­ti­on or to pre­vent this so­ci­al dest­ruc­ti­on. But it is na­tu­ral to look for hu­man cau­sa­ti­on, and it is hard­ly surp­ri­sing that the trau­ma­ti­zed blame the go­vern­ment and the eli­te that cont­rols it as being res­pon­sib­le for the de­vas­ta­ti­on they are ex­pe­rien­cing. And in­deed, suc­ces­si­ve ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­ons – inc­lu­ding the Trump ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­on — have emb­ra­ced po­li­cies ai­med at ea­sing the eco­no­mic tran­si­ti­on and so­ci­al trans­for­ma­ti­on rat­her than at trying to pro­tect these com­mu­ni­ties’ abi­li­ties to pre­ser­ve their tra­di­ti­o­nal way of life.

Wor­se, from the pers­pec­ti­ve of these de­vas­ta­ted com­mu­ni­ties, the go­vern­ment has ac­ti­ve­ly wor­ked to en­su­re this so­cie­tal dest­ruc­ti­on. De­vas­ta­ted com­mu­ni­ties see them­sel­ves as un­der at­tack from their own go­vern­ment –being told that they need to aban­don their “dep­lo­rab­le” cul­tu­res and their now inc­re­a­sing­ly il­le­gal tra­di­ti­ons, and that they must emb­ra­ce the fo­reign va­lu­es and li­fes­ty­les of “prog­res­si­ve” Ame­ri­ca.

Not a collapse of democracy in America

The events of Ja­nu­a­ry 6 are less surp­ri­sing on­ce one ack­now­led­ges these three re­a­li­ties – that ar­med in­sur­rec­ti­on has a long his­to­ry in Ame­ri­can cul­tu­re as a res­pon­se to per­cei­ved ty­ran­ny; that go­vern­ment ac­ti­on to com­pel in­di­vi­du­als and com­mu­ni­ties to chan­ge their “way of life” is re­gar­ded by many Ame­ri­cans as in­he­rent­ly ty­ran­ni­cal; and that in res­pon­se to the cri­sis of post-in­dust­ri­a­li­za­ti­on the U.S. go­vern­ment has sought to ea­se tran­si­ti­on from, rat­her than to pro­tect, the tra­di­ti­o­nal way of life of many Ame­ri­can com­mu­ni­ties.

None of this ta­kes the Trump ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­on off the hook for its an­ti-de­moc­ra­tic de­ma­go­gu­e­ry or for the col­lap­se of ci­vi­li­ty in Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal life over the last four ye­ars. It does, ho­we­ver, sug­gest that the prob­lem is dee­per than Trump.

Equ­al­ly im­por­tant, ho­we­ver, it sug­gests that what we are wit­nes­sing is not a col­lap­se of de­moc­ra­cy in Ame­ri­ca. What we are wit­nes­sing is the Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal sys­tem ope­ra­ting wit­hin its own li­be­ral, de­moc­ra­tic norms as Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty de­als with the end of the in­dust­ri­al era and the emer­gen­ce of a post-in­dust­ri­al one. There is so­me­ti­mes an ex­pec­ta­ti­on that the po­li­ti­cal life of a li­be­ral, de­moc­ra­tic, re­pub­lic will be calm, stab­le, and pe­a­ce­ful. This, ho­we­ver, is an en­ti­re­ly un­re­a­so­nab­le ex­pec­ta­ti­on. The suc­cess of li­be­ral, de­moc­ra­tic, re­pub­li­can po­li­ti­cal life is not me­a­su­red in con­sen­sus but in in­di­vi­du­al free­dom, inc­lu­si­on, and vir­tue, and there is no re­a­son to ex­pect that the pro­cess to­ward these will be smooth.

Ar­tik­ke­li on jul­kais­tu SAM Ma­ga­zi­ne 1/2021-nu­me­ros­sa hel­mi­kuus­sa 2021.

Ed­ward Rho­des is a pro­fes­sor of Go­vern­ment and In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Af­fairs at Ge­or­ge Ma­son Uni­ver­si­ty. Rho­des is best known for his re­se­arch in­to the phi­lo­sop­hi­cal and cul­tu­ral roots of Ame­ri­can fo­reign and na­ti­o­nal se­cu­ri­ty po­li­cy. Rho­des re­cei­ved his A.B. from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and his MPA and Ph.D. deg­rees from Prin­ce­ton Uni­ver­si­ty.