When the rioters breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, it was chilling to see the many antisemitic and pro-Confederate signs being waved. Equally ominous was the danger the day posed for women. Most of the protesters were men — men intent on showing off brute strength by breaking windows with baseball bats and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with police officers. But the only person shot and killed was a woman. Another of the five dead was also female, a protester accidentally stomped to death.
The crowd shouted the names of those officials they most wanted to harm. Then-Vice President Mike Pence’s name was mentioned, of course. He was vilified because he wouldn’t reject some states’ electors, saying he didn’t have the legal authority. He was thus purportedly called a “pussy” by Donald Trump; in other words, he was acting like a woman. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also vilified, her name often accompanied by the “c” word. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was targeted. One rioter had posted on social media a threat to assassinate her.
The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 27) has written that the group known as the Proud Boys were key instigators of the riot. Several members have been arrested. This group describes their members as western chauvinists and allows only white men to join.
For a certain segment of society, women serving in positions of leadership are seen as a threat, just as the election of Barack Obama was followed by an increase in overt racism. Often, women leaders are ridiculed with sexist epithets. T-shirts with vulgarities such as “Joe and the Ho” were available online after Kamala Harris was named Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick. Women are bullied. Ocasio-Cortez says she skipped the inauguration because of a fear of being harmed. When Republican Rep. Liz Cheney voted to impeach Trump, and spoke eloquently about why she was doing so, the mostly male members of the House of Representatives denounced her and sent around a petition to remove her from leadership. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, traveled to her home state of Wyoming to flex his muscles by threatening her with a primary opponent.
In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, the psychiatrist Bandy Lee places the blame for this increase in aggressive words and actions at Donald Trump’s doorstep. She notes that his dangerous, anti-social impulses were obvious from the start of his campaign, beginning with the way in which he bragged about assaulting women. His rallies were replete with shouts of “Lock Her Up” and other angry rants. Dr. Lee says the incidence of violent crime often increased after his rallies. Then, at his first debate, he was asked to denounce white supremacist groups. Instead, he said, “stand back and stand by,” widely interpreted as an encouragement to violent resistance.
What causes Donald Trump’s followers to follow him so slavishly? Dr. Lee acknowledges that unequal capitalism, in which many groups feel wounded by perceived or real unfairness in our society, is a root cause. President Biden will need to find a way to address this inequality, but he can’t do it the way Trump did: taking us back in time by appointing white men to most positions of authority. People need to feel a sense of self-worth and dignity, but engaging in violence and victimization of others has the opposite outcome.
Vulnerable people turn to an idealized leader to provide simplistic answers to their grievances. They are drawn to strong-man, father-type figures. Dr. Lee notes that many of the protesters at the Capitol were wearing childish costumes, with silly hats and face paint. The fact that many of these groups use the moniker “boys” and employ vulgar language suggests that they flaunt their immaturity. Some of the rioters are now excusing their behavior by saying “The president told me to do it” or “I was just joking,” an avoidance of responsibility familiar to any parent.
As I write this, it looks unlikely that the Senate will vote to convict Trump for inciting violence at the Capitol. Despite the fact that he decisively lost the election, Republican senators seem more concerned about angering Trump and his followers than about the destruction they witnessed. By not convicting, and slavishly bowing to Trump, are they being as shortsighted as the rioters were? What do they think is going to happen next, if clear messages aren’t sent to Trump and his followers that they flagrantly overstepped the bounds of decency and the law by using violent means to overturn the election? That their behavior was not normal and unacceptable in our democracy?
Five people died at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Targets of the violence were traumatized. Two policemen have committed suicide. Hundreds of Trump supporters have been arrested and will face consequences without the protection of their strong man. When will it be time for Republicans to say “enough” and demonstrate true courage?
Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel.
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