American Fascism and the Storming of the Capitol

From the Series: American Fascism

A view of the crowd northeast of the Washington Monument, shortly before President Trump's speech, January 6, 2021. Photo by Gregory Starrett.

The Republican Party in the United States is teetering on the edge of becoming a fascist party. A total of 147 Republican members of the House of Representatives voted against accepting the results of the 2020 presidential election, and a poll by the American Enterprise Institute found that two thirds of rank-and-file Republicans refused to accept that Joe Biden won that election, while a majority agreed with the statement, “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it” (Gjelten 2021). The party remains under the spell of Donald Trump, whose leadership practices as president drew heavily on fascist tropes: scapegoating of foreigners and religious minorities; attacks on independent media and the shameless propagation of lies; branding opponents as “enemies of the people”; and the incitement of mob violence.

The ultimate example (thus far) of such mob violence was the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, just as the election results were being certified by Congress, and we might think of the insurrectionists who undertook that assault as the volunteer storm troopers of American fascism. Who were these people?

According to commentator Caitlin Flanagan (2021), writing in the Atlantic, they seem to be what Hilary Clinton memorably called “deplorables.” “After a few wrong turns, they had pulled into the swamp with bellies full of beer and Sausage McMuffins, maybe a little high on Adderall,” she wrote. According to her, after a day of rioting, “they cried out for beer, they pumped their fists in triumph, they went looking for Mom and money for curly fries.”

Making a similar claim in dryer language, in his regular column for the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall characterized the rioters with a quote, blending class analysis with sociobiology, from the psychology professor Dacher Keltner: “The population of U.S. Citizens who’ve lost the most power in the past 40 years, who aren’t competing well to get into college or get high paying jobs, whose marital prospects have dimmed, and who are outraged, are those I believe were most likely to be in on the attack.”

These characterizations of America’s domestic terrorists as the sordid scions of a desperate and declining white underclass reprise liberal narratives after 9/11 that attributed the 2001 attacks to desperation born of poverty in the Middle East—narratives that overlooked the engineering degrees of the hijackers. Characterizations that emphasize the insurrectionists’ lack of college degrees also mesh well with liberal scorn that Trump’s most ardent supporters deny the “fact-based” world of mainstream media.

But if we want to insist on the sanctity of “facts,” we might begin by acknowledging that such characterizations of the insurrectionists are, sociologically, wildly inaccurate. In a fierce critique of Caitlin Flanagan, Jack Shafer (2021) says that her “miscalculation of who participated in the riot might make people who like to look down their noses at the proles feel good,” but “instead of thinking of the rioters as ‘them,’ try thinking of them as ‘us.’”

Since the riots I have, relying opportunistically on media coverage, been creating a database of the occupations of those charged with riot on January 6. With 160 names, this database is not comprehensive, but it does tell a very different story than Flanagan and Edsall. In my database, 43 are what I call “violence professionals,” former or current military personnel and law enforcement officers; 26 are blue collar; and 91 are small business owners or white collar workers. The latter category includes lawyers, realtors, nurses, software engineers, sales reps, and owners of small businesses such as gyms, hair salons, restaurants, bakeries, and construction companies. These insurrectionists, overwhelmingly white, are what Frank Parkin (1968), in a quite different context, called “middle class radicals.”1 (Parkin was trying to understand why the principal oppositional movements in the West in the 1960s were not, as Marxists would have predicted, proletarian, but middle class—an analytic problem not so different from the one we face today.)

Although the term lacks crisp analytic precision, we might think of the majority of the insurrectionists as “petty bourgeois”—a class location, sandwiched between the working class and the high-middle class, that amalgamates small business owners, lower level professionals, and corporate or government functionaries. Historically in the West, the petty bourgeoisie has been suspicious of intellectuals, intensely nationalistic, quietly resentful of the privileged, and fearful of falling into the working class. It is the class that produced Margaret Thatcher. And it provided the core support for Hitler’s Nazi Party in Europe (Nord 1986; Fest 1999).

The mood of fascism is a blend of entitlement and precarity, and the white petty bourgeoisie in the United States today manifests a dangerous combination of entitlement and precarity. As E. P. Thompson (1971) told us, rioters often act out of desperation, but in the conviction that they are entitled to restore an endangered moral order. A Washington Post analysis found that “nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades . . . The group’s bankruptcy rate—18 percent—was nearly twice as high as that of the American public” (Frankel 2021). Meanwhile, in a world where white privilege is being eroded by the Black Lives Matter movement, multiculturalism, and civil rights legislation, the vortex of precarity is deeply racialized. When you stir into the mix the alumni of America’s Middle East wars, conditioned to instrumentalize violence, you have all the ingredients of fascism.


1. A broadly similar conclusion was reached by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats in their study, Face of an American Insurrection.


Edsall, Thomas B. 2021. “White Riot.” New York Times, January 13.

Fest, Joachim. 1999. The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership. Boston: Da Capo Books.

Flanagan, Caitlin. 2021. “Worst Revolution Ever.” Atlantic, January 10.

Frankel, Todd C. 2021. “A Majority of the People Arrested for Capitol Riot had a History of Financial Trouble.” Washington Post, February 10.

Gjelten, Tom. 2021. “A ‘Scary’ Survey Finding.” National Public Radio Morning Edition, February 11.

Nord, Philip G. 1986. Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Parkin, Frank. 1968. Middle Class Radicalism: The Social Bases of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Shafer, Jack. 2021. “We Mock the Rioters as Ignorant Buffoons at Our Peril.” Politico, January 13.

Thompson, E. P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50: 76–136.