You might have missed it, but this week the House of Representatives canceled its meetings after the Capitol police warned of “a possible plot to breach the Capitol”. Most international media did not even cover it, and this extraordinary decision barely made the front pages of most US newspapers. In fact, the Washington Post covered it in its “Metro” section. Ironically, the New York Post, a rightwing tabloid, captured the significance best with its screaming headline “House Democrats surrender to QAnon, scrap March 4 session amid fortified Capitol”.
What was the alleged threat that made the Democrats decide to cancel House meetings, something that has not happened since the attacks of 9/11? Even on 6 January, when pro-Trump rioters literally attacked the US Capitol, Congress returned to its session. According to news coverage, intelligence sources told Congress there was online chatter within QAnon circles that Donald Trump was going to be inaugurated for a second term on 4 March, the original inauguration date set in the constitution. Some federal sources also believed that militia members were involved, although it is unclear whether they had actually announced or promoted violence.
Unfortunately, we will likely never know the real extent of the threat; intelligence agencies operate in almost complete secrecy in the US, with little congressional oversight, and almost no transparency to the broader public. But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that there was indeed a far-right militia or militias that were planning to ensure that the former president was “inaugurated” this March. Are we really to believe that this threat was so serious that the state could not protect one of the most important institutions of its democratic system?
Of course, that is exactly what seemed to happen earlier this year, on 6 January. But as investigations into that event have shown, the main reason the far-right mob was able to successfully storm the Capitol was the stunning incompetence of the Capitol police as well as White House sabotage of plans to support the police with national guard forces. But Trump has left the White House and Joe Biden has said he takes the threat of far-right domestic violent extremism very seriously. Moreover, Washington DC has been transformed into a garrison city in the wake of January’s so-called insurrection.
Biden’s inauguration was protected by 26,000 members of the national guard, in addition to members of Washington DC’s almost 4,000-strong Metro police department and the 2,300-strong United States Capitol police – not to speak of the Secret Service and other intelligence, law enforcement and security forces. Even today, 7,000 members of the national guard remain in the nation’s capital and barbed-wire fences have gone up around key buildings, including the White House. How big was this week’s threat that thousands of heavily armed soldiers, who are sent off to fight wars abroad, were deemed incapable of defending the House of Representatives against it?
If the threat were indeed so formidable, much more far-reaching measures would be in order. We would need a state of emergency, to protect the democratic system, and to mobilize local, state and federal intelligence, law enforcement and military (national guard, but, who knows, even regular military), to ensure that the state reclaims the monopoly of violence. If, however, the threat is not really so great, and the available troops in and around DC are able to deal with it, then why would it be necessary to cancel the meetings of one of the key institutions of the democratic system?
It is important to remember that the Senate did not cancel its meetings. I am sure Democratic members of Congress are more afraid of the far-right mob than their Republican counterparts (although they have also been targeted), but even if this overreaction was not a cynical political move to highlight the threat of the far right, it was a disastrous decision for US democracy.
First, it makes the state look very weak. The great German social scientist Max Weber defined the state on the basis of its “monopoly on violence” and the House Democrats just openly questioned this. And if the exceptionally privileged and protected members of the House of Representatives do not feel safe against the far right, how can regular Americans, in particular targeted minorities like African Americans and Hispanic communities, feel safe?
Second, it makes the far right in general, and the broader QAnon subculture, look very strong. After all, they single-handedly bought the House of Representatives to its knees. Despite obsessive media attention, less than 10% of Americans support the QAnon conspiracy. Moreover, the movement has been seriously weakened by the public backlash and state repression in the wake of the storming of the Capitol, as well as Biden’s inauguration. The complete lack of action on inauguration day may have been the clearest demonstration of that.
Let’s be clear: the far right constitutes the most serious challenge to US democracy today. While the key threat comes through electoral and legislative politics, via a Republican party that has decided to stay loyal to Trumpism, there also remains a significant threat of physical violence. However, I have seen no credible or convincing evidence of an existential threat to the key institutions of the state. In other words, while the far-right threat is serious, and has long been ignored and minimized, the vast intelligence, law enforcement, military and security apparatus of the most powerful country in the world should be more than able to deal with it, even without infringing on the rights of its citizens.
Whatever their motivations, the capitulation to the far right by House Democrats has weakened rather than strengthened US democracy. If they want to protect the state and its citizens from the far right, which is a troubling reality, they should beef up the protection of Congress and continue to hold their sessions in defiance of these threats. That would be the strongest way to show that democracy, as Biden said in his inauguration speech, has indeed prevailed.
Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, the author of The Far Right Today (2019), and host of the podcast Radikaal. He is a Guardian US columnist