After two weeks, all that the January 6th Capitol Hill rioters got for their trouble were the photo ops. A gun-rights activist posed with his feet on Nancy Pelosi ‘s desk. A shirtless actor wearing bison horns took to the Senate floor in front of C-SPAN cameras. One man grinned with a podium hoisted over his shoulder. Many ended up sharing photos of themselves at the Capitol over dating sites (incriminating themselves in the process). But even as the consequences began to pile up and the full extent of the day’s violence came to light, the rioters nevertheless described the event as a “win.”
Those photo ops were, as it turns out, the whole point. The men who put their feet up on Pelosi’s desk and took the speaker’s podium were not looking to upend the regime, and certainly had no chance of doing so. Appearing on the news in Pelosi’s and Mike Pence ‘s seats was plenty. The rioters stormed the Capitol, and beat a man to death in the process, to create images of themselves as “winners,” to “flex” on the establishment as their man was being pushed from power. It was a remarkably empty show of force.
Any search for deeper causes or for ideological underpinnings to the riots will only dig up contradictions. We all saw the confederate flags waving over people chanting “USA! USA!” and “Blue Lives Matter” flags flying over people shoving and punching their way past Capitol police. The presidential campaign they were there to champion was itself empty of any clear ideology or policy goals. By the end of the 2020 presidential race, creating an imagery of “winning” against the backdrop of the president’s visible losses and the victories of opponents (real or imagined) is all that was left of “Trumpism.”
It didn’t matter to the rioters that their cause—their man—was an ideological blank slate. In fact, many of them probably knew it. Some of the very same far-right personalities who ended up on the riots’ front lines were only months earlier bashing Trump and his surrogates as indistinguishable from the rank-and-file Republicans they despised. As soon as there was a contest to win, however, any pretense of concern for policies and ideas disappeared. The key imperative was to emerge from the election not looking like losers, which the rioters thought they could accomplish by creating images of themselves sitting in powerful people’s seats.
The Capitol Hill riot was as devoid of goals as it was of ideology. Such empty acts of force are the kind of “resistance” that only greases the wheels for its ostensible targets. Two weeks after the riots, it’s not the “Trump train” but Congress , big tech, corporate donors and national security agencies that have come out looking resilient and powerful.
Despite insisting they were patriots defending the Constitution (more self-aggrandizing imagery), the rioters expressed a thorough nihilism about America and even their own objectives. Jake Angeli told NBC News it was a “win” simply to have “a bunch of our traitors in office hunker down, put on their gas masks and retreat into their underground bunker.” Others who entered the Capitol offered even thinner reasons for their actions. One, who spoke with LifesiteNews the evening of January 6, gave no justification beyond “what else are we supposed to do?”—which he repeated six times in a seven-minute video interview. He and his fellows, having ruled out all legal paths to political change, had nothing else to do. It was as if they had entered the Capitol out of boredom, with no strategy, no ideology and no goals.
The events of January 6th were more pathological than political. The president’s bizarre remark “we love you, you’re very special” in a Twitter video message to the rioters, for example, represented perfectly what Trump and the mirage of a Trump victory represented—a therapeutic balm for damaged egos. But as counterproductive, nihilistic and narcissistic as the endeavor was, people fought and people died over it.
This wasn’t how political violence was supposed to come to this country. For decades, common wisdom held that political violence was the result of people holding their beliefs too tightly, or going all-out for their political goals. During the Cold War, leading intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic warned that pursuit of any single set of values, beliefs or collective projects were steps toward totalitarianism, and declared that political ideologies no longer held sway among intelligent people. More recently, during the War on Terror, religion became the target of similar criticism—that violence resulted from people believing in it too much and that any sensible person understood it was outdated.
Given these arguments, it seemed worthwhile to try to convince people to relinquish their beliefs and agendas, to affirm process and expertise over value judgments and to depict politics as a game in which the players cared more about the rules than the stakes. But this strategy may have opened a blind spot. Ever suspicious of believers, we didn’t notice the groundswell of nihilists. A religion or a political agenda can at least outlive individual actors, whether they win or lose any round of the political game. Political nihilists, with nothing to believe in beyond their own self-image as “winners” and “Chads,” have no sense of a future. They assign life-and-death importance to their desire for in-the-moment recognition by people they loathe.
It’s hard to say which is the greater threat—people throwing punches over something, or people throwing punches over nothing. But America’s Founders, judging by James Madison’s famous argument in The Federalist 10, designed the Constitution to handle the former. The federal system, Madison argued, could control the effects of passionate minority opinions and advocates of any “improper or wicked project.” The point was not to stop people from having passions and interests in the first place—Madison argued that such a task would be impossible. But he was confident that the Constitution could contain the passions of religious sects, political radicals and factional interests.
America may have created the type of people its constitutional system isn’t designed to handle. The proper response is not to misdiagnose them as “insurrectionists” and their actions as a “coup,” nor to declare war on “domestic terror” nor to try to harness the rioters’ discontent for political projects. All of these ascribe too many ideas and goals to the rioters.
The rioters must of course face the legal consequences of their actions. But more importantly, we must show that their underlying nihilism is a false premise; that the democratic avenues they gave up on—not only voting but civic organizing and public discussion—are actually open; that our leaders are responsive to peaceful petition and public opinion, not merely to the influence of political insiders and special interests. It sounds like a cliche, but Americans need something to believe in.
Philip Jeffery is deputy opinion editor at Newsweek .
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.