Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Thoughts on the January 6th American Insurrection: An Autoimmune Response?

Alex Prosi (AP): Watching the nearly uninterrupted attempts for violence by a swarm of Trump rioters at Capitol Hill, I found myself shocked. The images of some Capitol Hill officers opening the gates for frenzied protesters to go in or taking selfies with a few of the rioters, flash news reports of a bombs being discovered at the RNC and DNC headquarters, rioters bringing in zip ties to presumably tie up members of congress inside and the death of five individuals. Shocked but not surprised. The successful (and thankfully, temporary) takeover of Capitol Hill confirmed what the BLM protests throughout the Summer and Fall already had: the festering white supremacy that permeates America is overflowing. 

In your ASIAN 305 class last semesterViolence and Religion in a Secular Age  – I remember that we discussed this very trajectory emerging from Trump’s 2016 election—calls of a fraudulent election and a disenfranchised base of supporters. With the conclusion of this tragic explosion, the blowback itself has been staggering: Donald Trump has been banned from effectively all major social platforms, politicians and pundits who have been encouraging or promoting violence and a siege mentality in right-wing folk are attempting to back away and the second impeaching of Donald Trump has passed through the House of Representatives. Of my relatively young life, this year’s events have certainly been the most volatile and intense but I’m sure for you this kind of experience is not completely new.

Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair (ASM): Yes, I’ve seen a few things that had major consequences for the social milieu I grew up in but this set of events is certainly right up there with those. As I reflect on it, the entire span of the pre- and post-US election period has been weird to say the least! Not only because of the US election that Biden won and Trump lost. Not only because Trump refused to concede even though he lost the popular vote by over 5M votes, and lost the Electoral College by a much bigger margin (232 to Biden’s 306). Not only because the eventual worsening state of the pandemic helped to ultimately determined the outcome of the election. Nor because so many of those who voted against Trump were nervously awaiting the possible violent backlash from die hard Trump supporters—and not without reason, for barely six weeks ago the FBI foiled an attempt by white supremacists to abduct Michigan’s elected Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. And not only because Trump and his supporters tried everything to overturn the election, ending up with the awful and surreal spectacle of a violent and treasonous insurrection perpetrated by Trump’s white supremacist support base. The storming of the Capitol on Jan 6th was in every sense an act of domestic terrorism which vindicate what various scholars and activists have expressed as William E. Connolly’s description of his presidency as  “aspirational fascism” (William E. Connolly) or “American Fascism” (Chris Hedges, Clayton Crockett and many others). 

Incidentally, it seems that this dangerous tendency towards fascism is not something new in US history. The BBC journalist Toby Luckhurst reports that in 1898 a white supremacist mob violently overthrew an elected state government in Wilmington, North Carolina, when they didn’t agree with election results. According to Luckhurst:

A violent mob, whipped into a frenzy by politicians, tearing apart a town to overthrow the elected government.

Following state elections in 1898, white supremacists moved into the US port of Wilmington, North Carolina, then the largest city in the state. They destroyed black-owned businesses, murdered black residents, and forced the elected local government – a coalition of white and black politicians – to resign en masse.

Historians have described it as the only coup in US history. Its ringleaders took power the same day as the insurrection and swiftly brought in laws to strip voting and civil rights from the state’s black population. They faced no consequences.

Wilmington’s story has been thrust into the spotlight after a violent mob assaulted the US Capitol on 6 January, seeking to stop the certification of November’s presidential election result. More than 120 years after its insurrection, the city is still grappling with its violent past.


And yes, you’re right Alex, in the AS305 course we did look at how ‘American Fascism’  emerged and came to the fore during the Trump presidency. If you remember, what I tried to get the students to do in this class was to connect the dots between previous US foreign policies, the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ and the Trump phenomenon. Basically we studied how the militarization of the country, along with the upsurge in religious nationalism and white supremacist sentiment, travelled from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to the American backyard, unleashing forms of fascisms that became pervasive in everyday American culture. I remember using Derrida’s concept of auto-immunity to specifically track how the toxins of right wing nationalist ideology stoked by Republicans right after 9/11 in an effort to subdue entire peoples and states (designated as ‘rogue states’ or an ‘axis of evil’) eventually came back to poison the fabric of American society itself. The domestic terrorism directed against the Capitol, against American democracy itself, needs to be seen as an autoimmune response against the American body-politic (and therefore against the spirit of Republicanism itself) in the sense that the very kind of nativist ideology which was supposed to protect the homeland from foreign elements, immigrants etc., in fact attacked its own body. While I was teaching this stuff during the election period, it never really occurred to me that things would go that far. I always had this sense that Americans believed in democracy more than anything else (since they liked to spread it around the world so much) that the ‘People’ would see off any fascist takeover attempt. 

So I guess the weirdness of the last few weeks (at least for me) arises from having to teach about the fascist tendencies inherent in American religion, politics and society, while simultaneously, the same fascism was being performedin real time by Trump, his stormtroopers and large sections of the Republican party. Neither Netflix nor Hollywood could have scripted anything more surreal. 

AP: When we discuss the most violent and extreme aspects as white nationalism in the classroom—although the rhetoric and power of it does permeate the American consciousness and daily life—there’s a feeling of distance. A feeling that a violent insurrection exists in theory but is moderated by other forces. It’s something that will never actually occur, rather it exists as an impending threat if we do not continue to police it. As more and more videos come out from those at the ground at the Capitol though, it becomes harder to deny the stranglehold white nationalism already has upon the consciousness of some portion of Americans. Frankly, it’s terrifying.

Calling this insurrection a symptom of the autoimmune response seems wholly appropriate: seeds of terror against the foreign, the “unknown” and the different act as the fuel driving the domineering ideology of white nationalism. You mention this specific autoimmune response grew from the seeds of rhetoric planted following the events of 9/11 but I wonder why you trace this event as an origin. In class, we’ve gone in depth that the events of 9/11 are far from a beginning but rather a continuation—the blowback of decades of interference in the middle east by Americans and even centuries of a colonial legacy before that. Could you talk a bit more about what specific seeds were sown in the frenzy of rhetoric following 9/11 leading to this specific moment?

ASM: Of course, you’re absolutely right. The seeds of white nationalism were laid not just decades ago but can be traced back to the period of early settlement of Europeans in America (Spanish, English, French… and then all the others). Sylvia Wynter’s article “1492: A New Worldview”, from her book Race, Discourse and the Origin of the Americas, is a great source for understanding this. I won’t go into that history here—its too complex and outside the scope of short posts such as this one. But I do want to signal a more recent book that provides a good indication about where the recent episode can be traced. It is Kathleen Belew’s important work Bring Home the War: The White Power Movement & Paramilitary America (2019).  Belew tracks the current form of white nationalism to the aftermath of the Vietnam war when America suffered military and political defeat. She argues that it was the returning soldiers from the Vietnam war who, feeling betrayed and humiliated by a whole slew of events (military defeat, emasculation, social and economic depression that appeared to especially threaten white men), gave rise to an white power movement that took root and became influential in a way that eclipsed earlier versions of white nationalism exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan, for example. What made this version different and more potent was not so much its grass roots activism but that it created a cultural movement with its own texts, imagery, artifacts, clothing and language, dedicated specifically to overthrowing the State. This hyper-masculine, militant movement intersected with and infiltrated mainstream political and religious organizations, and its effects can be seen in the Tea Party movement and more recently, in the persona and actions of the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan 6th. Belew’s book provides some of the missing pieces in the complicated picture of the culture wars. Its argument works really well with Bernard Harcourt’s book published a year earlier (The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against its Own Citizens). Both books describe in different ways how two different wars (the Vietnam war for Belew, and the Afghanistan/Iraq war for Harcourt) were brought home and inflicted on the American populace through the militarization of the police and stigmatization of immigrants and people of color as enemies and targets of white power. 

AP:  I think the inevitable question now is… what’s next? After such a proud and spectacular performance of white nationalism, what do we do? How will people living in America (and abroad) process this event? What transformations will be made? While I am optimistic that such a tragic event may inspire a resurgence of anti-racism and increased awareness, I’m already skeptical. Looking at Twitter feeds and other choice right-wing pundits, there is a distinct mix of backtracking and denial. Some like Ted Cruz are attempting  to distance themselves from the violence they inspired and others are calling it an “inside job” done by “Antifa”. To catalyze change, this insurrection needs to be hammered on but the exacts of it seems fuzzy, intimidating even. What are your thoughts on the next steps? Not necessarily just in policy but in the whole of the body politic in which we live?

ASM:  I think the key thing is how to change the culture of white power, which also means the narrative and worldviewby which white power does its work at the psychological, social and political level. I’m not even going to attempt an answer to this here. The best I can do here is to suggest that there has to be a profound moral and spiritual turning inwards, or “dis-identification” of the white nationalist psyche with its own image. It has to be able to see itself as deeply afflicted by the poison of self-identification. In other words, nothing of any consequence can happen unless it happens at the level of consciousness. And it’s not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ issue. We all, in some way, are afflicted by this disease, and so the change that needs to happen has to affect all of us.