Conservative activists have to take sides

When a line is drawn in the dust and you must decide whether to cross or not, most folks peek to see who they’ll be standing with before taking a step.

The Capitol invasion drew a line in the dust, and the prosecutions may dig it into a trench. (At the same time, Republican politicians in Congress are furiously working to fill in that hole.)

Let me explain:

Social movements are most difficult, volatile, and potentially powerful when they unite a broad coalition that extends from the margins to the mainstream. Protesters in the streets find common cause with allies in government and draw cheers from at least some people watching from a distance and may occasionally throw in a petition signature, a few dollars, or a vote.

Such broad coalitions are extremely difficult to maintain; authorities work to split them up, greatly aided by the charms and obstacles of institutional politics.

For the past few years, Donald Trump provided a crude unifier for such a broad coalition. White nationalists heard racist dogwhistles, while business conservatives and institutional Republicans worked hard to ignore blustering bullhorns. Without much of a clear agenda beyond his self-interest, Trump somehow convinced people in the streets that he worked for them, and Republican politicians that they needed him.

Such beliefs should be even harder to sustain than before.

President Trump did not include the names of any of the Capitol invaders in his collage of pardons and commutations. It would have been easy to find the names–it’s been pretty easy for the Justice Department prosecutors filing charges.

The invaders who broke windows, looted Congressional offices, carried white supremacist flags, and fought police officers took selfies and livestreamed their efforts, later posting them on social media when they returned home.

They thought that God or Q or Trump was on their side, and that they were safe in public insurrection. Not so much. The Lord continues to work in mysterious ways, and doesn’t routinely weigh in on matters of vandalism. Q has gone silent, congratulating followers in the fun they’d had and the friends they’d made. And Trump deserted them to save himself.

Sure, Trump promised that he would march with the protesters to the Capitol to intimidate opponents, but he went back to the White House. Sure, candidate Trump encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies, promising his would-be protectors in the stands that he would pay any legal fees. They heard, but no checks or legal referrals were forthcoming. Trump’s worried about securing his own defense attorneys, and at least some of his once-faithful are disappointed.

Partly because of a massive military presence in Washington, DC, massive crowds of disappointed Trumpians didn’t turn out to protest on inauguration day. But it wasn’t just the intimidation of well-trained, well-armed troops. Across the states, where capitols were marginally less militarized, promised rallies in support of the defeated president fizzled. What happened?

Trump’s supporters learned their efforts could bring unpleasant consequences: criminal prosecution, lost jobs, and social ostracism.

  • Demonstrators saw that they would not be welcomed as heroes when they came home.
  • Would-be revolutionaries learned that their prospects for success were much much worse than they’d led themselves to believe.
  • People who thought they were committed to protecting the Constitution and law and order, no matter how poorly defined, were reluctant to sign onto kidnapping politicians or killing police officers.

To be sure, some of the faithful will hold fast and find camaraderie and courage in more distant corners of the Internet, perhaps in training exercises in the woods or meetings around kitchen tables. But there will be fewer of them, more distant, and they will have a much harder time reaching a broader public.

Absent the almost protective umbrella of a tweeting president which supported largter more enthusiastic crowds, they won’t seem like the powerful, wise, or attractive allies that they once were.

Few people will want to stand on their side of the line.

A larger number, I’m sure, will do as Q’s handler suggested, return to their lives, which might include some politics, but maybe not. They might recall their revolutionary moments and friends with fondness–or perhaps realize that they’d been misled and exploited.

QAnon and the storm of the U.S. Capitol: The offline effect of online  conspiracy theories

That’s how movements divide in decline, and it makes them easier to repress, ignore,and generally marginalize.

Republican politicians are mostly trying to stall the same process of fragmentation within their own ranks. To be sure, many members of the House, secure in well-crafted and safe districts, can continue to support some imagined vision of Trump or Q. But Republicans who have national aspirations are concerned about the social approbation the Capitol invasion brought, and actively worried about business leaders who may refuse to fund them.

The near horizon isn’t so sunny. True believers in the streets or woods or basements, unable to create crowds, are liable to find more extreme tactics more attractive–particularly if their political allies can’t convince them of another route to meaningful influence. And any extreme act is likely to make it harder and harder to maintain, much less attract, support from those not already on the margins.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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