The Justice for J6 demonstrators protest sputtered from the start, with turnout estimated at just a few hundred people, even after months of buildup. There were plenty of people there; Capitol police were abundant, National Guard were activated in reserve, and early pictures showed large numbers of men and women with cameras and microphones (plenty of press!) Local authorities put up fences everywhere around the Capitol. The institutions were far better prepared than the protesters.
Opponents of the campaign–and supporters of democratic governance or the rule of law took undue comfort, even pleasure, at the weak showing. The paltry performance says less about the strength of the radical right than you’d like to believe.
The Justice demonstrators had a difficult time with their demands. Ostensibly supporting people charged with crimes on January 6, right wing organizers slipped between defending everyone to defending those who hadn’t engaged in violence, to supporting those who may not have violated the law, to just standing up for Donald Trump.
Although more than a few of the hard right members of Congress defended the idea of defending the January 6 protesters, none of them showed up at the rally, or even the Capitol. It could be that Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Jim Jordan, and their gang realized the risk of all kinds of bad press following a weak turnout–or violence against police (again!). I suspect that Republican leaders warned them to stay away. Still, a few members shouted insurgent messages from outside the Beltway. (Rep. Greene blew up “socialism” with a .50 caliber rifle!)
It’s worth remembering that the radical right usually has a hard time generating numbers at planned demonstrations. Recall the sputtering Unite the Right demonstrations that followed the Charlottesville disaster, where tens of thousands of counterdemonstrators turned out to taunt dozens of conservative protesters. The mass rally in an urban setting is a critical part of the left activist playbook; not so much on the right.
The costs and risks of showing up at something like the Women’s March, where experienced organizers commit to stage a nonviolent rally, are far more limited than attending a rally targeted to racist gun rights protesters. People who knew better, including members of Congress, stayed away rather than take those risks.
But there are still plenty of people who are ready to rally (somewhere) behind Trump’s discredited claim of a stolen election. More than a few proclaim their readiness to take up arms for the cause, and a much larger number are willing to shout at local authorities who support mask mandates or to vote against anyone who questions Trump’s claims.
The radical racist right hasn’t been stamped out, and nearly 250 years into America, it’s unlikely to be. The key to domestic tranquility is to push the once-marginal movement back to the margins. In the past, mainstream Republicans have vacillated between exploiting the xenophobic racist right and denouncing it. Trump won the Republican nomination not only by capturing this faction, but by bullying most mainstream Republican politicians into welcoming the potential voters and their ideas. Saturday’s demonstration suggesting the prospects of putting distance between mainstream and radical conservatives. It’s an open question at the moment.
The prosecutions of the January 6 insurrectionists will be critical in determining what happens next.
Politically, the key issue is to split off the people willing to take to the streets with arms from their institutional allies and from potential supporters not willing to take those steps.
Failure to prosecute and sentence people planning to kidnap the Speaker of the House, for example, encourages others to take dramatic and disruptive action. Giving unduly harsh sentences to trespassers creates martyrs and (oddly) underscores the insurrectionists’ claims.
It’s important to watch the trials, the deals, and the sentences, and particularly the reactions from institutional Republicans.