Ghosts of the Cold War Haunted the Capitol Siege

On January 6, former President Donald Trump conjured a long-feared nightmare weighing on the minds of Americans since the beginning of his presidency—a fascist putsch sending the country hurtling toward a constitutional crisis. It led to the presence of 25,000 FBI-vetted National Guard troops guarding the January 20 Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And it revealed the ways war, race, and far-right extremism are inextricably bound up with the racial terror of fascist ideologies.

The “generally accepted narrative about U.S. history could not accurately analyze the Capitol putsch because it relies on “a fictional distinction between the advanced, ‘civilized’ countries and the messy barbaric world out there that needs its help.” 

Historian Kyle Burke’s book, Revolutionaries for the Right, traces a transnational historical lineage that culminated during the Reagan era with far-right mercenaries launching wars of so-called national liberation on the world stage as part of an “anticommunist international.” In the 1980s, Burke argues, far-right paramilitary missionaries created a shadow foreign policy and established far-right networks that outlived the Reagan era’s rabid anticommunism, shifting in focus from the international theater of war to the domestic front. 

“The paramilitary dreams of the Reagan era—the macho posturing, the faith in weapons, and the idealized visions of guerilla war—persisted after the Cold War,” Burke tells The Progressive. “Since the 1990s, a swelling white supremacist movement has harnessed these combat fantasies, arguing that the only way to save the United States is through a mass violent uprising, perhaps one that sparks a civil war.” 

Observers including HuffPost’s Christopher Matthis have sounded an alarm about white nationalists within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces, exposing “a dozen U.S. servicemen as members of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa” in 2019.  

The invasion of the Capitol by far-right groups like the Proud Boys led the usually circumspect historian Robert O. Paxton, author of the seminal 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, to label Trump explicitly as a fascist. 

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump told about 8,000 loyalists on January 6, doubling down on his false claim that the election was rigged, dispatching them to the nation’s seat of government. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” 

Moments later, while Congress was working to certify the presidential election results, a line of mostly white men in a “formation, known as ‘Ranger File,’ which is standard operating procedure for a combat team that is ‘stacking up’ to breach a building,” reported the Associated Press, used their training in fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to orchestrate an insurrection against their own government. 

Army veteran Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers, which emerged in 2009 in the wake of a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama, had publicly said that he was ready for civil war and was “armed, prepared to go in if the President calls us up.” 

Soon after the siege, mainstream U.S. commentators predictably turned away from the country’s own history as the biggest purveyor of violence on the world stage and, instead, echoed what were uniquely U.S. foreign policy dictates of regime change by any means necessary. 

“In order to understand what is and is not a rightwing ‘coup,’ we will inevitably turn to the classics of the genre: murderous U.S.-backed regime change operations in the twentieth century,” Vincent Bevins, author of The Jakarta Method, and previously a foreign correspondent for Los Angeles Times, tells The Progressive

The “generally accepted narrative about U.S. history,” Bevins says, could not accurately analyze the Capitol putsch because it relies on “a fictional distinction between the advanced, ‘civilized’ countries and the messy barbaric world out there that needs its help. What happened this month is that this distinction fell apart, for everyone to see.” 

Just as mid-twentieth century U.S. covert operatives cut their teeth abetting regime change in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Indonesia (1965) as bridgeheads to wage war against communism, the far right of the 1980s sought to do the same through covert paramilitary actions in Chile, Afghanistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and elsewhere. 

“While few in the far right actually went abroad as combatants, the stories of those who did circulated widely through the rightwing press and also through a growing paramilitary subculture centered on gun shows, training camps, and magazines,” Burke tells The Progressive

One such magazine was Soldier of Fortune, founded by Robert K. Brown, a former Green Beret. Through the magazine’s classified ads, far-right militants could enlist to fight in defense of white supremacy in Rhodesia or South Africa through support for propaganda campaigns like Friends of Rhodesian Independence or join in actual combat. If guerilla warfare wasn’t their penchant, far-right sympathizers could also support the cause of anticommunism and white supremacy through their consumer power by buying merchandise like “Free Cambodia” T-shirts, Confederate flags, and weaponry. 

Historian Kathleen Belew’s book, Bring the War Home, which analyzes the rise of the “white power movement, its war on the state, and its apocalyptic confrontation with militarized state power,” highlights that, while there are around 450,000 Americans active in the white power movement today, “the upper bound of possibility” peaked in the mid-1990s at five million people. 

Belew writes that, after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, “all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal,” as well as “social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men.” 

The movement against the Vietnam war, historian Greg Grandin argues in Empire’s Workshop, “not only helped end the war, but led to legislative measures that curbed the power of government security institutions.” That, in the eyes of both the foreign-policy establishment and the far right, hamstrung the United States’ ability to marshal hard power through direct military intervention and, in turn, led to the use of soft power to advance imperial foreign policy objectives. 

“Many shared the main aims of the Reagan Administration—to roll back communism through foreign proxies such as the Nicaraguan contras or the Afghan mujahideen—but they grew frustrated with Congressional restraints on U.S. covert action,” Burke says. 

The war to come would be against the U.S. government, and the enemies would be immigrants, liberals, socialists, Jews, LGBTQ+ people, and Muslims, among others. 

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union eliminated what Reagan had called “the evil empire.”

“Now that the threat of communist takeover in the United States is non-existent, who will be the enemy we all agree to hate?” asked white-power movement strategist Louis Beam, the Vietnam veteran who developed the concept of “leaderless resistance,” which decentralized the movement’s structures and encouraged lone wolf attacks.

Speaking to The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Belew attributed far-right violence to the “ricochets of warfare,” noting the fourteen years in the Air Force of putschist Ashli Babbitt who was killed at the siege. 

“Veterans and private military contractors continue to migrate into an array of far-right organizations, carrying with them military training, familiarity with weapons, and the desire to continue the war at home against a shifting set of domestic enemies,” says Burke, referencing the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Egypt as providing “more conscripts for rightwing groups in the United States.” 

Belew also saw what Thomas Meany aptly termed “elective affinities” harkening back to the “white-power iconography” of the 1980s and 1990s, including the gallows erected outside the Capitol recalling the Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel that became a touchstone for the white power movement, with an uncanny resonance to what unfolded on January 6 (the novel also included a mortar attack on the Capitol and public hangings).

“They’re still using the Turner Diaries. They’re still using the Rhodesian flag patch and the ‘Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong’ shirts,” Belew said in reference to photographs from the putsch.  

As Joe Biden assumes the presidency, he will not only have to contend with a pandemic and an economy in shambles, but also the fact that Donald Trump still has a cult of loyal followers enraptured by his ravings.

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