Phil Garber
12 min readNov 30, 2023

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Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

For Those Who Abhor Violence, This Is Who We Are

For all who proclaimed “this is not who we are” after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, I have news; this is exactly who we are.

The dream-like, magical thinking mantra echoed through the air waves began with President Joe Biden who commented after the attack, “the scenes of chaos at the capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”

Five years earlier, on Feb. 8, 2016, President Barack Obama addressed the growing bigotry, isolation and mistrust toward Muslim Americans when he said, “questioning their places in this great country of ours … that’s not who we are.”

Violence in the name of politics was, is and most likely always will be in our national DNA, from the American revolution through the violence and imprisonment of enslaved people and the genocide and taking of native Americans and their land with a straight line to the attack on the Capitol by trump supporters who absurdly claimed to be representing the true American way.

For that matter, violence is indelibly imprinted on world political history with insurrections and coups a fact of life in many countries.

Equally unexceptional in the U.S. and world history was the failed insurrection led by trump and his supporters and trump’s plans, if reelected, to call in the military to quell civil disturbances that he deems as a threat to his rule and to set up vast concentration camps for immigrants who are not citizens.

And all of the violence stirred up by trump and his minions has only intensified with the likes of Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., who made a veiled threat against special counsel Jack Smith on Wednesday, saying during an interview on Newsmax that Smith’s “days are numbered.” He was reacting to the special counsel’s redacted warrant for information about and data from former trump’s account on X, formerly Twitter. The Jan. 17 warrant requested, among other things, “all users who have followed, unfollowed, muted, unmuted, blocked, or unblocked” Trump’s account.

“I consider it a badge of honor to be on another one of Jack Smith’s lists,” Higgins said. “So, I’ll just say that his days are numbered, and American patriots are not going to stand idly by, good sir, and allow our republic to dissolve.”

Smith’s office indicted Trump in Washington, D.C. on four felony counts regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection and his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The violence promoted by trump was so threatening that a New York appellate court has reinstated a gag order prohibiting trump from making public statements about court staff in the ongoing civil fraud trial. Judge Arthur Engoron had originally issued the order barring trump from making public statements about the court staff after numerous comments about his clerk, who trump says is biased against him.

Hundreds of threats against Engoron and a law clerk were made public last week. Engoron’s clerk has received 20–30 calls per day to her personal cell phone and 30–50 messages daily on social media platforms and two personal email addresses, according to court papers.

American history is littered with deadly incidents of violence sparked by government-sanctioned racism, religious intolerance and political differences.

Before the Civil War, the south was the heartbeat of enslavement but the north had more than its share of deadly attacks because of race and religion. Philadelphia, the epicenter of the abolitionist movement, had some of the bloodiest incidents.

One of the lesser known encounters was the Philadelphia nativist riots also known as the Philadelphia Prayer Riots, the Bible Riots and the Native American Riots. Beginning on May 6 and continuing to May 8, July 6 and July 7, 1844, the riots were a result of rising anti-Catholic sentiment at the growing population of Irish Catholic immigrants. The government brought in more than a thousand militia who confronted the nativist mobs and killed and wounded hundreds of anti-Catholic rioters.

The year of 1834 was a particularly bloody and deadly period in various northeast cities.

Anti-Catholic riots led to the so-called Ursuline Convent riots in Charlestown, Mass., on Aug. 11–12,1834. During the riot, with about 2,000 spectators watching, a Protestant mob burned down a convent of Roman Catholic Ursuline nuns. The event was triggered by reported abuse of a member of the order and was fueled by the rebirth of extreme anti-Catholic sentiment in antebellum New England.

Philadelphia also was the site of the 1834 Philadelphia race riot, also known as the “Flying Horses” riot beginning on the evening of August 12 and continuing until August 14. The violence coincided with a significant growth in population, particularly among African Americans and Irish immigrants.

A mob of several hundred white men, primarily Irish, attacked the Flying Horses tavern, a well-known local on South Street that served both black and white people in the area. The mob overpowered the black customers, destroyed the carousel and building, and proceeded down South Street and into the Moyamensing area, where they destroyed black-owned buildings and attacked black residents. By the end of the rioting, 60 people were arrested, 44 buildings had been destroyed, including 30 houses, and two people were dead.

Again in Philadelphia, a group of Black men and youths allied with the abolitionist, Vigilant Association, staged a parade on Aug. 11, 1834, celebrating the end of enslavement in Jamaica. Whites were offended and began chasing the parade and hurling animal innards and waste. Tensions and mob violence escalated, leading to attacks and ransacking of Black households where families were dragged from their homes and beaten; at least two people were stabbed and three wounded in shootings; mass arrests of Black victims was ordered, ostensibly for their own “safety” from mob violence; mobs burned and destroyed Smith’s Hall, a property owned by a wealthy Black abolitionist, Stephen Smith; and the Second African Presbyterian church was set ablaze and destroyed.

Another of the violent incidents buried in history was the Nov. 7, 1837, killing by a pro-slavery mob of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who ran an anti-slavery newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. Lovejoy had the support of influential abolitionist friends such as Edward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By 1837, Lovejoy was using his newspaper to call for immediate universal emancipation. His editorials angered many but they increased national circulation. A group of local citizens, including the future Senator Thomas Hart Benton, declared that freedom of speech did not include the right to speak against slavery. Benton was later the architect and champion of westward expansion by the United States, a cause that became known as Manifest Destiny.

Mobs had destroyed Lovejoy’s presses a number of times but when a new press arrived in November 1837, the violence escalated. A drunken mob tried to set fire to the warehouse where it was stored. Lovejoy ran out to push away a would-be-arsonist, when he was shot dead.

One of the most significant political events of the 19th century was ostensibly enacted to avoid racial violence in the south after the Civil War. The result was the total disenfranchisement of African Americans in the southern states.

The so-called Compromise of 1877 was an unwritten deal during the presidential campaign of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Democrats controlling Congress threatened political violence if the federal Reconstruction Act was not ended along with efforts to protect and franchise African Americans. The Republicans agreed to the compromise and the Democrats supported Hayes’ election, ending the Reconstruction Period and the withdrawal of Union troops from the south who were sent there to enforce the rights of African Americans after the Civil War. The decision led to the long and violent, Jim Crow period when the rights of African Americans were severely limited.

For autocrats and wannabe autocrats like trump, their favorite word is democracy. Trump is not alone among the world’s authoritarian leaders who often pay lip service to democracy. A simple quiz, where was this said?:

“The sides share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of states and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community.”

You would be wrong if you said it was a quote from the March 2023 Declaration of the Summit for Democracy, signed by 73 world governments committed to strengthening global democracy. The quote was part of a joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China in the weeks prior to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Every year, the non-profit Freedom House issues its Freedom in the World report, which ranks people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories.

Freedom House was founded in October 1941, with Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt serving as its first honorary chairpersons. Its mission is to expand and defend freedom globally, and its vision is a world where all are free. Most of the organization’s funding comes from the U.S. State Department and other government grants.

The latest Freedom in the World report for 2022, shows that the United States’ freedom score has declined by 10 points over the past decade. The nation now ranks alongside states with weaker democratic records, such as Romania, Croatia, and Panama.

The report found that issues related to equal treatment under the law and improper influences on the political system are “especially low for an established democracy.” In the wake of January 6, the country ranks alongside the Philippines and Bolivia, and below South Africa, India, and Romania. On equal treatment, due to declines related to immigration and refugee policies, the United States is now level with Greece, Paraguay, and Ghana, and below Albania, Romania, and Italy.

The report also cited a “more troubling trend” in the shift in Americans’ perceptions of acceptable political behavior over the past several years, and an increased willingness to sacrifice democratic institutions for the sake of partisan gain.

“More extreme actors — in politics and society — could build on the sorts of transgressions Trump and others have helped to normalize and cause even greater damage,” the report said.

Regarding equal treatment under the law, the report noted that police officers rarely face punishment for violence against protesters, including in cases of apparent abuse caught on camera during the 2020 protests.

“Observers that year also noted that police often exercised greater restraint toward anti-BLM counterprotesters and participants in separate demonstrations against COVID-19-related restrictions, many of whom were armed and displayed far-right or White supremacist symbols,” the report said.

Racist, ethnic or cultural violence is a regular occurrence. Asian Americans were victims of a burst of discrimination and hate crimes in 2020 and 2021, attributed partly to trump’s attempts to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on China. A white gunman killed 10 Blacks in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket in May 2022. In November 2022, five people were killed in a Colorado nightclub that was popular with LGBT+ people.

The report noted that authoritarian regimes maintain power through violence while in democratic systems, leaders who fear losing power have taken to sowing distrust in elections, as with trump and his claims of voter fraud.

“Though the insurrection was ultimately unsuccessful and a peaceful transfer of power took place, the same forces continue to exert significant influence on the U.S. political system,” the report said.

Trump and his supporters have continued to push the message that fraud tipped the balance toward Biden in the 2020 election. The stolen election conspiracy claim is undermining public confidence in the electoral system.

“The trend is especially dangerous in the US context, where state legislatures, particularly those dominated by Republican leaders, have considerable leeway to declare that irregularities took place in the voting process,” the report said. It noted that by December 2021, 17 states had passed legislation that threatened the integrity of elections and election administration, and hundreds of additional such bills were introduced across 24 states. “Intimidation or violence by nonstate actors, including Trump supporters, poses another risk to the forthcoming elections. Already, election administrators have resigned in unprecedented numbers amid a rise in threats and harassment,” the report said.

According to the report, “undemocratic leaders and their supporters in democratic environments have worked to reshape or manipulate political systems, in part by playing on voters’ fears of change in their way of life and by highlighting the very real failures of their predecessors.”

“They have promoted the idea that, once in power, their responsibility is only to their own demographic or partisan base, disregarding other interests and segments of society and warping the institutions in their care so as to prolong their rule,” the report warned. “Along the way, the democratic principles of pluralism, equality, and accountability — as well as basic stewardship and public service — have been lost, endangering the rights and well-being of all residents.”

Historians have offered different spins on what to callJan. 7.ruth Ben-Ghiat said the incident was a “self coup” or “autogolpe.”

“This was an operation from the inside — somebody who’s already in power and wants to stay in power,” said Ben-Ghiat, professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. “And it also was an inside job in that 57 GOP officials were at the rally. The coup culminated January 6, but it’s part of a thing that started in November and involved the elite of many institutions in the party.”

Ben-Ghiat said that Trump wanted to enter the Capitol to join in the insurrection but he didn’t and that also was a major difference with what is described as a coup.

“With a coup, you have this moment where they pronounce the start of the new order — in Spanish, pronunciamiento. There were very strong indications that Trump wanted to be there, but he was prevented from being there,” Ben-Ghiat said.

Ben-Ghiat said that unlike other authoritarian regimes, he does not have the support of the military. But he does have militias, de facto paramilitaries and sovereign sheriffs and there are guns.

“The wild card about the U.S., which really is unique, is guns. There are 400 million guns in circulation. There are people with private arsenals. Trump couldn’t get the military to help him. And so he’d been cultivating all these different extremists and giving them a big tent for years. And he was able to have a kind of bespoke thug army to converge,” Ben-Ghiat said.

Historian Josh Zeitz compared trump and the militias to the paramilitary forces in the early days of the Nazi Party in Germany.

“In 1932, the National Socialists could not yet count on the support of the German army, but they could certainly count on their own paramilitary forces,” said Zeitz, a historian and contributing editor at POLITICO Magazine.

Similarly, fascist Italy came about in a “soft coup” where the fascist party developed out of a decentralized military movement, Ben-Ghiat said. A march of 30,000 so-called “squadres” forced the king to appoint Benito Mussolini as prime minister. The rise of Mussolini influenced Hitler to stage his Beer Hall Putsch the next year.

Historian Matthew Cleary called Jan. 6 an “insurrection” and not a coup because it differed from the classic Latin American coup in important ways.

The most important being the lack of participation of any military or police forces of the state,” said Cleary, Associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. “The classic definition of a coup is the use of one part of the state apparatus to seize power of the state apparatus overall, and Trump just didn’t have that.”

There have been hundreds of successful coups and attempted coups throughout history. The first recorded coup came in 876 BC in Israel, when Zimri, a military commander, killed King Elah and became king himself. Soon after, he committed suicide to avoid being overthrown by his own commander, Omri.

There have been few coup attempts in the U.S. with just one short-lived success. The Wilmington insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington massacre or the Wilmington coup, was carried out by white supremacists who violently took over the elected government in Wilmington, N.C., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 1898.

A group of white Southern Democrats lead a mob of 2,000 white men to overthrow the Fusionist biracial government. Fusionism was a coalition between 1894 and 1900 between the North Carolina Republican Party and the Populist Party to compete against the North Carolina Democratic Party.

The Wilmington racists expelled opposition black and white political leaders from the city, destroyed the property and businesses of black citizens built up since the American Civil War, including the only black newspaper in the city, and killed an estimated 60 to more than 300 people. The coup led to disenfranchisement of local African Americans while white supremacists continued in power through elections that excluded African American votes.

The Business Plot, also called the Wall Street Putsch or the White House Putsch), involved an effort to overthrow President Franklin
D. Roosevelt, led by Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler. At the time of his death, Butler was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. In 1933, Butler told a Congressional committee that he had become involved in a controversy known as the Business Plot, which involved a group of wealthy industrialists who were planning a military coup to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Butler was selected to lead a march of veterans to become dictator, similar to fascist regimes at that time. The individuals involved all denied the existence of a plot, and the media ridiculed the allegations, but a final report by a special House of Representatives Committee confirmed some of Butler’s testimony.

In more recent years, the U.S. has been a frequent protagonist in coups, often preferring to stage and support them rather than to actually complete them in nations from Iran to Chile to South Vietnam to Guatemala. In some cases, American corporate interests were directly involved as in 1893, when Sanford Dole and American plantation owners overthrew the independent Kingdom of Hawaiʻi.

Political violence surged in the late-1960s through the 1970s, when there were more than 450 reported incidents. In the early 1970s, left wing radicals were responsible for much of the political violence, focused largely on destroying government buildings. The political violence largely subsided by 1980 but in 1995, the Oklahoma City federal bombing by a far right terrorist killed 168 people.

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Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer