Coexistence Is the Only Option

Millions of Americans sympathize with the Capitol insurrection. Everyone else must figure out how to live alongside them.

Trump supporters wave flags at the Capitol January 6.
Craig Ruttle / Redux

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

They could be real-estate agents or police officers, bakers or firefighters, veterans of American wars or CEOs of American companies. They might live in Boise or Dallas, College Park or College Station, Sacramento or Delray Beach. Some are wealthy. Some are not. Relatively few of them were at the United States Capitol on January 6, determined to stop Congress from certifying a legitimate election. Millions more cheered the rioters on—and still do.

As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term extremists. There are not enough of them to be secessionists. Some prominent historians and philosophers have been arguing for a revival of the word fascist; others think white supremacist is more appropriate, though there could also be a case for rebel. For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them seditionists—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, Mike Pence, the election officials in all 50 states, and the judges in dozens of courts.

Not all Republicans are seditionists, nor is everyone who voted for Trump, nor is every conservative: Nothing about rejecting your country’s political system is conservative. Still, those who do hold these views are quite numerous. In December, 34 percent of Americans said they did not trust the outcome of the 2020 election. More recently, 21 percent said that they either strongly support or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol building. As of this week, 32 percent were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.

Even if we assume that only half of those polled are impassioned by politics, and even if we put the number of truly seditious Americans at 10 or 15 percent, that’s a very large number of people. For although Trump will eventually exit political life, the seditionists will not. They will remain, nursing their grievances, feverishly posting on social media, angrily listening to Tucker Carlson—the Fox News host has just told them that the federal troops in Washington, D.C., are “not there for your safety” but because Democrats want to send a “message about power”—and energetically running for office. A member of the West Virginia state legislature filmed himself in the mob breaking into the Capitol on January 6: “We’re taking this country back whether you like it or not,” he told his Facebook followers. A New Mexico county commissioner came home from the riots; bragged about his participation; and, according to authorities, told a public meeting that he planned to go back to D.C., but this time carrying firearms.

Perhaps in 2022, more seditionists will enter Congress, joining Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, the QAnon-aligned conspiracist who has already said she will launch impeachment proceedings against Biden. Perhaps in 2024, seditionists, rather than reality-based Republicans, will be running the elections in Georgia and Arizona. Americans could see worse postelection scenarios than the one we’ve just lived through.

We could also see more violence. Since the election, the Bridging Divides Initiative, a group that tracks and counters political violence in the U.S., has observed a singularly ominous metric: a sharp uptick in the number of protests outside the homes of politicians and public figures, including city- and county-level officials, many featuring “armed and unlawful paramilitary actors.” In Idaho, aggressive protesters shut down a public-health meeting; in Northern California, numerous public-health officials have resigned in the face of threats from anti-maskers. Death threats are already shaping U.S. politics at a higher level too. We may never know how many more Republicans in Congress might have voted for Trump’s impeachment last week had it not been for the ominous messages they were receiving online.

Outside politics, outside the law, outside the norms—the seditionists have in fact declared their independence from the rest of us. January 6 was indeed their 1776: They declared that they want to live in a different America from the one the rest of us inhabit, ruled over by a different president chosen according to a different rule book. And yet they cannot be wished away, or sent away, or somehow locked up. They will not leave of their own accord, and Americans who accept Biden’s lawful victory won’t either. We have no choice except to coexist.

But how? Clearly we need regulation of social media, but that’s years away. Of course we need better education, but that doesn’t help us deal with the armed men who were standing outside the Ohio statehouse this week.

Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste—countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged. In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.

This was not accidental. The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.

Translating this basic principle to the vast landscape of the U.S. is not easy: We don’t have UN peacebuilding funds to pay for red-blue community centers, and anyway, American political opponents are often physically separate from each other. We are not fighting over control of street corners in West Belfast. But the Biden administration, or indeed a state government, could act on this principle and, for example, reinvigorate AmeriCorps, the national-service program, offering proper salaries to young people willing to serve as cleaners or aides at overburdened hospitals, food banks, and addiction clinics; sending them deliberately to states with different politics from their own. This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.

Although the bipartisan appeal of roads, bridges, and railways has become a joke—Trump’s promised “Infrastructure Week” never happened—infrastructure investment can produce projects benefiting all of society too. So can a cross-community discussion about infrastructure, or even infrastructure security. Get potential protesters of different political views into a room and ask them, “How are we going to protect our state capitol during demonstrations?” Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. “Who won the 2020 election?” is, for these purposes, a bad topic. “How do we fix the potholes in our roads?” is, in contrast, superb.

And how do we invite seditionists to a public meeting if they won’t read emails from anyone outside their bubble? Here’s another tactic from the world of conflict prevention: work with trusted messengers, people who have authority within the seditious community, who sympathize with its shared values but are nevertheless willing to talk their comrades down from the brink. A brief version of how this works was actually visible in some of the videos taken by The New Yorker inside the Capitol on January 6. There’s a moment when the insurrectionists are in the Senate chamber, and one of them who seems to have more authority tells the others not to sit in Mike Pence’s chair: “It belongs to the vice president of the United States, but he isn’t here. It’s not our chair. Look, I love you guys—you’re brothers—but we can’t be disrespectful.” Not long after that, a cop comes in and refers to the room as “like, the sacredest place.” Eventually, the motley crew of QAnon/MAGA militants files out without trashing the place.

Not that this phenomenon is anything new: In 1930, a white Texan named Jessie Daniel Ames founded an organization called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, a group that campaigned against anti-Black violence. Ames both intervened directly, even confronting lynch mobs in person, and engaged in education and advocacy. Her group sometimes sat uneasily alongside its northern counterparts—its members opposed federal intervention and denounced lynching, not for universal reasons but on the grounds that it was contrary to the creed of southern, white, Christian women—but it worked: In areas where the group operated, the violence went down.

Rachel Brown, the founder of an anti-violence group called Over Zero, told me that she sometimes uses that case study when talking to religious leaders, business leaders, and veterans across the country—people who might be heard in the seditious community—when trying to persuade them to start parallel projects of their own. Clearly the Republican Party is well placed to reach out to members who have rejected democracy, which is why it’s important to support the Adam Kinzingers and the Ben Sasses, even the Mitch McConnells who belatedly and self-interestedly switch sides: Better late than never, especially if it helps undermine the seditionists’ conviction and makes them feel doubt. Of course, Fox News could make an enormous difference too, though at the moment its owners still seem to believe they will make more money off sedition than democracy.

Finally, we could learn some useful lessons from Colombia, a country that has for several years tried, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to bring members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) back into society. The guerrilla movement had sustained itself for more than 50 years by selling drugs and ransoming hostages, and the decision to reintegrate its members created great ambivalence, and even hostility: Understandably, people don’t especially relish the idea of working alongside former FARC operatives who might have murdered their relatives, let alone paying taxes so that the government can help them retrain and find jobs. At the same time, leaving them to wage drug wars in the jungle isn’t a solution either, and so the program continues.

America’s situation is nowhere near as extreme (though it will be if the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys retreat into the Rocky Mountains for half a century), but some of the Colombian program’s principles have useful resonance. It focuses on the long term, offering former outcasts the hope of a positive future, and providing training and counseling designed to help them assimilate. Not everyone will like the idea, but America’s seditionists arguably pose a similarly long-term social problem. True believers—especially those who are unemployed, underemployed, or so far down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole that they can no longer cope with ordinary life—are part of an intense, deeply connected, and, to them, profoundly satisfying community. In order to be pried away from it, they will have to be offered some appealing alternative, just as the ex–FARC members are offered the alternative of a legal life in society.

Not coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of advice that can be heard from psychologists who specialize in exit counseling for people who have left religious cults. Roderick Dubrow-Marshall, a psychologist who has written about the similarities between cults and extremist political movements, told me that in both cases, identification with the group comes to dominate people psychologically. “Other interests and ideas become closed off,” he said. “They dismiss anything that pushes back against them.” Remember, the people in the Capitol really believed that they were on a mission to save America, that it was patriotic to smash windows and kill and injure police. Before they can be convinced otherwise, they will have to see some kind of future for themselves in an America run by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress.

I recognize that this is not what everyone wants to hear. Even as I write this, I can hear many readers of this article uttering a collective snort of annoyance. Quite a few, I imagine, feel that, having won the election, they don’t want to pay for a bunch of happy-clappy vaccine volunteers, or new roads in rural America, or mental-health services and life counseling for the MAGA-infected—let them learn to live with us. I can well imagine that, like the Colombians who hate the reintegration of FARC, many will resent every penny of public money, every ounce of political time, that is spent on the seditious minority. Some might even prefer an American version of de-Baathification: track down every last Capitol-riot sympathizer and shame them on social media, preferably with enough rigor that they lose their jobs.

I know how they feel, because I often feel that way too. But then I remember: It won’t work. We’ll wake up the next morning, and they’ll still be there.