Updated at 11:13 a.m. on April 21, 2021.
The mob that breached the Capitol last week at President Donald Trump’s exhortation, hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was full of what you might call “respectable people.” They left dozens of Capitol Police officers injured, screamed “Hang Mike Pence!,” threatened to murder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and set up a gallows outside the building. Some were extremists using the crowd as cover, but as federal authorities issue indictments, a striking number of those they name appear to be regular Americans.
And there’s nothing surprising about that. Although any crowd that size is bound to include people who are struggling financially, no one should be shocked to see the middle classes so well represented among the mob.
The notion that political violence simply emerges out of economic desperation, rather than ideology, is comforting. But it’s false. Throughout American history, political violence has often been guided, initiated, and perpetrated by respectable people from educated middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The belief that only impoverished people engage in political violence—particularly right-wing political violence—is a misconception often cultivated by the very elites who benefit from that violence.
The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol last week were not desperate.* They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.
There’s ample precedent for this. When the Ku Klux Klan formed during Reconstruction, according to the historian Eric Foner, its leadership “included planters, merchants, lawyers, and even ministers. ‘The most respectable citizens are engaged in it,’ reported a Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau agent, ‘if there can be any respectability about such people.’”
Respectable people can be very dangerous. President Ulysses S. Grant responded to the outrages of the KKK in the Reconstruction South by sending the military to crush the Klan and the newly formed Department of Justice to prosecute it. For a time, the effort was successful.
Nevertheless, the paramilitary wings of the Democratic Party, determined to disenfranchise Black voters and restore white supremacy, reconstituted themselves. Only this time they left the masks off, so everyone could see how respectable they were. Operating openly, they were far more successful than they had been while clad in their goofy costumes and masks, taking on names such as the White League and the Red Shirts. They terrorized, murdered, and intimidated Black voters and their white Republican allies in order to excise them from the polity and restore Black people to a state of near-slavery.
In New Orleans, “carpenters, grocers, and tinsmiths belonged [to the White League], as did laborers and stevedores,” according to the historian Justin Nystrom, but “more common were professional men from Factor’s Row: clerks, accountants, sugar and cotton factors, weighers, and lawyers.” In South Carolina, a leader of the Red Shirts, Benjamin Tillman, was born into a wealthy slave-owning family. His men were made up of “substantial landowners already prominent in local agricultural societies, Granges, and conservative political clubs,” the historian Steven Hahn wrote. The white-supremacist militants who massacred Black people and overthrew the government of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 were described as “reputable white citizens” in contemporary accounts.
The elite leaders of white-supremacist organizations, however, were content to cultivate the perception that the outrages condemned by northern newspapers were the work of lower-class white men, which only increased the urgency of their political project: restoring the rule of the white elite, so that the alleged passions of the white lower classes could be restrained, and the supposed corruption of Black men and their white allies could be punished. In truth, however, it was when Black and white laborers formed alliances—such as the Readjusters in Virginia—that the white supremacists were most effectively resisted.
“They used the language of ‘the mob’ to distance themselves from the very acts of violence they promoted,” the historian Stephen Kantrowitz wrote in his biography of Tillman, “claiming that these assaults were carried out by disreputable white men—‘mobs,’ that is, from which only respectable white men could protect black Southerners.” The Red Shirts, Tillman insisted, were “generally of a class of people who do not commit outrages of that sort.” As a U.S. senator, Tillman would brag of having “shot Negroes and stuffed ballot boxes.”
After Republicans retreated from Reconstruction, making clear they would neither defend the rights of Black people nor prevent Democrats from violating them, the respectable men who had overthrown the Reconstruction governments were far more open about their deeds. They became mayors, governors, congressmen, and senators. They erected monuments to the Confederate Army and its valor in defending the institution of human bondage, both to celebrate their accomplishments and to dissuade Black southerners from ever again contemplating political equality with white people. They told the world that what they had done was heroism rather than terrorism, and, in the name of reconciliation and unity, the white North acquiesced.
By 1909, a decade after the massacre in Wilmington inspired a wave of new Jim Crow legislation across the South, Republican President William Howard Taft praised Democrats for having excluded “an ignorant, irresponsible element”—that is, Black voters—from the polity. The respectable people were in charge again.
Of course, it was their success in seizing power and disenfranchising their political rivals that allowed them to maintain their respectability. Had they failed, had the South’s brief experiment in multiracial democracy succeeded, they would have been seen as the bandits, assassins, and terrorists that they were. Impunity is what makes murder and terrorism respectable. After all, if these deeds were actually crimes, they would have been punished.
Watching the mob ransack the Capitol last week, Trump is reported to have been initially enthusiastic about the riot, but later disgusted by “what he considered the ‘low-class’ spectacle of people in ragtag costumes rummaging through the Capitol.”
Now we know the truth. They weren’t “low class.” They were respectable. They almost always are.
*This article previously stated that the Capitol mob had killed a police officer, based on reporting in The New York Times and The Associated Press citing two unnamed law-enforcement officials. On April 19, Washington, D.C.'s chief medical examiner released a report finding that Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick had experienced two strokes and died of natural causes.