Read: When the mob reached the chamber
There has been a great deal of commentary about the white impunity on display during the attempted coup. Not only is it difficult to imagine law enforcement taking such a relaxed posture about the demonstration ahead of time with a largely nonwhite crowd; it is also hard to imagine officers reacting so placidly to the actual assault. One need only look at how authorities handled Black Lives Matter protesters in Lafayette Square over the summer to see the difference. Beyond that, Donald Trump’s movement has been built on a foundation of racial grievance, bigotry, and white identity politics.
Race doesn’t explain everything about the riot, though. First, the underreaction by authorities has an ideological valence: Police might have simply seen the mob sympathetically because some were politically aligned with its agenda. Many rioters chanted pro-police slogans and brandished Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia, even as they overran police barriers. Some on-duty officers reportedly welcomed rioters in and took selfies with them, while some off-duty officers were part of the mob itself.
Second, the brazenness of the members of the mob remains distinctive. White protesters who joined BLM demonstrations over the summer may have been outraged by police crackdowns, but they were hardly surprised. Yet even in the act of storming the Capitol, the insurrectionists did not fear any adverse consequences. The now-infamous Elizabeth From Knoxville both was clear about what was happening—“We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”—and also seemed genuinely affronted that the police sworn to protect the Capitol and government had the temerity to mace her.
Read: The superhero fantasies of Trump’s mob
Perhaps some of them truly thought that they would successfully topple the government and get away with it, an idea that is crazy, though not as crazy as one would like. (After all, the Capitol Police was unprepared, the National Guard was frozen, and the president and members of Congress had encouraged them.)
But the rioters were also imbued with the culture of impunity of the Trump era. This is a moment when bad behavior goes unpunished. The president has told his supporters that loyalty to his cause trumps fidelity to the law, and he has reinforced that message by handing out pardons to aides who get in trouble for putting him ahead of the law. The crowd he summoned to Capitol Hill on January 6 took that message to heart.
Trump did not invent this culture of impunity. Even before he broke onto the political scene, officeholders from David Vitter to Bob Menendez to Chris Christie were realizing that when caught in a scandal, they didn’t have to resign, and could just brazen it out. But Trump elevated this move from a tactic to a virtue. His 2016 campaign exalted getting away with it, whatever it was: fleecing lenders, buying off politicians, grabbing women by the crotch. He encouraged violence against protesters at rallies, and even spoke of paying legal fees when someone punched a demonstrator. (Given his miserliness, it’s doubtful he followed through. Keeping promises, like following the rules, is for suckers.)