The Capitol Rioters Are Giving Insurrection a Bad Name

Civil society cannot allow mistrust in institutions to become violent rebellion.

A photo illustration featuring the U.S. Capitol against a red backdrop, and large distrustful eyes in the sky
Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In 1958 the American National Election Study began asking Americans whether they trusted the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By this measure, American trust in government peaked at 77 percent in 1964, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Lyndon B. Johnson. By the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1980, trust had fallen below 30 percent, and while the exact percentage has fluctuated since then, it has never returned to the lofty heights of the early 1960s. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans now express strong trust in the government to do the right thing all or most of the time—an inversion of 30 years ago, when only a small minority consistently mistrusted the government.

Some might blame a decline in trust in the federal government on the uniquely dysfunctional presidency of Richard Nixon—indeed, trust in government fell 20 percentage points during his time in office. But Americans didn’t lose trust only in the federal government. We lost trust in institutions of all sorts. From the 1970s to today, Americans report having less trust in the police, organized religion, the medical system, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, organized labor, newspapers, television news, the criminal-justice system, and big business. Even this is not a comprehensive list.

The only major institution that has earned greater American trust in these past four decades is the military. In part, however, that’s because surveys began measuring trust in the military during the Vietnam War, when it was at a historic low.

As institutions mature—and we might think of an institution as anything without a face, an organization in which our interactions are with a bureaucracy or a policy rather than with autonomous individuals—we seem to become both reliant on them and mistrustful of them. In the United States, trust in the medical system plummeted from 74 percent in 1977 to 34 percent in 1993, suggesting that the rise of the HMO and other forms of managed health care—and the increase in bureaucracy they represent—helped collapse public confidence in a key institution. It is one thing to trust the medical system when the main person you interact with is your doctor, and another thing entirely when it’s the anonymous processor of your insurance claims.

When mistrust is on the rise in a society, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how to address it. Once you’ve concluded that the government can’t be trusted to do the right thing, you’re less likely to rely on voting as a useful form of civic expression.

Mistrust presents a problem for protesters as well. The most iconic protest in 20th-century America, the 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, demonstrates the value of protest when electoral influence doesn’t succeed. The march was designed to force President Kennedy to support the Civil Rights Act, which had been stalled in Congress. The massive march and accompanying media coverage persuaded Kennedy to act on civil rights—or gave him plausible cover to act—and gave Lyndon Johnson a mandate to push for its passage.

The march set the template for so many subsequent protests. But now that partisan paralysis prevents Washington from making compromises and changes, it is no longer rational for us to try to influence Congress, or even a president, through protest. The international women’s march, held the day after Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, was not an attempt to persuade the new president to change his policies. Instead, it offered a howl of anger at his election and what it symbolized. That it was likely the largest protest in American history made little difference in influencing the Trump administration.

When I wrote this essay, which has been adapted from my book Mistrust, I didn’t predict the violent insurrection in which white nationalists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, forcing members of Congress to barricade themselves in their offices.

But I maintain that the Trump extremists who vandalized the Capitol give insurrection a bad name. I’ve spent much of my career studying how people speak out against governments and other institutions that have failed them. And though the notion of insurrectionism is often associated with violent uprisings, I see another kind of insurrectionism, deployed as a civically responsible form of social change, as a productive alternative to institutionalism. Put another way, we can either work to make our existing institutions better, or we can recognize that they’re no longer fit for purpose and build new ones in their stead. Hunting down our representatives because they won’t overthrow an election doesn’t get us any closer to functional institutions, because it’s not insurrectionism; it’s terrorism.

In condemning acts of terror, it would be a mistake if we got too comfortable with the notion that a Biden presidency represents a return to institutional health. The same mistrust of institutions that led not only to QAnon but also to the Occupy movement and the “defund the police” protests, is evidence that many institutions are not working well for most people. And the people’s trust—or the lack thereof—remains one of the most powerful forces in shaping the modern world.

In his book Twilight of the Elites, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes suggests that left versus right is no longer the most important dichotomy in American politics. More important is the tension between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe that the key to solving a nation’s problems is to revitalize and strengthen existing organs of power: congresses and parliaments, political parties and unions, businesses and civic organizations. By contrast, insurrectionists believe that existing systems are rigged, ineffective, or wholly broken, and that change will come only from overthrowing those systems and replacing them with new ones, or perhaps with no system at all.

For those who have reasonably lost trust in institutions, perhaps because institutions have systemically failed them, insurrectionism might be both a reasonable and an honorable stance. But we’ve been trained to tamp down this instinct. Serious People, we are taught in schools and reminded in the news, know that decisions about our collective future are made by people debating within the government—in the halls of Congress, in the White House, in the courts—and inside corporate board rooms. A web of Sunday-morning talk shows, designed for consumption by Serious People, reminds us that our role is to closely follow these discussions, to have opinions on these matters, to discuss them with our friends, and to vote based on what we believe. The subtle implication remains: There’s little else we can do.

People don’t take insurrectionism seriously because it feels juvenile. People are so accustomed to relative powerlessness within contemporary representative democracy that notions of substantive change can feel silly or frivolous. People also tend to equate insurrectionism with revolution, the violent overthrow of an existing system, as we saw in the horrendous attack on January 6. While many Americans cheered revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and throughout the Arab world, we must remember that most of these revolutions led to the violent suppression of dissent or the onset of civil war. Revolutions seem both dangerous to hope for and unlikely to end well, even when they are the best we can imagine for societies that neglect or actively transgress citizens’ rights or humanity.

Finally, we don’t take insurrectionism seriously because we do a poor job of teaching and learning our own history. Replacing a colonial government that ineptly ruled from across an ocean with one that allowed citizens direct influence over their government seems like the work of civic superheroes, people with no equals today. But people lionize the Founders while glossing over the reality that American democracy initially excluded women, people of color, and even white men who didn’t own land. Making democracy more inclusive required a series of insurrectionist movements—some relatively peaceful, some quite bloody, all hard fought.

While revolutions are a violent rejection of a government, insurrectionism identifies individual institutions that aren’t functioning well—in the government, in business, or elsewhere—and works to overhaul them, transform them, or replace them with something better. Those transformations are usually far slower and less romantic than occupying a public square until the government falls. Unfortunately, it’s easier to promise insurrection than to successfully implement it.

The election of a president with no governmental experience and no apparent interest in the functioning of a federal government to the nation’s highest office suggests that the deep alienation is a useful example. Trump was elected by people who had lost faith in the government’s ability to meet their needs and to make meaningful change. The change he promised was primarily the return of white men to positions of authority and power—a stance that can obscure the fact that many people of all political stripes were unhappy with the status quo.

It’s helpful to think of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in terms of four quadrants, with a left-right axis and an insurrectionist-institutionalist axis. Hillary Clinton is identified as a left institutionalist: Her selling point was her deep knowledge of the institutions of government from her time as a senator, as secretary of state, and as first lady. She expected to face off against Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and a pack of right institutionalists. Instead, she had to fend off a challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who, despite his decades-long tenure in Washington, could believably position himself as a left insurrectionist.

A matrix places politicians along axes of left-to-right and insurrectionist-to-institutionalist.

Sanders identified as a socialist and pushed radical overhauls of broken systems, like replacing America’s dysfunctional health-care system with government health care. Ultimately, Clinton was done in by Trump, a right insurrectionist, who ran roughshod over his Republican challengers by presenting himself as genuinely coming from outside the existing political system. The election in 2016 was good for insurrectionists and lousy for institutionalists. Then 2020 repeated these dynamics for the Democrats: The showdown between Sanders and Biden, an insurrectionist and an institutionalist, once again resulted in a left institutionalist facing a right insurrectionist.

But Trump is no model insurrectionist; he’s far more interested in tearing institutions down than in building something new in their place. His initial cabinet has been referred to as the “wrecking crew,” a recognition that many of the secretaries he chose wanted to see the departments they ran defanged or eliminated entirely. The desire to dismantle these institutions, combined with the reckless incompetence that characterized the Trump presidency, suggests a vision of insurrectionism that burns but never builds. But effective insurrectionism can be more than a roar of rage. It incorporates a continuum of strategies, from transforming institutions from within to pressuring them from the outside, replacing them with novel institutions, or, most radically, working to eliminate institutions altogether. What it doesn’t do is smash things and move on.

This article is adapted from Ethan Zuckerman’s forthcoming book, Mistrust.