“Mac, who in hell are these vigilantes, anyway? What kind of guys are they?”
“Why, they’re the dirtiest guys in any town. They’re the same ones that burned the houses of the old German people during the war. They’re the same ones that lynched Negroes. They like to be cruel. They like to hurt people, and they always give it a fancy name, patriotism or protecting the Constitution. ”
– John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle
It seems to me that much of the social contract dysfunction and many of the lingering problems in US society have to do with the powerful but informal institution of selective enforcement. It’s what allows Donald Trump to say he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, and it’s why cops get away with murder so regularly.
Prosecutors finally jailed Al Capone, convicting him not of murder, which he apparently did plenty of, but of income-tax evasion. They were practicing a creative version of selective enforcement. Consider the many 20th century public lynching postcards printed and sold as mementos of one’s attendance, with people standing around having a good time. These macabre items are evidence of selective enforcement on a grotesque historic scale.
[ A lynching in Dallas, Texas, 1910, attended by hundreds of whites who seem to accept the lynching of a man as an act of legitimate enforcement. Below, a 1916 issue of W.E.B Dubois’ magazine The Crisis, which printed lynching photos and journalism in an effort to stop the practice. ]
The many comparisons now being made (even by President-elect Joe Biden) between the tough police enforcement applied to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the very evident lack of enforcement faced by those who invaded and occupied the US Capitol building on January 6th exposes a profound example of selective enforcement.
How laws are enforced, whether they are enforced at all or whether punishment enacted without trial is deemed by power to be acceptable are critical issues facing the incoming Democratic government. For the two houses of Congress violated on January 6th, the matter should be personal.
Long before Donald Trump took up the case, as a leftist I was critical of what is now regularly called by Trump and company “the deep state.” For many months, I’ve been waiting for the Trump-related outrage that would finally trigger the so-called deep state to mobilize against the most virulent elements of the Trump base as domestic terrorists. There’s no question, January 6th is that outrage. Given the potential catastrophe represented by the tendencies in the world toward authoritarianism in conjunction with a populist fascism movement incited by Donald Trump, I’m now rooting for the deep state to run-to-ground the far-right, white-supremacist movement. The effort should start with jailing as many of the January 6th mob as can be captured and legally put away. Given the reality of selective enforcement, this is a matter of willfully choosing (selecting!) to enforce existing laws. That is, arrest the violators and “throw the book at them.” Where it’s applicable, re-direct law enforcement from the abuse and harassment of minorities and those on the margins to those violently espousing white supremacy. And do it all legally.
If such an idea could gain traction, it might be envisioned as a New America rising out of the ashes of the abusive January 6th assault on the Capitol. This sort of revival could be seen as undertaken in the name of the many millions who over the decades have fought for justice on the part of oppressed people of all types. January 6th as an iconic moment. To borrow the Pearl Harbor analogy, “a day that will live in infamy.” Or a Nunca Mas movement: Never Again!
The left is still absorbing January 6th. Already, Glenn Greenwald, a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, raised the alarm about Twitter cutting off Donald Trump’s account. Greenwald sees it as a First Amendment assault by rising corporate powers in Silicone Valley; his point is that, while it may now be rightwing Trump, soon enough it could be all voices — left or right — deemed radical and unsavory. He may have a legitimate point. That Greenwald now consistently makes his points on Fox News may suggest a right/left affinity at the extremes, something alluded to in the writings of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset and the popular stevedore/philosopher Eric Hoffer in his 1950s book The True Believer. Stay tuned on that matter.
It may not be a revolution, but a lot of progress could be made if existing laws could be enforced more fairly for all people. A narcissistic authoritarian like Donald Trump can only exist under a regime of dishonest selective enforcement where crimes from income-tax evasion to murder go unenforced against the powerful but are pursued aggressively against the poor and the powerless — as an effort to keep them in their place. The so-called Broken Windows Theory subscribed to by NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani focuses on selectively enforcing minor, petty crimes to establish the police as instruments of enforcement.
Commenting on the fatal arrest of Eric Garner for selling individual cigarettes, Giuliani explained how the Broken Windows Theory works. In the Garner case, cops focused on enforcing a trivial “crime” and ran into trouble when Garner resisted. “The police can’t help it,” Giuliani said, “if you’re acting wild, if you start acting nasty, if you resist arrest. Then they have to react.” In the Giuliani mind, these matters begin with selective enforcement of a trivial issue and escalate on to the police need to control the person being harassed for “acting wild.”
Donald Trump’s invitations to a violence-prone, on-line element to come to D.C., and then his incitement sending them onward to the Capitol to “fight” for Trump’s retention of the presidency is analogous to a lynching. Consider the southern “colonel” in The Ox Bow Incident who organizes and incites a lynch mob to hang innocent people. In that fictional lynch mob, truth (in that case, the innocence of those to be hanged) is secondary to power, as expressed in the act of hanging that satisfies and appeases the mob’s atavistic and sadistic urges. The truth that took second place at the Capitol was the fact Trump lost the election; power in the form of thuggery was literally designed to trump the truth. Donald Trump’s problem was his own stupidity: It ain’t easy to lynch an institutional body like the US Congress.
So what was Donald Trump thinking? He seems to have been under the sway of a desperate need to convince himself that he still held great power and was a winner. So without much reflection he did what his instincts always tell him to do: stir up a violent hornet’s nest focused on some person or entity deemed weak in order to incite the power-reinforcing rewards of sadistic satisfaction in the hearts of his base, people who like him are terrified of losing power in profoundly volatile times. It’s like the guy in my neighborhood with the Trump banner that declares for all us liberals in the cul-de-sac: Make Liberals Cry Again.
What better way to make weak liberals cry than to plague the Capitol building, where liberal legislators are meeting to finally declare Donald Trump a loser. So he mobilized what must have felt like his very own personal army to intimidate the weak liberals ready to rubber-stamp the election of weak Sleepy Joe. He’d spent four years stirring these people up. The ego rush of worship from the other side of that huge plastic shield must have been incredible for him.
Trump, then, retreated to his TV room where he cheered on his personal army. He’d assure his troops he’d be there with them as they marched to the Capitol. It reminded me of Jonathon Winters’ character Colonel Robert Winglow, who would assure his troops: “Men, be brave! I’ll be right there with you. So, forward, men! Into battle! I’ll be right there with you the whole way, watching you in the long lenses from this hill.”
If one is honest and savvy to American history, it’s not hard to figure out why selective enforcement allowed Trump’s army of hoodlums to access the Capitol so effortlessly. Why we heard reports of Capitol Cops posing for selfies with some of the vandals. Or why some cops reportedly acted like tour guides when hoodlums could not find an office they were looking for. “Oh, sure. His office is down that hall to the left.”
I’m not one to lay a blanket damnation on all cops; one has to respect the danger and difficulty faced by those overwhelmed Capitol cops. But I do question whether the normal, run-of-the-mill male cop is not more concerned with securing his own manhood and following orders that keep him employed than he is with enforcing the conditions of justice. Women cops obviously aren’t protecting their manhood, but just like the men, they’re susceptible to peer pressure and not wanting to rock the boat. The average cop isn’t looking to be a “profile in courage” for civil liberty or human rights causes or to go up against those who, based on personal and professional assumptions, are allies and friends.
Plus, these people were not non-violent Black Lives Matter or anti-war protesters. They were very angry, very aggressive, likely armed and reinforced by mob psychology. It seems no one wanted a firefight inside the Capitol. The one marauder shot and killed occurred as she was literally climbing through a smashed window into the House of Representatives chamber, an act that effectively slowed the assault so congress members could be moved to safety. Several high-ranking officials have speculated that in all the end-of-regime confusion the Trump White House may have arranged a selective enforcement “fix” with Capitol Police to facilitate a big show of force. They obviously should have cordoned off the Capitol so such a mob could never reach it.
It’s not difficult to see Donald Trump as the self-obsessed producer and star of a boffo, climactic reality-TV-show scene at the Capitol. Act Four, Scene One: “Assault on the Evil Fortress.” His narcissistic shortcomings certainly helped him blow it, to the point he underestimated the destructive intensity of his personal army and, indeed, in the end, its loyalty to him versus loyalty to its mob instincts.
What he accomplished is hoisting himself on his own tragic petard to the point Nancy Pelosi, whose office his army literally violated, is ready to publicly hang him in the rotunda. And as Dave Lindorff has suggested on this site, his very-evident craziness may have effectively removed commander-in-chief from his portfolio.
The whole sordid affair needs to be rigorously investigated to see if the White House arranged for limited police protection and the non-enforcement of existing laws that ended up making the US Capitol Building so vulnerable.
Furthermore, the invasion/occupation of the Capitol by a violent mob eclipsed the really important news for January 6th — the runoff elections in Georgia that turned the keys to the US Senate and the entire US Congress over to the Democrats.
Following this violation of their body, I’d encourage Nancy Pelosi and the US House of Representatives to quickly whip up articles of impeachment and vote for them in a single day. Then, send it over to Mitch McConnell and the US Senate for a conviction. If Mitch won’t budge, it’s been pointed out that an impeachment conviction in a Democratic Senate once Trump is out of office would be legal and, importantly, would prohibit him from ever running for federal office again.
Such legislative action undertaken in the very chambers Trump’s buffalo-horned miscreants defiled would put Donald Trump into a special historic category: the only president impeached twice and the only one actually convicted. It’s how selective enforcement can work for all Americans — not just the anointed.
CODA: THREE IMAGES
[ It’s always fun to point out the two magnificent fasces to the right & left of the flag behind VP Pence and Speaker Pelosi in the House of Representatives. It’s from the fasces — used by Roman magistrates as a symbol of power — that Benito Mussolini coined the term fascism. As fasces go, these babies are magnificent. Which makes it clear Donald Trump didn’t invent the idea of fascism; he’s just very good at stirring up the necessary populist mob psychology. ]
[ Using battering-rams to break heavy glass and other obstacles, an adrenaline-charged Trump army bulls its way into the Capitol, past a dazed capitol cop who has given up on stopping anybody. In the photo, below, the glass in the door leading to the House chambers just bashed in, Ashli Babbitt — in the top right quadrant — can be seen going up and through a side window, instants before she is fatally shot. Her shooting causes the attackers to pause and allows congress members to seek secure shelter. Capitol police officers immediately administer first aid to her. ]