Talking Points

The dangerous vigilantism that fueled Jan. 6

It didn't take long following the shocking events of Jan. 6 for journalists to begin referring to what transpired on Capitol Hill that afternoon as an "insurrection." Some on the right dissented from the term, insisting it was merely a popular protest against election fraud. Yet the term has stuck, in my own writing as well as in that of most other analysts.

But what if the storming of Congress wasn't an insurrection at all? What if, instead, it was an act of vigilantism?

That's the provocative thesis of author Sam Tanenhaus in a bracing essay recently published in The Washington Post. Relying on a distinction proposed by historian Garry Wills, Tanenhaus distinguishes between militant protest that's directed against a government deemed too repressive, and protest animated by the conviction that authorities aren't repressive enough. The latter protesters become vigilant when they believe (in Wills' words) "the government is too slow, indifferent, or lax."

The archetypal example is the lynch mob, in which a group of enraged whites in the segregationist South would hunt down a Black man and exact extralegal punishment, for crimes real or imagined, with a noose. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three white vigilantes in Georgia is a recent example, but so is Kyle Rittenhouse's killing of two men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests there in the summer of 2020 — and even more so due to Rittenhouse's transformation after the shooting, and especially in the weeks since his acquittal, into a kind of folk hero feted by rabble-rousers and grifters (and a former president) on the right.

Does the violence directed against Congress last January fit this model, as Tanenhaus suggests? I think it does. The mob gathered on the Washington Mall that day wasn't resisting overreach by the government. Rather, it was demanding the government slip the restraints of constitutional procedure to deliver a result for which there was no legal or factual justification. The uprising was therefore the expression of a hope that state power would be used in an unprecedented way to deliver justice for the sitting president and his supporters. It was a call for tyranny, not an act of resistance to it.

That's a distinction we would be wise to keep in mind as we do our best to find our way through the political and legal thickets of the next few election cycles.