After weeks of rejecting the election results and calling for an overturning of the election at any cost, President Trump addressed his supporters at a DC protest today. Mayhem broke out soon after. Protestors made their way from the White House to the US Capitol and became rioters. A pro-Trump mob overwhelmed Capitol police, breaking through security barriers. Federal buildings were evacuated. Congress fled the Capitol, being instructed to put on gas masks. Rioters released gas into the Capitol building, occupied Senate offices, and entered the Senate chamber. They called for the President to be recognized as the winner of the 2020 election and for his continued national leadership.
This is certainly unprecedented, protestors in support of a failed election candidate taking over the nation’s Capitol, expelling both police and Congress. Many are characterizing this as a coup by the President’s supporters. Some are questioning whether this is a stage in the end of American democracy. It may signal an end of the Republican Party as we know it. Some wonder whether this is part of some sort of revolution.
It is not.
A few weeks ago, I began a seminar exploring racism and revolution. One text we are reading is Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. In it, she explores what revolution is, including its general implications for man as a political being, its political significance for the world we live in, and its role in modern history. She does this by examining the two historical moments when, she says, revolution made its full appearance: the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
Arendt says that true revolution has two key features: the aim of freedom, and the experience of a new beginning. The present actions by the President’s supporters have neither.
First, one should consider this question of a new beginning. Arendt’s On Revolution identifies how the 18th century revolutions disrupted the world’s conception of history. The world of ancient Greece saw history as essentially cyclical, where political bodies and world events had a somewhat repetitive nature, but where nothing truly new occurred. One sees this most starkly in Plato’s claim that states cycle through five stages: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. These sorts of cycles were taken for granted.
What the modern revolutions did, however, was create a conceptual mileu for an end to this cycle. They established new governments corresponding, not to cycles of political life, but to inalienable and universal human rights. In America, this corresponded to the insistence on establishing a lasting government that can withstand changes to political, social, and cultural life. The Founding Fathers sought to achieve this through limitations of power and systems of checks and balances. In times of strife, the government was set up to be both limited and powerful enough to resist unmitigated destruction.
The present situation does not present us with a new beginning, because it has not suggested an end to these checks and balances, a change in government based upon a new conception of history or the human person, or a new type of freedom. Instead, the present situation appears to have more the nature of a revolt, insurrection, or rebellion, something which can rise up and wreak havoc, but which will eventually pass with the cycles of human satisfaction and dissatisfaction. It will come and go without offering anything truly new. And even if it may signal an end to the Republic Party as we have known it, it will not signal the creation of a new political idea or regime. It will still be subject to the structures of the existing American government and society. It will be as impotent as President Trump on Inauguration Day 2021.
Second, modern revolutions are aimed at freedom. Arendt goes to great lengths to characterize freedom properly. She distinguishes freedom from liberty. Liberty is characterized as being merely an emancipation from oppression. Liberty is the ability to move as one wishes, without being unjustly constrained.
Freedom, however, has a different nature. For Arendt, freedom is understood as the entrance into and ability to engage in the public realm, to engage in active dialogue and discourse on public and political matters. “Politics action” is understood as this type of engagement. The American Revolution brought about freedom, not because it gave people the opportunity to protest, but because it gave the people the opportunity to engage in the dialogical nature of true political life. Violence, Arendt says, is contrary to both freedom and politics because it occurs when dialogue has ended. The use of force is the end of freedom and of political life. Force can occur before and after freedom and politics but cannot occur during them.
This conception of freedom also forgoes characterizing the present activities by Trump supporters as revolutionary activities. Trump’s present supporters neither aim towards nor do the act of dialogue. Instead, they use the non-dialogical tactics of false information, mischaracterization, and blunt force. They represent more closely the mob which Arendt says contributed to the ultimate failure of the French Revolution. They act in ways unworthy of America’s Founding Fathers.
This is not a revolution. It is a revolt. And it will end.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.