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OPINION

Confronting white supremacy among our neighbors, our families — and ourselves

The list of those arrested or identified as participants grows: legislators, lawyers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, current and former members of the armed forces, and police officers.

Thousands of supporters listen as President Trump speaks during a Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C. before a pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol building, where five people died.
Thousands of supporters listen as President Trump speaks during a Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C. before a pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol building, where five people died.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Following the pro-Trump mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol building, in which five people died, the CEO of the Ilinois-based data analytics firm Cogensia was fired. Bradley Rukstales is facing federal charges for entering the Capitol alongside a mob that battered police officers with fire extinguishers and metal pipes, deployed bear spray and mace, and smeared the halls of Congress with human feces. In a statement, Rukstales emphasized that this was his first arrest and that this was an uncharacteristic “moment of extremely poor judgment.”

That a prosperous tech CEO might be among the insurrectionists who ran riot in the Capitol — some armed with guns and zip-ties, searching for lawmakers they hoped to harm — might seem, to some, surprising. But Rukstales was not an outlier among the Capitol mob for his prosperity. As the fallout for the coup attempt continues to unfold, the list of those arrested or identified as participants grows: state legislators, lawyers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, realtors, current and former members of the armed forces, and more than two dozen police officers. Prosperous business owner by prosperous business owner, the principal beneficiaries of white supremacy came out in force to defend it.

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It’s long been assumed that the most extreme upholders of white supremacy in the United States, those willing to engage in violence on its behalf, are impoverished, uneducated, socially stunted, and confined to their mothers’ basements. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote about the would-be coupists as “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans … with bellies full of beer and Sausage McMuffins, maybe a little high on Adderall” — a naked display of classism that happens to also be thoroughly inaccurate. The Washington Post quoted anonymous members of law enforcement agencies as “shocked by the backgrounds” of insurrectionists that included “current and former law enforcement and military personnel as well as senior business executives and middle-aged business owners.” The “toothless Cletus” (as I’ve referred to this much-imagined figure in my work), an uneducated redneck dedicated to racism and anti-Semitism in the shadow of a blighted life, has always been more myth than reality — and images of the Capitol riot underscore the flimsiness of this narrative.

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The Trumpists, neo-Nazis, militia members, and QAnon adherents who broke down the doors of the Capitol, wielding improvised and very real weapons, are people who were able to take time off work in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, travel to another city, and make reservations at some of Washington’s swankiest hotels. They were able to devote time and money and resources to buy military gear and use it. They are America’s gentry, golfers, homeowners association members, and school-board warriors and heads of the PTA.

It’s an uncomfortable truth for white America to acknowledge: Those willing to upend the democratic order through violence to further a white supremacist agenda are indistinguishable from the rest of us. They are not even ideological outliers, anymore; a recent Ipsos poll found that 45 percent of Republicans polled approve of the storming of the Capitol. There is no socioeconomic stratum, no geographic location, no level of educational attainment that inures us from the forces of conspiracy and hate, and from the torrid lure of enforcing a white-led order. There is no neighborhood that insulates you, no zip code, no alumni association immune from a force so corrosive it has warped our nation to the breaking point.

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They have always been. While the would-be coupists of Jan. 6 viewed themselves as heirs to the American Revolution — holding signs that referenced 1776, dressing up in colonial costumes, constantly citing the Constitution and its evocation of “tyranny” in their posts on Parler and Facebook and Gab and Twitter — it’s the images of a Confederate flag unfurled on a man’s shoulder as he walks confidently through the mob-occupied Capitol that call to mind another historical period.

It’s the 1870s, the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, when the United States government removed its troops from the South and abandoned a fragile democratic order — and the freedmen who had worked so hard to build it — to the forces of cruelty, terror, and ruin. A government eager to heal, to impose unity, was ready to shirk its need to protect the fragile freedoms of Black people won with blood. As the historian Eric Foner put it this week in The New Yorker, it was a time in which “elected, biracial governments were overthrown by mobs, by coup d’états, by various forms of violent terrorism,” leading to nearly a century of brutal, violent apartheid throughout the South. The members of these groups were former Confederate generals, authors, local politicians, businessmen, gentry, journalists, and mayors. The face of evil has never been unfamiliar in America.

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When embedded in neo-Nazi chat rooms and infiltrating militia communications for my book “Culture Warlords,I experienced, firsthand, the ways in which the hate movement is more petit-bourgeois than media narratives of the most fetid racism arising from the struggling white working class would suggest. That narrative has always been tinged with more sympathy than sense.

In the chat rooms I infiltrated, militia members showed off racks of expensive gear while discussing their jobs and families. Sedition brews in the suburbs just as well as anywhere else, and rage can be borne of boredom and a well-honed sense of grievance rather than any authentic privation. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it, what drives the would-be warriors of the right is a sense that they have been robbed of their right to rule.

Recognizing this simple fact is the first step toward confronting it wherever it arises. Learning from history means active accountability; it means looking at our neighbors, our families, and ourselves, and not flinching from what we find.

Talia Lavin is the author of “Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.”