So this week I want to talk about how what I know a historian influences how I am interpreting what I am going to call the Capitol Insurrection that happened on Wednesday, January 6 instead of taking the week off as I had originally planned. Since that is a really heavy topic, I am also going to do what I was originally planning to do this week, which was to share pictures of the two adorable little cats the Pedant-Household has adopted.
They are named Oliver and Percival (Oliver after the knight from The Song of Roland and Percival after the knight from Arthurian legends, particularly Chretien de Troyes), and they are super-friendly and also oppose insurrectionists.
(Note that I have turned off comments for this post. I know we all have opinions on this, often very strong opinions that others might find very frustrating. I don’t particularly want to moderate that discussion and in any event, you are, at this point, much better off (if you are in the United States) Contacting Your Representatives with your opinion, rather than arguing on the internet.)
We already talked, back in October, about civil strife – stasis – in Greek communities and about how I thought that the United States has found itself in the early but accelerating stages of stasis as described by ancient Greek writers (I also worked in some Roman examples, but I really think the Greek parallel is more useful, as the fall of the Roman Republic was so heavily influenced by the involvement of the Roman Army; the United States military has played no such role, nor indicated it is interested in doing so. For now, the civil-military relationship remains relatively healthy).
I’m going to assume you have all of that already, so if you want to go back and look at how I described stasis and what that meant, you may want to do that first. Instead, I want to move forward and discuss what thinking in terms of stasis means in understanding the Capitol Insurrection and in particular the relevance of that Greek model of stasis in understanding both what has happened and what may need to happen going forward. Starting with:
This Was Serious
While the insurrection was happening and in its immediate aftermath, there was a tendency to focus on the more frivolous, silly parts of it. And there were truly silly looking things. And there are still commentators – some deluded, some acting in bad faith – attempting to insist that this wasn’t serious. They are wrong; the Capitol Insurrection was deadly serious both in the very literal sense that people died (which I think seems to be missed in some quarters), but also for what it means. And, as time has passed and more reporting has been done on what was happening, it has become increasingly apparent that we were perhaps moments away from mass-casualty events (either where politicians were taken by the mob or where the mob so endangered law enforcement or politicians that lethal force was required that would have left many insurrectionists dead).
No ancient Greek would have had any trouble in understanding what happened on the 6th or that it was a serious attempt (albeit an incompetent one) to seize power. Having a leader or a political faction move with a mob (often armed, but not always so) to try to disperse the normal civic assemblies of a Greek polis and occupy their normal meeting place was a standard maneuver to try to seize power during stasis. As Dr. Roel Konijnendijk, an ancient Greek history specialist, noted in this excellent discussion on the r/AskHistorians reddit (where he posts as Iphikrates), “In the Greek world, most attempts to seize power by force tended to take the same form: the seditious party would contrive an opportunity to gather in arms while their opponents were unarmed and off-guard, and seize control of all public spaces.”
To take merely the examples in Athens, Cylon (the ‘c’ is hard, so Ki-lon – or if you prefer the Greek, Ku-lon – not Psi-lon) attempted it in 632, trying to seize the Athenian Acropolis with an armed mob (Thuc. 1.126; Hdt. 5.71; Plut. Sol. 12.1-2). Cylon’s effort failed in appropriately tragicomic fashion, with his supporters seeking shelter in the temple of Athena and only coming out with a cord that connected them to the altar and its notional protection (the cord breaks and they are all slain, Plut. Sol. 12). Peisistratos also did it that way in Athens in 561 (Hdt. 1.59) using handpicked bodyguard that he armed with clubs, rather than spears; I cannot help but note just how many things we saw being used as clubs on the 6th. After the Pesistratids were thrown out, Isagoras attempted (with support from the Spartan king Cleomenes I) to institute an oligarchy the same way, seizing the Acropolis, but failing to take the Athenian agora; the Athenians rallied under the democratic leader Cleisthenes and besieged Cleomenes and Isagoras on the Acropolis (Hdt. 5.72; Arist. Ath. Pol. 20.1-4). Later in 411, the ‘Four Hundred’ would seize power in exactly the same way, arriving with a mob of armed supporters to disperse the Athenian boule – it’s council (Thuc. 8.69). That’s four examples of this exact tactic from Athens alone (Athens was by no means the most stasis-prone ancient state, by the way – that was almost certainly Syracuse).
Moreover, One thing about coup attempts like this in the ancient world: they all look farcical, unless they work. Peisistratos’ band of club-armed bodyguards would have looked terribly silly, except that they succeeded, for a time (put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it). Peisistratos’ second attempt actually built support with something about as farcical as the Q-Anon Shaman, by riding into Athens on a chariot accompanied by a particularly tall woman dressed as Athena (Hdt. 1.60.2-5); the demonstration was taken by some as a sign of divine support. One assumes many Athenians thought it was laughable (Herodotus certainly does), but it was the precursor to another effort to seize power which also worked, albeit temporarily.
Just because it looks silly doesn’t mean it can’t work. This was very serious and anyone pretending that ‘censorship’ on Twitter (a private platform, I thought these folks believed in markets?) or mean – but true – words from angry politicians is more consequential than the violent attempt to seize the seat of government is either a fool, an enemy, or both (though I will note that there is a world of difference between ‘fools’ and ‘enemies’ – fools may be persuaded and doing so is essential, see below. We are all foolish at times; it is the cynics that get my dander up).
This Is Not Over
Let’s come back to Peisistratos, because he is instructive here. Peisistratos tried to make himself tyrant of Athens twice before his third attempt succeeded. We’ve discussed his first attempt above (in 561), where Peisistratos attempted to use a club-armed bodyguard to seize the city (Hdt. 1.59); that worked, but he was overthrown in a counter-coup sometime after (Hdt. 1.60.1; this was not immediately though, Herodotus notes that Peisistratos had time to set government affairs, Hdt. 1.59.6).
For the second attempt in 559, Peisistratos made a key alliance with Megacles – someone we might term an ‘establishment’ figure in the Athenian politics of the day, looking to get the edge on his rivals in the continuing Athenian stasis (Herodotus uses the very word, I should note). He was then brought into the city (the chariot bit above, Hdt. 1.60.2-5) and seized power again, with a mob of his supporters. This effort ends because Peisistratos offends Megacles and once his ally turns on him, he is exiled again (Hdt. 1.61.1-2).
But that wasn’t the end of the matter. Peisistratos, once out of power again used his wealth and support – often foreign support, we are told – to raise an army, hire mercenaries (Argives, Herodotus reports) and rally his supporters before storming back into Athens in 545 (Hdt. 1.16.3-4). Herodotus notes that a great flock of Peisistratos’ partisans from the city swarmed out to support him (this should sound more than a little familiar) and with that mix of mercenaries and mob he was able to catch the Athenians unprepared (Hdt. 1.63.1) and scattered them, then used a mix of misinformation (implying he intended no violence, Hdt. 1.63.2) and speed to seize the key parts of the city to keep the Athenians disorganized. And then he murdered or exiled all of his enemies (Hdt. 1.64.3) because that is what tyrants do, whatever they are assuring you about their peaceful intentions ahead of time. People who seize power with violence instead of with votes do not suddenly become pacifists when they win!
I don’t know what form the continuation of the trends that led to the Capitol Insurrection will take, if there will be further attempts at violent disruption in D.C. itself, or if we’ll see a shift to a campaign of domestic terror (something like The Troubles, in terms of the violence committed), or if, as with the Nazis after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, the folks who supported this insurrection will focus on trying to use the democratic process to abolish the democratic process. But this is not over. There is abundant polling evidence that among a minority of Americans (but a plurality or majority of Republicans; we’ll come back to that) support for the lies (that the election was fraudulent, which it wasn’t; the liars were given plenty of chances to provide any evidence at all for their lies and they didn’t) remains high. As in 545, a great many Americans still support Peisistratos. Some smaller subset of them have bought into messianic conspiracy theories like Q-Anon which fairly transparently could lead to considerable violence. The underlying conditions that made the tyrannical attempt possible still exist, so we should expect more. We should prepare for more (more on what that looks like below this adorable cat).
America Can Win This
Despite that, I do not think all is lost. As I said in November – and I continue to believe this – I think Joe Biden has the correct overall strategy for this problem. As I’ve already discussed, while the ancient Greek experience with stasis should fill us with justified concern, it also offers examples of hopeful success. In 404, the Athenian oligarchic faction was put in power by the Spartans and began a bloody rule that would be remembered as the ‘Thirty Tyrants;’ – not only were the Athenians able to oust this government, but they were able to restore their democracy and fortify it against future efforts of this sort through a mix of justice and accountability for the ring-leaders along with reconciliation and constructive redefinition for the populace. Joe Biden appears determined to follow what is essentially that strategy; many democrats and a growing number of republicans seem ready to join that strategic approach. It has proven it can work in the past in circumstances far further gone than what the United States is currently facing.
Of course there are pitfalls, on either side of this careful balance between holding the leaders of the stasis accountable and yet reincorporating their followers into the citizen body. Examples emerge from all of the failed efforts to contain stasis. Reconciliation without justice merely allows Peisistratos to keep trying until he gets lucky and succeeds. But what is equally obvious from the history of stasis (on this, see Thuc. 3.82-86) is that vengeance without law or reconciliation merely heightens tensions and ensures that the next explosion of violence will be worse. As Thucydides put it, in that case, “Men take it upon themselves, in their revenge against each other, to do away with those laws common to all humanity, which offer hope to all, and not to leave them intact in case they might someday by some peril stand in need of them.”
That said, I think the United States is well positioned to use this script to defeat the assault on its democracy. The effort on the Capitol merely delayed the execution of the laws by the Congress and even then not very long. The number of people who think well of the insurrection, while distressingly high, is still a relatively small minority, outnumbered many times over. More importantly, the mask is now off and the plan to overturn the democracy by force is now plain. Which leads to…
There is Work To Do
So what does a solution look like? Working from the example of successful Athenian recovery from the Thirty, I think, implies some key steps:
- First, it will be necessary to look for ways to split the marginal supporters of insurrectionist ‘faction’ off from it. I want to be clear that the insurrectionist faction isn’t simply ‘the Republicans’ (that is, it isn’t all of them); of the 262 congressional republicans, only about half (138 in the House, 7 in the Senate) ended up supporting the effort to refuse to count electoral votes, which was the core goal of the insurrection. The rest represent soft supporters who might be drained away from the insurrectionists, weakening them. If that is frustrating, then do not think of it in terms of ‘unity’ or ‘healing’ but as a tactical decision designed to strip the hard insurrectionists of their cover so they can be rooted out more effectively.
- Of course it will be necessary to apply the same strategy to the population writ large. Disturbing polling suggests that almost half of Republicans think Joe Biden shouldn’t be sworn in and that as many as 70% of Republicans have bought the ‘fraud’ lies. I’ve seen some folks who see that sort of polling and despaired, but remember also, Republican party affiliation was already very low because of the lies, sitting at around 25%. It is a safe bet it has dropped further. A ‘democracy coalition’ of nearly all democrats and independents and even a third of republicans presents a powerful super-majority well capable of frustrating efforts to undermine democracy by either force or electoral ruse.
- The crucial step towards that is penetrating the authoritarian information bubble that has allowed the lies the insurrection was built on to survive. Generally speaking, the best way to achieve that is to look to co-opt elites who are trusted voices in that domain, which leads right back into the main point above, because the trusted elites that are available to be co-opted are mostly republicans. By breaking through the bubble, the insurrectionists can be thinned out (as the marginal supporters jump ship and join the pro-democracy faction, or at least stop supporting figuring undermining democracy) rendering the violent dead-enders more vulnerable to law enforcement.
- If this sounds a lot like counter-insurgency strategy, that’s because it has essentially the same basis, even though I am patterning these steps off of 2,400-year-old Athenian politics rather than recent insurgencies. These are time tested approaches.
- The law must be enforced. One great advantage that the Athenian pro-democracy faction had after the fall of the Thirty was that they could claim to be acting for the law, within the law. The rhetorical power of being ‘for the law’ in these cases is indispensable. Fortunately, what has become very clear over the past several months is that the formal legal establishment was profoundly uninterested in supporting the insurrection. Moreover, while there are still serious questions about the law enforcement and security response in the early moments of the Capitol Insurrection, the mounting lists of charges makes it fairly clear that at least federal law enforcement has no intention of blinking at all of this. One assumes the change of administration will only make that more true. The pro-democracy faction thus has a powerful advantage: it can do its work through the law, without succumbing to private violence or petty revenge.
- The law should be used both to punish individual insurrectionists who break laws but also to break up insurrectionist groups.
- The law should also become a key rhetorical position. ‘We are for the law’ is a powerful statement if it can be backed up by actions and can help to win over or at least neutralize potential insurrection supporters.
- Next, the leaders must be held accountable (but this too within the law). If laws were broken, then charges should be brought. We must not make the mistake of allowing Peisistratos three tries to overthrow the government. Leaders who have violated public trust in legal, but shameful ways, should be shamed and voted out of office (or at least marginalized within their parties).
- Finally, in all of this supporters of American democracy should seek to redefine the American identity as being one that supports the constitutional government and opposes violent authoritarianism. This is where I think the reflexive rejection of the rhetorical position that looks at the insurrection and declares “this isn’t what America is” is misguided. Of course we all know that the American record on equality under the law, and of avoiding violence in politics is far from spotless. But the rhetorical power of having a majority of a society define an ideology out of itself is very great – people want to belong more than they want almost anything else – and ‘we are’ exerts a far stronger pull on the human mind than ‘you should.’ The Athenian democracy succeeded in no small part because it defined opposition to the democracy out of the Athenian community: to be a good Athenian was to support the democracy, to oppose the democracy was to not really be a proper Athenian at all. Of course that was just as much an aspirational fiction as looking at the Capitol Insurrection and saying “this is un-American” when, quite obviously, the insurrectionists were Americans! Quite evidently, there were a lot of supporters of the Thirty in Athens, to the point that Xenophon just calls them the ‘Men of the City’ at points. But it is a valuable aspirational and normative statement and not to be discarded. It helped the Athenians to drain away supporters from the oligarchy and reaffirm the support for their democracy.
To be clear, I think at this juncture, the political coalition behind democracy and the rule of law and opposed to insurrection has the upper hand. The Capitol Insurrection looks clearly to have been a real defeat for the insurrectionists, some of whom have been arrested, while significant parts of the insurrectionist information system have been degraded or dismantled. It is clear that when the insurrectionists showed their true colors, they alienated a lot of fellow travelers – how many stay alienated remains to be seen, of course. But for now, they are on the back foot.
Meanwhile, the remaining insurrectionists are caught on the horns of a dilemma – there is clearly a desire for further direct, violent action among them, but such action is likely to alienate even more marginal supporters and leave the remaining insurrectionists even more exposed to law enforcement. But on the flip side, failing to show any progress towards the stated goals of the insurrection – which, to be clear, are at this point completely unachievable – is likely to cause a loss of morale in the movement. Running an insurgency when a clear majority of the population opposes you is not a high-success endeavor for exactly this reason: the activities which motivate a terrorist movement’s followers (because we should be honest about what kind of movement the insurrection is) alienate the public whose support they rely on for supplies, motivation and cover from law enforcement. Most insurgencies fail, even when they do have a significant measure of popular support; insurgencies without such support fail at extremely high rates. And by adhering stubbornly to the law, the anti-insurrectionists can avoid the sort of over-reaching violence that tends to serve as propaganda for them, denying the insurrectionists and their fellow travelers the opportunity to use the state’s violence as a recruiting tool against it.
I think that is the road forward and I see very real opportunities for success should it be pursued.
Next week, we’ll get back to talking about history, by asking the question, “is there a universal combat experience, or a ‘universal warrior?'” (And for those hoping for textiles, I promise I am working on it)