On January 2, 2021, political violence erupted in the US Capitol. We immediately reached out to Prof. Paul Dumouchel to help us interpret the events. His work is essential to understanding how the modern state claims a monopoly on violence, ostensibly to guarantee the safety of its citizens. As Prof. Dumouchel has observed, the use of violence to subdue violence is an increasingly ineffective and morally questionable strategy. At the Capitol, citizens challenged the bastion of legitimate violence with their own claims of legitimacy, a rivalry with serious implications for American democracy

Paul Dumouchel is Professor of philosophy at the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. He is the author of The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays (Michigan State University Press, 2014) and The Barren Sacrifice (Michigan State University Press, 2015), and, with Rieko Gotoh is co-editor of Against Injustice: The New Economics of Amartya Sen (Cambridge University Press, 2009). His latest book is Living with Robots: Artificial Empathy and Philosophy of Mind, published by Harvard University Press. 

For an external observer—say, a Canadian living in Japan—what happened at the American Capitol on January 6 was shocking and unbelievable. “Is this really the United States?” they might ask: that an angry mob should storm the Capitol where Congress sat certifying the President-elect, aiming apparently to force it to overlook the voice of the people and to take a position in favor of the loser. That a mob would try to impose its fickle will upon the elected representatives of the people was a violation of a basic principle of democracy in the world’s oldest modern democracy, a behavior that we expect more in countries which do not have such a long democratic tradition. 

But a riot is just that: the more or less spontaneous action of people, of a crowd excited by orators encouraging violence, justifying the need to resort to radical means. It is a collective action whose objective is far from clear—in this case ‘stop the steal’! What exactly did that mean? How was that supposed to cash out in concrete action apart from mayhem, violence and destruction? 

A riot is also an orgy of imitation, where leaders and enablers arise out of the mass of people, each one modeling on the other and all converging on the same target. This one was destructive, damaging; five people died. Add to this the property destruction, a riot nonetheless remains an incident: an extraordinary event that has a clear beginning and an end. It is something that constitutes a rupture in the general order of things. No matter how devastating it may have been, it is destined to fade and disappear and to remain only as a sign in memory, a ghost of worse things that did not happen.

From Adversaries to Enemies

More significant to me is the fact that Monday, January 18, two days before the inauguration of the new President and Vice-President, images from Washington showed it as a city under siege, with razor wires, barricades, seven-foot fences erected and thousands of armed National Guards deployed. The FBI warned of possible violent protests against the new administration, with rallies of armed protesters planned across the country. The fifty state capitols were put under police or military protection. Windows and glass doors were covered with wood panels to protect them. Furthermore, newspapers reported fears of ‘insider attacks’, or the danger that some of the troops mobilized to protect the new President and Vice-President might constitute a threat to their security. Therefore, the FBI vetted the 25,000 members of the National Guard that were to be present in Washington. 

When troops surround a country’s parliament, for whatever reason—when governments move to protect public buildings against angry and armed protesters; when the inauguration of a new President needs to be protected by thousands of armed soldiers and authorities have doubts about the troops fidelity—these are not usually signs of a healthy, well functioning democracy. If what happened on January 6 can be viewed as a kind of sacrilege, a desecration of the temple of democracy, it can also be imagined as a one-time transgression. What has been happening since and what might have happened but did not, likely because of the protective measures that were taken, are indicative of a deeper problem and of a more serious rupture—of a situation where political division has transformed many citizens of the same country into enemies of each other, rather than simple political adversaries.  

Distrust in Action

Numerous analysts, observers and journalists repeat that the United States is a divided country and society and that this division must be healed. This is certainly the case, but saying so simply identifies a problem without explaining it. What is surprising, for this external observer, is the level to which American people now do not trust their political institutions. It is true that there is a long American tradition of distrust towards government, of doubting the usefulness and motivation of its decisions and regulations, but this tradition has always gone hand in hand with respect for and pride in the central institutions of American democracy. At least during the last century, this has especially included the Supreme Court. What is happening now is different. The sign of this distrust is not simply or primarily the storming of the Capitol by an angry mob of President Trump’s supporters. Rather it is the claims that the voting process was fraudulent. It is the contention that the sixty judges who rejected as unfounded the accusation of fraud presented by the Trump campaign were dishonest, or that their decisions were politically motivated, even if they had been named by Trump himself. It is the accusation that Republican officials in swing states who also repudiated the claims of the Trump campaign were traitors. Especially significant, I think, is the fact that when the Supreme Court rejected a petition supported by some Republican senators and representatives as well as by the Republican Attorneys General of 13 States, nobody among the Trump campaign or its allies seemed to pay much attention or to recognize that this was final.

Trust is not primarily a question of belief. Essentially it is an action, and so is it with distrust. To trust, for example, the integrity of the voting procedure, registering voters and of counting votes, is to vote and to accept the result. To trust the courts is to feel bound by their verdict. Millions of American citizens, and a large minority in the political class, refused to accept the results of the vote. They disregarded the decisions of the courts. They condemned and sometimes threatened elected officials with violence, whether Republicans or Democrats, if they refused to comply with the discredited narrative of massive fraud. This was distrust in action, not a question of belief, but a question of what you are ready to accept. A question of what, and on whose word, you decide to rest, to guide your future action. These actions reduced the legitimacy of American democratic institutions, and this delegitimization was authorized, legitimized, encouraged by parts of the political class, by numerous elected Republican senators and representatives and by some Republican States’ Attorneys General. Rioters who stormed the Capitol and armed protesters that later gathered (in small numbers) around the various state capitols  were not really saying anything different. They too were claiming that these institutions are illegitimate. They simply said it in a different way.  

When Voices Are Not Heard

How did these institutions come to lose their legitimacy, to the point that many average persons and politicians stopped trusting them? It is true that the Trump administration often rejected the recommendations of its own services and agencies, that the President had no qualms about disagreeing with some of the conclusions they reached, and that he would not follow their advice, thus giving the impression that the state’s services and expertise were neither needed, nor to be trusted. Trump, however, is an easy target, and more a symptom than a cause of what is wrong in American politics. His success was made possible by a social dynamic that he and the Republican party exploited to their advantage, but which they did not create.

There are, I believe, two dimensions to this dynamic. One is properly social, the other institutional. The first comes from the fact that many people and social groups in the United States (but not only there) are becoming disenfranchised. It is not only that these people are losing their jobs, or that whatever jobs there are out there for them are bad jobs. Mostly these people are disenfranchised because they feel they have no prospects of a better future and because no one will listen to them. They have no voice. It is clear that the Democrats bear a large responsibility in this, having turned away from these people’s needs, demands, and culture. The last point is important. People are disenfranchised when their voices cannot be heard. One reason why they cannot be heard, why they are dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant, is that there is a language and a cultural code they do not master. This code constitutes a precondition for any claim to be audible and to be considered legitimate. These people are excluded from the political discussion because they do not speak the right language, which to a large extent is that of political correctness. More precisely, they are excluded because the language they speak declares their claims to be illegitimate. 

Many of these disenfranchised people found outlets for their frustration—first in the Tea Party and then in Trump’s politics—which spoke their discredited language and claimed it as a badge of honor, while aiming to de-legitimize the words and institutions of those they saw as responsible for their disenfranchisement. An outlet however, is not a solution, for it rests on directing frustration against others, against identifiable targets. It is not hard to recognize the sacrificial dimension in such chants as “lock her up” or “send her back”. These rallies were exercises in identifying a common enemy, a source of evil, making them perfect and relevant examples of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. However, simply denouncing such mimetic excesses as evil is not a solution. In fact, it threatens to reinforce the dynamics that underlie the success of such accusations. 

Democracy and “Legitimate” Violence

These institutional dynamics relate to the fact that the modern state is the holder of the monopoly of legitimate violence. The state, I have argued elsewhere, plays in the modern world a role somewhat similar to that of the sacred in simpler societies. It violently protects us from our own violence by giving its violence, and its own violence only, as legitimate. Whether it is in the form of external warfare or of policing and crime repression, in our societies, in principle, only state sanctioned violence is legitimate. This monopoly cannot be reduced to the fact that in our societies the state is usually the most powerful among violent actors, the one who can always have the last word of violence, as was evident in the troop deployment for the inauguration. Essentially, the monopoly of legitimate violence is a moral monopoly, one which rests on the disposition to take as our own the violence of the state—to take it as our own in action, by going to war or by accepting as justified the violence exercised by its officers. 

Yet, over the last twenty years in the United States, and in most other Western democracies, governments have  abandoned this moral monopoly, giving to other social agents—either individuals or enterprises—the power to determine what is and what is not a legitimate use of force. Two examples can illustrate this evolution. One is the rise of security and prevention as motives justifying the use of force. When agents of a private security company working for an airline violently drag a passenger out of a plane because someone—another passenger or an employee of the airline—considers that person a security threat, the airline may be sued if this action was not sufficiently motivated or if excessive force was used. However, neither the agents, nor the company can be proven guilty of a crime if it is possible to argue that the fear was reasonable. The individual, who may have been perfectly harmless and innocent, may have some private recourse against the decision, but no crime has been committed. A private party decision about the legitimate use of force is considered as morally justified. The second example is that of “Stand your ground” laws, which legitimize the private use of force, including lethal violence, by individuals who feel threatened.* Through such laws, the state abandons to private parties the moral authority to decide which acts of violence are legitimate. It transfers to individuals the moral authority to determine which circumstances justify the use of force. In the last twenty years the state has progressively recognized as legitimate and morally justified the private use of force in more and more circumstances. 

This double dynamic has been working in synergy to undermine the state’s moral monopoly on violence which underlies its legitimacy, lessening its ability to protect us against our violence—as can clearly be seen by the growing acrimony of political disputes during those years. It did not, thereby, lessen the state’s own violence, since during that same period the United States has continuously engaged in military conflicts. For a reader of Girard, it is hard to imagine that the coincidence of these three phenomena—the state’s loss of legitimacy through renouncing its moral monopoly, the rise in social conflicts and political ill-will, and constant engagement in external conflicts—is simply a coincidence. Democracy and the rule of law have always granted citizens the rights and power to challenge; not this monopoly as such, but its application in various circumstances where the state resorts to violence. That is their great virtue as forms of government.

Mistaking the Symptom for the Cause

However, the greatest danger today is to imitate those we denounce. It is not, as some newspapers claim, ‘Trumpism’ that is the greatest danger that threatens America in the years to come. It is the desire to find a scapegoat, one who is responsible for all the woes of American politics and society. At this point the most plausible and evident candidate for this social function is, of course, Donald Trump. Democrats have evident reasons to put the blame on him, and increasing numbers of Republicans are eager to distance themselves from the one who feared, more than anything else, to become a loser. This is not to say that Trump is innocent and has no responsibility in the present situation and crisis. It is even likely that he committed criminal actions for which he should be punished. But Trump and Trumpism are not causes; they are symptoms. They have been made possible and empowered by social dynamics, by frustrations and resentments which need to be addressed, to which American society must respond if the ‘Beast’ is not to reappear under a different and even more dangerous guise. 

*This is quite different from invoking self-defense as a defense in court, because in that case the presumption is that only the state’s violence is legitimate. Rather the state can, in certain circumstances, decide after the fact that the private use of violence was in this specific situation justified.