The seeds of the violent assault on the Capitol were planted decades ago. Yes, President TrumpDonald TrumpGrowing number of GOP lawmakers say they support impeachment YouTube temporarily bars uploading of new content on Trump’s channel House passes measure calling on Pence to remove Trump MORE bears the lion’s share of the blame for inciting his supporters. That blame extends to the Republicans, conservative news outlets and social media giants that amplified the president’s false claims of election fraud. But the roots of the insurrection lie far deeper — in the theft of enormous wealth from millions of white, blue-collar Americans.
President Obama took significant flak in 2008 for his observation that many rural voters “cling to guns or religion … or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.” Lost in the partisan food fight over Obama’s comments is an important preamble: In “a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them.” In Obama’s telling, rural Americans embraced increasingly fringe political views “as a way to explain” their economic “frustrations.”
As it turns out, he was exactly right. Obama predicted the rise of Trumpism well over a decade ago.
To be sure, poverty is not the sole cause of political violence and terrorism. History is replete with examples of extraordinarily wealthy, well-educated extremists. Ideology, as it turns out, matters — a lot.
But it is virtually impossible for fringe ideologies to attract a mass following without widespread economic distress — particularly if it is associated with a loss of cultural, social or national “greatness.”
Put simply, the alienation, disgruntlement and relative deprivation fueled by economic decline increases susceptibility to conspiracy theories, scapegoating and extreme rhetoric.
Case in point: Most deep-red states and counties are struggling economically. At the same time, rightwing extremism has surged in America, by one estimate resulting in well over 300 murders since the early 1990s. The decimation of manufacturing in the Midwest and the ensuing rise of a far-right militia movement serves as the quintessential case study for this phenomenon.
Democratic-run cities and counties, on the other hand, generally enjoy dynamic, prosperous economies. In stark contrast to the death toll of rightwing extremism, leftwing terrorists have killed one American in recent decades.
Importantly, the atrociously high murder and crime rates plaguing many cities are not symptoms of political extremism. They are further evidence of poverty and economic distress.
Contrary to claims by Trump and his Republican supporters, numerous U.S. government assessments and reviews of arrest records found that criminal opportunists – not antifa or other ideologically motivated leftwing extremists – were largely to blame for the rioting and looting that followed last summer’s racial justice protests. Like surging homelessness and the proliferation of drugs, this looting and rioting is yet another symptom of economic distress and surging inequality.
In stark contrast to the relative absence of leftwing extremists among last summer’s looters, the vast majority of the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol were motivated by political ideology. By and large, these rioters are fanatical supporters of the president who, in their own words, were summoned by Trump.
In a remarkable parallel, rightwing extremists in Germany attempted to storm the parliament building last August. Despite significant investment to prop up the former East German states, most of the rioters hailed from the economically depressed areas once under communism (itself a fringe political movement borne out of economic grievance) — providing further evidence of a robust causal relationship between economic distress and extreme politics.
Ultimately, the attack on the Capitol was the violent culmination of the collapse of white, blue-collar America. Trump was simply the charismatic figure who tapped into a litany of legitimate economic grievances most effectively.
But how did we get here?
Beginning in the 1970s, a toxic philosophy of “shareholder primacy” – which holds that a corporation’s first obligation is to maximize shareholder profits – took root in America. As business executives made huge returns for wealthy shareholders their main mission, American wages began stagnating. After all, what better way to maximize profit than by reducing workers’ pay and benefits or by outsourcing manufacturing to countries with vast pools of cheap labor?
Five decades of stagnant wages, relentless outsourcing of jobs, the collapse of unions and enormous tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy mean that half of U.S. workers – 86 million Americans – now earn less than $35,000 per year. At the same time, education, housing and health care costs have skyrocketed. Unsurprisingly, a staggering 61 percent of Americans cannot afford a $1,000 emergency, while lines at food banks sometimes stretch for miles.
In total, $50 trillion shifted from millions of hard-working Americans to the wealthiest 1 percent over the last 45 years. The evisceration of a once-prosperous middle class left millions of white, blue-collar Americans poor, sick and angry — a dismal dynamic that Trump exploited by scapegoating immigrants and trade.
Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress must take heed. After the assault on the Capitol, it is clear that inequality-fueled political polarization and extremism pose a greater existential threat to the United States than climate change or an ascendant China — two formidable challenges in their own right.
The only way to ensure that a more competent demagogue does not gain a Trump-like following is by rebuilding the American middle class. Setting aside the inevitable GOP complaints about “socialism,” a limited, targeted wealth tax – reinvested into an FDR-style renewable energy jobs program focused on rural America – is an enormous step in the right direction. The same goes for breaking up the crushing stranglehold that corporations and agri-business have over farm communities.
These policies would not only resurrect the middle class by returning five decades of hard-earned wealth to Trump’s white, blue-collar base. They would also ensure that the alarming events of Jan. 6, 2021 are never repeated.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.