Politics

The Capitol Riot Was an Expression of Violent Male Rage

A white man wearing a red 45 hat screams skyward, standing in a crowd of other male Trump supporters, some waving American flags.
Donald Trump supporters storm the Capitol on Wednesday. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Among the insurrectionist mob that attempted an overthrow of the U.S. government on Wednesday was Richard “Bigo” Barnett, a 60-year-old Donald Trump supporter who’d traveled to D.C. from Arkansas for the rally-turned-riot. He soon became one of the attack’s most recognizable faces: After the rioters broke windows, beat down doors, and assaulted law enforcement officers to get into the Capitol, Barnett installed himself behind a desk in the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There, he rested his foot on the desk and gleefully posed for photos.

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What else did Barnett do during the Capitol siege? “I wrote [Pelosi] a nasty note”—“Nancy, Bigo was here you bitch,” the note said—“and scratched my balls,” he told a New York Times reporter.

Much has been written, accurately, about the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd that stormed the Capitol last Wednesday. The politics of whiteness both fueled the movement to overturn the results of the presidential election and allowed its adherents to succeed in their mission to seize the center of U.S. government. But the Capitol riot was also a predictable outcome of a political movement that feeds male rage, with conspiracy theories, narratives of victimhood, and frenzied calls to arms. In addition to the five deaths and plans for further violence that came terrifyingly close to reaching fruition, there were also participants who fought through lines of Capitol Police officers and committed multiple federal crimes for the pleasure of touching their testicles in a nonpublic space usually occupied by a woman they hate.

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The line between sedition and gender-based violence blurred as men targeted Pelosi for what some intended to be a fatal assault. Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr., a man who drove to D.C. from Colorado with multiple firearms, sent a text on Wednesday that read, “headed to DC with a shit ton of 5.56 armor piercing ammo.” On Thursday, he texted, “Thinking about heading over to Pelosi CUNT’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV,” and, later, “I’m gonna run that CUNT Pelosi over while she chews on her gums. … Dead Bitch Walking.”

Missives like Meredith’s clarify the latent danger in some of the riot’s more prankish elements. According to one member of Congress, the women’s restroom near the Speaker’s Lobby was “totally trashed” with “tampons thrown all over” after the rioters were removed from the building. Every photograph of the damage they caused, every video clip of their assaults on police officers, and every contemporaneous social media post calling for the lynching of Trump’s political opponents leaves a trace of carnage that could have been. If these terrorists showed no compunction about beating armed law enforcement agents on federal property—and killing one—to gain entrance to the Capitol, one can only imagine what they would have done if they’d entered Pelosi’s office, or the women’s restroom, and found someone there.

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Wednesday’s siege loudly named and further entrenched the Republican Party as the party of white supremacy and male entitlement. It was performed on behalf of Trump, who rose to power on a wave of anger at women and people of color in positions of authority. It was organized by the Proud Boys, a male chauvinist extremist group with white nationalist ties. There were plenty of women there, including two of the insurrectionists who died during the riot, and women have been essential promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory that drove—or provided an excuse for—many people who invaded the Capitol last week. But the women who were there were invested in promoting a specific vision of male power, as embodied by the Proud Boys’ mission to “venerate the housewife.” Their movement glorifies concrete displays of masculine domination, such as street brawls and over-the-top weaponry, but it also rests on rhetoric that shows deference to patriarchal control. After the president was stripped of his social media platforms, diminishing his ability to incite mass violence, Trump’s national press secretary appeared on Fox News on Monday to dub his boss “the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House.”

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That reverence for authoritarian masculinity is a hallmark of the Christian nationalism that exploded into violence last week. It’s a force that has been propagating in abortion politics for decades. So it was no surprise to see several known abortion-clinic harassers in the crowds storming the Capitol. Derrick Evans, who resigned from his position as a West Virginia state legislator after being charged with illegally entering the Capitol, has held regular protests outside a health center in West Virginia. After one employee told a court that Evans had harassed her, threatened her, followed her around, and spoke on video about having a concealed firearm on his person, she was granted a permanent restraining order against Evans, which he violated. Reporters at Rewire News Group also “confirmed the presence and involvement of dozens of other well-known anti-abortion terrorists and protesters,” including John Brockhoeft, who was convicted in the 1980s for bombing one abortion clinic and planning an attack at another.

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Some on the right would hold that the violent tactics of abortion-clinic harassers is motivated by, and limited to, a medical procedure they call genocide. But the Christian right’s fixation on abortion—to the exclusion of all other putative Christian values—as a justification for elevating destructive, cruel, and anti-democratic leaders has always been a sham. Abortion access has merely provided the simplest means for right-wing politicians to activate violent anger at women’s increasing social and political power. Now, the calls for political violence are getting more explicit: In addition to claims that liberals are murdering babies, Republicans are revving up their base with allegations that Democrats are running a global pedophilia ring and the presidential election was stolen by urban Black voters in swing states. What are followers of the most masculine president in U.S. history to do but take up arms and prove their own strength?

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