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Not That Kind of Constitutional Crisis

So what happened? Was it a coup? A crisis? Neither? Both? Others have already answered this question quite well; I want to focus on what it might mean for how we think about the constitutional order of the U.S.

Most of the fretting about the constitutional implications of what happened on January 6th misses the point. It wasn’t a constitutional crisis; to the extent that the term has any meaning, the U.S. as a polity reproduces itself by lurching from one crisis to the next. But the reproduction of constitutionality was not disrupted. Trump attempted to subvert constitutional government, but not—we can be sure—because he has a supple understanding of its institutional logics and forms. More importantly, the social and material underpinnings of constitutionality in the U.S. weren’t threatened; they were made transparent. Those who stormed the Capitol did so not simply out of disdain for constitutional forms like the separation of powers. They did it out of a commitment to an enduring constitutional vision of exclusion, exploitation, and extermination. They weren’t rioting against the settler state; they were demanding that the actual settler state be adequate to its concept.

The settler state regards mobilization and direct action by multiracial movements seeking justice and emancipation as threats of the first order. Far-right white supremacist activity, on the other hand, is fetishized as an expression of constituent power—as can be seen in the Capitol Police’s docility during the daylight hours on Wednesday. By nightfall, liberals were thrilling to the spectacle of pigs cracking MAGA skulls. Liberals are determined to use Wednesday’s “armed shitstorm” as a pretext for bulking out the hypertrophied national security state. The organizers and activists putting in the work of building and sustaining the movements and organizations that were both the preconditions and the products of last summer’s scenes of courage and solidarity will be the primary targets of Biden’s agenda for counter-“terrorism” (to use the most weightless of floating signifiers). But they would have been anyway. The necessary work—of solidarity and movement building, for emancipation and abolition—hasn’t changed.