Violence in the periphery always comes back to the center, eventually. On January 6, the world saw Trump-supporting protestors and conspiracy theorists coalesce in Capitol Hill before storming America’s legislative branch in open insurrection. Whatever we call it, the question is why it happened, and there are many partial answers.
A leader-obsessed analyst will point to Trump’s acts of sedition; he played a unique role in encouraging the protestors toward violence and willful disorder. Some might draw our attention to polarization trends in American politics. Others might rightly point to structural racism or oligarchic capitalism — causes that are far upstream of Trump or any singular event. Each of these takes has part of the story but misses other crucial aspects.
The Trump-centric explanation, for instance, is true but uninteresting, raising more questions than it answers. How was Trump possible? How could Trump command the violent loyalty of so many citizens when other presidents could not and would not? Polarization is a real thing, but not only reeks of whataboutism between right and left; it doesn’t tell us why violence and insurrection is limited to Trump supporters with nothing comparable on the left. White supremacy, meanwhile, is unfortunately a constant in American politics, which raises the question of why now if it’s the underlying cause of an insurrectionist moment. And it’s true that extreme inequality deprives working-class conservatives of any material claim to American identity, leaving them open to radicalization because of their near total reliance on culture-war symbolism. But what, then, accounts for their material deprivation?
These answers all lay partial claim to the truth, but we should understand that what took place on Capitol Hill was a longstanding risk built into how the national security establishment thinks about foreign policy. There is a way in which we were long warned that America’s grand strategic commitment to an overmilitarized form of deep engagement abroad was always going to culminate in a direct affront to democracy.
This is bitter medicine for me, because I came up in the national security establishment before becoming a scholar and am still part of the tribe. I even believe in deep engagement, just a less militarized version that’s impossible to realize as long as Washington collectively fails to see how militarized foreign policy decisions over the decades contributed to the shock on Capitol Hill. If policymakers continue to overlook the connections between what happens at home and what we do abroad, we’ll see much worse than what happened on January 6.
A grand strategy of deep engagement sometimes gets described as “liberal internationalism” or “liberal hegemony.” It’s basically US military superiority over all conceivable adversaries, forward positioned in key regions to preserve a favorable balance of power — in turn necessitating US alliances to host US military presence — and a global economic order structured to promote the free movement of goods and capital as well as human rights (in theory). Washington’s foreign policy mandarins have long believed that this collection of policies produces international security. For a time, it helped deter great-power wars, eschew arms-racing pressures, and incentivize prioritizing trade and diplomacy over conflict. To an extent, it arguably still does.
Speaking against the Vietnam War in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. intoned, “A nation that continues year after year to invest more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Only a peoples experiencing spiritual death can think storming Capitol Hill is any kind of answer to their problems.
But this distinctly muscular way of engaging the world has a massive, costly blind spot — overreliance on the threat and use of force. The idea that “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States” wasn’t just a Bush-era war on terror slogan; it echoes the logic of Washington grand strategy before and since the Bush days — forward military everything is the best way to keep regions we care about stable.
Yet one of the classical insights from post-colonial studies and research on imperialism is that militaristic foreign policies breed militarism at home. Scholars have been writing about this for a hundred years. W.E.B. Du Bois lectured that European and American imperialism caused World War I; the perfection of killing techniques and norms of domination in far flung lands eventually made its way back home to ravage Europe, the metropole. John Hobson explained that instead of political enfranchisement and attending to inequality at home, governments used foreign threats and jingoistic foreign policy “to bemuse the popular mind and divert rising resentment against domestic abuses.” Distraction over progress could be the theme of the past four years. More recently, the essayist Pankaj Mishra noted how “It was always an illusion to suppose that ‘civilized’ peoples could remain immune, at home, to the destruction of morality and law in their wars against barbarians abroad.” We’ve been told in a million different poetic ways that it’s simply not possible to keep the destructiveness of war and its preparations quarantined overseas.
But this singularly important takeaway from the age of empires is utterly incompatible with a grand strategy of militarized liberal internationalism. US foreign policy betrays a jaundiced reading of history that skips over its most inconvenient lesson. It has given us this insurrectionist moment in unintentional but specific ways that are not hard to see if you comprehend how literal and structural violence abroad molests democracy at home.
Speaking against the Vietnam War in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. intoned, “A nation that continues year after year to invest more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Only a peoples experiencing spiritual death can think storming Capitol Hill is any kind of answer to their problems. Dr. King witnessed anti-poverty programs in the early 1960s — which were making a difference in the lives of Black people — displaced by the need to pay for the escalating Vietnam War. As Michael Brenes has shown in a recent book, what King saw was the prevailing pattern of political economy in the Cold War, not an anomaly. Today, the massive cost associated with maintaining a dominant military and keeping up a horizon-less war on terrorism comes at the expense of domestic investment in programs capable of deflating anti-democratic attitudes and preventing right-wing radicalization in the first place — public education, poverty reduction, public works, and realistic living wages for workers. We can’t know how many of the Capitol insurrectionists were unemployed or otherwise disenfranchised, but we know that running perpetual deficits for the sake of the military apparatus rather than for national investment amounts to slow violence against civil society itself. The Cold War made a conventional wisdom of impoverishing the welfare state by substituting the warfare state. Fast forward to 2020, when the only thing Democrats and Republicans could agree on was ensuring that the National Defense Authorization Act overcame a presidential veto to commit $740 billion to defense spending. In the middle of a pandemic and great-depression economy, that kind of money could be spent giving people a brighter future than one where they believe insurrection is the only option.
War is also a powerful influence on culture, especially on masculinity. Kathleen Belew’s research, to take a directly salient example, exposed the Vietnam War as a wellspring for the white power movement of the 1990s, and by extension today’s alt-right. So we should hardly be surprised that foreign policy would fuel a willingness to storm and occupy the Capitol in more subversive ways, like the “bro culture” born of endless wars.
In the ecosystem of bro culture, sharing common referents like Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson means you’re likely to know more about the unverified miracle benefits of CBD oil or the latest conspiracy theory than what’s in the Constitution. But most people who identify with bro culture aren’t right-wing radicals. They simply seek something — personal betterment, brotherhood, or to measure themselves against prevailing standards of masculinity. I’m part of this world. I train in jiu-jitsu. I served in the military. I’m a self-improvement junkie. I listened to Rogan for years. So I’m not ready to condemn anyone simply for being part of a culture in which many men find fulfillment and constructive ways to channel their energy.
The problem is this way of living is capable of incubating fascism. And sometimes it does. I’ve seen friends I train with go down the MAGA rabbit hole. Look at any photos of the insurrectionists at the Capitol and you’re bound to see Punisher logos, camouflage fatigues, flak jackets, and any number of other accouterments of militarism even beyond the guns aplenty. Such garb accompanies the “tactical life” — time at the shooting range, survival tactics, motivational YouTube videos by Navy SEALs, and depending on their information diet, a large dose of propaganda. The “coolest” parts of the culture glamorize prepping for violence and disaster without any specific purpose or intent. It’s an outgrowth of a generation of (mostly) men that have lived in the ambient glow of continuous war amid everyday life. Many are veterans, and even those who aren’t still valorize soldiers fighting something, anything — for most of my life it’s been terrorists and “rogue” states, but it’s quickly becoming China. Being immersed in bro culture means being ready to be activated for the “right” cause. A disturbing enough number of folks who live this way clearly thought storming the Capitol was the cause they’d been waiting for.
And then there’s the promise of social cohesion and healing that a culture of endless wars deprives us of. I’m haunted by Adam Serwer’s observation that “War nationalism always turns inward, but in the past, wars ended.” America is missing out on the boost to national unity in the civic sphere that normally follows recovery from wars — because the logic of the war on terror has no end. How can we expect anything but national fracture when politicians agree on military superiority and endless war but little else?
You can dress up militarism abroad with rhetoric about liberty and freedom, but you can’t escape the consequence that doing so poisons your own polity. To borrow again from Dr. King, “there is a very obvious and almost facile connection” between the war-centricity of American foreign policy and a degradation of democracy at home so great that waves of US citizens believe they need to launch an insurrection. The real shock is that we who make national security do not see how this nightmare was a risk built into our designs from the beginning.
Van Jackson is an American professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a distinguished fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast and served as a strategist and policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration.