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Welcome to the Rest of the United States

We saw the warning signs of white-supremacist insurgency in states long before the attack on the federal Capitol, but did nothing. It’s past time we act.

Words: Matt Leatherman
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons

“The states are the laboratory of democracy,” they say.

Yes, but.

This truth is incomplete. The states also are the laboratories of autocracy. Of vigilantism.

Try telling me which of these five pictures is from Washington this week:


None of them. None. These are photos from the capitols of Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon — all different regions of this country.

How about how many of these pictured scenes unfolded in 2021? You know the answer now — again, none.

Here is a list of words that cannot describe the assault on our national capitol this week: Unimaginable, unbelievable, unprecedented.

White supremacists have rehearsed this assault over and over in the states. What happened at the Capitol is utterly ordinary and familiar in this context. It is also wholly within our broader history: Wilmington, North Carolina — a city two hours from me right now — was the scene of a white supremacist coup almost 125 years ago. The same sort of crowd razed Black Tulsa in 1921. The list goes on.

The only reason that Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol feels at all shocking is because we have held ourselves willfully ignorant of the domestic insurgency festering across our country.

Once more: we have a simmering insurgency within the United States.

The only reason that Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol feels at all shocking is because we have held ourselves willfully ignorant of the domestic insurgency festering across our country.

Inkstick is an outlet for people who care about national security and know a good bit about it. All the things that you know about insurrection around the world, think about it here.

We have the intel report. DHS’ homeland threat assessment gave top billing to these exact same organizations in October — as if it was not already evident from Charlottesville, Kenosha, Portland, and so on going back in time. The facts are in.

We have the DDI playbook. Entire curriculums at our public policy and international affairs graduate programs unpack deescalation and conflict resolution strategies for civil strife that, if teleported to Pristina or Monrovia, would look so familiar to us. I know it from seeing it in my own time at Columbia.

And we know — we know — that you pull insurgency up by the root. You do not try to weed-whack it when it gets out of control.

“Laboratory” is not the right analogy for the states. They are “the root.”

We have ignored this simmering insurgency as it took root.

So, DC, welcome to the rest of the United States. Those out here in the states know this scene already. Our pioneering organizers, from deep canvassers to abolitionists, who have been in this fight for longer than many of us — myself included — have really known that it existed. (PS: Why y’all think we won Georgia just a day before this mess? These same organizers.)

We have petite-McConnells and petite-Hawleys throughout this country. We have to care about that. We cannot maintain willful — sometimes even glib — ignorance of it. The body politic does not begin in Washington and face overseas from there.

The states are not the proverbial provinces. They are the future. We have been living the autocracy and insurrection you just saw for some time.

It’s past time to do something about it. We have tens of thousands of insurgent foot soldiers to reintegrate and a few hundred would-be warlords to uproot.

While we’re telling tough truths, let me bear down on this one. In no world are we going to prosecute every insurgent who laid siege to the Capitol this week. As Anderson Cooper said on live TV, the vast majority are going to eat at Olive Garden, crash at the Holiday Inn, and head home, where we very well may see them stomping through a statehouse next month.

Our task for these weakly-affiliated followers is to reintegrate them, just like we strive to reintegrate the vast majority of insurgents in other civil conflicts around the world. For a primer on international efforts at active reintegration in much more formalized and organized conflicts, have a look at this UK Government summary.

This is our job. We — expressly those of us with the privilege to have policy educations or global, comparative experiences — have this job. Ringleaders go to jail, full stop. The legions of lackeys are not going to take care of themselves, though, and ignoring or dismissing them is not going to make them disappear. They are followers, by definition, and they need new leaders.

It is not an easy or palatable job because of the stubbornness and bigotry that we saw on display in the Capitol.

But either we do it, or we watch these roots spread, statehouse to statehouse, to eventually crack the very foundations of this country.

Let’s get on with it.

Matt Leatherman is a fiscal and financial expert whose career ranges from co-authoring “A Leaner and Meaner Defense” in the Winter 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs to running as a Democratic candidate for NC Treasurer earlier this year.

Matt Leatherman

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