Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Capitol Insurrection: Our Altamont Moment

It exposed a broken country and shattered delusions that never deserved to be taken seriously in the first place.
Trump Supporters Capitol

Like a shard of lightning illuminating a darkened landscape, a single event can bring an entire historical era into sharp focus. What had been half-hidden becomes nakedly exposed. Such a moment occurred on January 6 when supporters of President Trump assaulted, occupied, and ransacked the Capitol.

The insurrection of January 6 was this generation’s Altamont Moment. As did Altamont, it shattered delusions that never deserved to be taken seriously in the first place.

An infamous December 1969 rock concert in southern California that descended into mindless violence, Altamont demolished fantasies of the Sixties as an Age of Aquarius. Occurring just months after Woodstock had seemingly affirmed illusions of peace, love, and good dope giving birth to a new and more enlightened society, Altamont exposed the dark underside of such expectations. A post-mortem published in Rolling Stone accurately characterized Altamont as “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude,” and sheer greed.

If you are looking for terms to describe America in our own age—not simply the age of Trump, but also of Iraq and Afghanistan, Amazon and Google, Fox News and Facebook, Antifa and Proud Boys, epic government dysfunction and the havoc wreaked by COVID-19—egotism, hype, ineptitude, and greed provide a good place to start.

After 9/11 and the costly military disappointments that ensued, why should anyone be surprised at the inability of the Capitol Police to secure the building that moist-eyed members of the media have suddenly christened the “people’s house”? Incompetence combined with hyperbole are twin signatures of our times.

The Great Insurrection of 2021 rings down the curtain on the post-Cold War era: that is what this event signifies. The mirage of American global preeminence, nursed in official circles since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has now become untenable. Once tantamount to a civil religion, American Exceptionalism has devolved into little more than an excuse for ignoring facts and evading responsibility—like the organizers at Altamont hiring Hell’s Angels to serve as an improvised concert security force.

In exchange for their dubious services, the Hell’s Angels got free beer. Members of the mob that stormed the Capitol will get indictments and rightly so.

But however justified, those indictments will miss the larger point. All of the angry denunciations being heaped on Trump for exhorting his supporters to engage in criminal conduct are entirely appropriate. Yet they are also distractions of a sort.

While the events of January 6 may represent a culmination of an abysmal presidency, they come nowhere near to explaining the catastrophe that has befallen the nation in recent years. The Trump presidency is merely one expression of that catastrophe. What should really concern us are the forces that gave rise to Trumpism in the first place and that just weeks ago found Trump himself him winning over 74 million votes, the second largest number ever in any presidential election. That statistic calls for sober reflection.

The mayhem committed earlier this week by a few thousand misguided citizens can be quickly repaired. The damage sustained by the polity as a consequence of a prolonged bout of egotism, hype, ineptitude, and greed won’t be as easily mended. For the events of January 6 to deflect attention from the need to acknowledge and confront that damage would be a travesty.

Imagine the irony if Trump’s departure from the White House, now just days away, lulls anti-Trumpers into thinking that all will now be well. Nothing would be more likely to ensure the continuation of the bitter divisiveness that the nation is presently enduring.

To judge by the promises issued by President-elect Joe Biden, and by the character of his cabinet appointments, the restoration of normalcy may now be at hand. But a return to normalcy is not good enough. Normalcy bred Trumpism and gave us Trump.

Ours is a broken country. Fail to acknowledge that and the Great Insurrection of 2021 may be a mere precursor of worse things to come.

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.