The forces fueling the emotions and the mechanics of the clash are not unlike what we’ve seen in other confrontations in recent months. Social media as the organizing environment; a sense of frustration against the establishment; a belief that some sort of injustice is benefitting the powerful, and a newfound source of strength, a way to attack, to inflict fear and pain on those viewed as responsible, or at least benefitting from that injustice. The difference, of course, was that what the Capitol rioters did was break the law and what the Redditers did on Wall Street appeared to be perfectly legal.
What better way to get even, they might have thought, than to stick it to the very rich, to the Wall Street elite, no less. The moment had echoes of Occupy Wall Street, but this was a different generation, a different time, and very different tactics.
In the case of the violent insurrection, the coup attempt of Jan. 6, the fact that a single charismatic figure, the outgoing president, stoked the emotions and directed his followers into the focus of their attack, turned the anger of the multitudes organized mostly through social media into a very specific and uniquely destructive conflagration.
It’s a reminder that free-floating anger and a restlessness to become empowered, to exact revenge, and to right a perceived wrong, can turn explosive under the sway of charismatic demagogues. Without such leadership, movements can erupt and shake things up, but they become truly dangerous when a leader emerges.
The financial system was shaken, and deeply troubled. The markets, which had preoccupied many observers by climbing relentlessly despite the pandemic recession, suddenly looked vulnerable to the unpredictable behavior of mostly anonymous players. And “players” seemed like the right word. The Reddit crowd, and the people who followed their lead, seemed to be pulling a prank, but it was one with potentially dire consequences. If a Reddit forum can create and destroy billions of dollars, how much can we trust the markets, financial engines of the US economy? And if the players could disrupt US markets, what could they do to smaller ones around the world? How much should we worry about the global economy, already battered by a once-in-a-century pandemic?
From Capitol Hill to Wall Street, from the Netherlands to Germany, the people are restless, social media is open, and institutions are vulnerable. Economic inequality, pandemic frustration, and a sense of uncertainty have brought us to what feels like a hinge in history. The challenge for responsible leaders feels as crucial as it has at any time in living memory.