Photo Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock.com
On January 6, Donald Trump’s spectacular MAGA insurrection radiated far beyond Capitol Hill. It was screened everywhere, over every known medium—broadcast, social, antisocial, what have you. The events and their meanings have been stockpiled in a cornucopian arsenal of propaganda, digital weaponry that is not done ravaging the world.
The videos will circulate endlessly, just as after Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda and its supporters flooded the world with footage of the Twin Towers crumbling, they will amount to recruitment posters on an endless loop. Enemies of democracy everywhere already exult to watch how much usurpation the insurrectionists could get away with; how many symbols of their hated government were trashed, vandalized, defaced, and stolen; how many windows and doors smashed; how many documents photographed. “There’s gotta be something in here we can fucking use against these scumbags,” says a man shooting pictures at Ted Cruz’s desk on the Senate floor.
Forced to surrender the barely guarded Capitol after hours of occupation, they posted their violence to social media, inscribing their performance in history. They have their Alamo now—in living color, in perpetuity, with cameos featuring martyrs. (Was it at random that Trump chose Alamo, Texas, as the site of his January 12 rally?) “We have a bloody red shirt to wave around,” one caller told a Washington, D. C., radio station about Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter who was shot and killed by police as she attempted to breach the Speaker’s lobby.
Imagine yet more would-be assassins and kidnappers with iPhones.
The appalling spectacle of January 6 was propaganda of the deed—the proof, to true believers, that the rioters constituted the full and actual “people” who by rights were entitled to seize “the people’s house” and usurp the powers of democratic government. It’s an old story. In 1832, John C. Calhoun heralded a right to the “nullification” of federal laws. Twenty-nine years later, after the legitimate election of Abraham Lincoln, Calhoun’s “very fine people” took the next step at Fort Sumter.
Refusal to accept legitimate government, and the lawful transition from one government to the next, is the ultimate nullification. It is proof that the imagination of Republican-fueled crazies exceeds the imagination of police forces.
The president’s Republican bootlickers assured us for years that Donald Trump should be taken seriously, not literally.Republican leaders and pet broadcasters long assured delusional authoritarians that the election was going to be stolen, as undocumented people, dogs, and corpses mailed in their fake ballots. Ballots would be trashed, they said, miscounted in dark rooms.
Software would be hacked.
In fact, they assured us, Hillary Clinton would not have won the popular vote in 2016 but for votes cast by undocumented people. They insisted that restricting the right to vote is patriotic; that their dear leader, Donald Trump, was entitled to do anything in his power to cancel the self-government of “we the people of the United States.”
On January 6, among those who cheered on the 139 Republican members of Congress and eight Senators who voted to rescind the electoral college voice, once the tear gas cleared, were several hundred or thousand, literally loaded for bear: they squirted Capitol police with bear spray. Their rage against their “elitist” enemies is bottomless, their infatuation with Trump is boundless, and their rancid imagination sets no limits to violence.
In MAGA world culture, the chalk lines separating reality from reality-TV are routinely smudged—think about pro wrestling, one of Donald Trump’s stops along his life-long expressway of self-conscious fraud. So unsurprisingly, the tragedy of January 6 arrived wrapped in farce, and it would be easy enough to giggle a bit and pat ourselves on the collective back: things could have been much, much worse. After all, only six people are known to have died. The Molotov cocktails, homemade napalm, and improvised explosive devices brought to the Capitol grounds did not detonate, nor did the pipe bombs left at the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committee offices, probably in a bid to draw police away from the Capitol in the run-up to the riot.
Cosplay ran rampant—if there were a central conspiracy, which there wasn’t, somebody deserves an Academy Award for best costumes. There were primitivist barbarians like the horned QAnon-inspired man in red-white-and-blue face paint and a fur hat who seated himself in the Vice-President’s chair at the front of the Senate chamber. Why? “’Cause Mike Pence is a fuckin’ traitor,” he proclaimed. “I’m not wanting to take usually pictures of myself but in this case, I think I’ll make an exception,” he said before summoning a MAGA-hatted rioter to approach the Vice-Presidents desk for a close-up.
There was the rioter who stuffed a framed photo of the Dalai Lama into his backpack, while another tore up a scroll with Chinese characters. There were the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, commonplace at alt-right protests since the founding of the Tea Party. There were spear-bearers.
But as M. T. Wheeler writes, it wasn’t all farce by any means: “the people taking selfies and trophies from the Capitol building were largely the camouflage behind which more dangerous men appear to have hidden.” Wheeler notes further:
A close examination of the group marching up the steps to help breach the Capitol shows they wore military-style patches that read “MILITIA” and “OATHKEEPER.” Others were wearing patches and insignias representing far-right militant groups, including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and various self-styled state militias.
Although they cloak themselves in pious republicanism, these were not Emerson’s “embattled farmers” who “fired the shots heard round the world.” They were Trump’s mob, for whom the ultimate proof of patriotism involved seizing Nancy Pelosi’s desk—as if John Wilkes Booth once again bestrode the floor of Ford’s Theater shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”–but this time taking selfies.
There was the exultant rioter who, amid cries of “USA!” shouted from within a House office, were recorded by a videophoner of dubious politics who calls himself “Jayden X”. “Holy shit!” Jayden bellowed from behind his phone. “What reality is this? Oh, my God, we did this shit!”
There are the metacomments that seem to imagine the insurrection as the ultimate reality show or videogame. “Damn! This is surreal!” “This is real life.” “It’s the revolution. “It’s like a movie.” “It’s real life!” There were the elements that aren’t quite so farcical when you stop to think about them: for example, the two invaders arrested carrying zip-ties, probably to serve as kidnapping aids; and the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. Most gutting, perhaps, was the Confederate flag strutted through the Capitol halls, as if slavery were freedom; the gallows, the noose, hanging outside, waiting for captives to be dragged out.
Investigators will soon trace the chain of command that permitted this riot for all the FBI and Homeland Security intelligence gathered beforehand. “National security” was a joke, “law and order” a grotesquerie. “The system” did not work, unless it is a system that blithely rescinds democratic rights and permits years of inciting violence to heat the American cauldron (what Philip Roth aptly called “the American berserk”) past the boiling point.
Listen closely to the sound of Republicans tip-toeing out of Donald Trump’s tent. They whisper down the battered corridors of democracy that they are “shocked, shocked” that anyone might have taken this incendiary gang leader seriously for all these years. Most of them still believe (or so they say) that the election was stolen. The so-called leadership of the Republican Party will try to pretend that a few rowdies ran amok; or that the Fascists were, in fact, tricky Antifa. They will say that true Republicans were “concerned” when their leader summoned the vandals to Washington last week by promising them something “wild,” but that there are bad guys “on every side.”
This is their reality show too. They go on, and on, with it. The Republican call for “healing” is the sound of the arsonists distributing Band-Aids and blaming their adversaries for a shortage of fire extinguishers. Over the years, they have learned again and again that crime pays. Their billionaire funders have made sure of that. The plutocrats got their deregulation and tax cuts. The rabble watched reality cop shows to fire them up against immigrant “invaders.”
Power is not something you vote for, it’s something you see on TV—if you’re lucky, you can even land a walk-on part as an extra.
Except for the ones spotted and arrested, the weekend warriors will now return to their more humdrum lives. But the core—the trained and equipped paramilitaries, the not-so-para military veterans and homegrown police vigilantes, will surely get to work trying to double down. Now they will have the movie of January 6, 2021, to replay in their bunkers as they plan their next moves. They will have game films to study. They will plot more shrewdly. When some of the more or less savage are prosecuted, their acolytes will mob the courthouses, threaten judges, jurors, and Democrats.
There is so much more to be known. Let the investigators proceed to max out all the expertise so ruinously sidelined during these years of abomination. Law enforcement and intelligence have never mattered more. But one conclusion is overriding: Until Democratic ceases to be the name of a single party, and becomes a commitment that Americans live deep down to the bone, we have not yet reached the end of the beginning, let alone the beginning of the end, of this all-too-real show.
Todd Gitlin is the author of 16 books, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. He teaches journalism, sociology, communications, and American studies at Columbia University.