In the week since a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, our picture of the day’s events has come into sharper focus. With every video and eye-witness account that appears, it becomes clearer that the attempt to subvert American democracy was far more violent than it initially seemed.
But huge gaps remain in our understanding of how that violent mob managed to penetrate what should have been a heavily guarded and secure site, especially given the threats that had been circulating online about plans to do exactly that. What we learn about the security lapses from last week, and whether or not they were the product of negligence, oversight or premeditation, will go a long way to determining whether what we witnessed was a coup, as Fiona Hill argues, or an insurrection, as Naunihal Singh maintains.
I initially leaned toward Singh’s framing, but it might make more sense now to speak of a slow-motion, “hiding in plain sight” coup attempt leading up to Wednesday, in which Trump tried to enlist institutional support to hold onto power. Upon realizing that this attempted coup would fail early Wednesday, he turned as a last resort to the mob and insurrection. If that insurrection enjoyed help from any security agencies, in the form of intentional lapses at the president’s urging, that assessment would obviously change.
In the meantime, other observers have tried to make sense of the symbolism of the attack on the Capitol, with the most recurring metaphor being that of a collision. For Ezra Klein, it was the collision of those who have argued for taking Trump seriously but not literally, with those who very clearly take him both seriously and literally. For Ross Douthat and Bruno Macaes, the collision was between the collective fantasy of Trump’s supporters and reality. For Timothy Snyder, the faction of the Republican Party that simply wanted to use Trump’s post-truth movement to game America’s democratic system collided with a smaller faction that was happy to use it to break that system.
As insightful as these analyses are, there is nothing novel about what has happened in America over the past four years. Douthat and Macaes both reference “dreampolitik,” a term taken from a Joan Didion essay written in 1968. Snyder writes of Trump’s use of the “big lie,” a legacy of 20th-century dictators. They could just as easily have cited the relationship between spectacle and reality in a society dominated by mass media, as developed to different ends by Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard.
Nor is there anything new about the fantasies that have brought the fetid, fever swamps of Trump’s supporters to a boil over these past four years. For Black Americans, Trump’s race-baiting is a long-familiar feature of American politics; for Jews, the QAnon conspiracy theory is little more than an internet-age mashup of blood-libel canards that have triggered pogroms for millennia. The image of a white supremacist mob storming the Capitol was indeed shocking, but it’s worth remembering that as recently as the first decade of this century, at least three men who began their careers as avowed segregationists—Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd—were sitting in the Capitol as elected U.S. senators.
In this context, Susan Sontag’s response to Debord and Baudrillard in her book, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” is relevant here. “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism,” she wrote. “There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.” Those familiar with how movements that begin with “othering” can end in bloodbaths had no difficulty taking Trump both seriously and literally.
That isn’t to say that Trump was intent on fomenting a white supremacist insurrection from the outset of his presidency. My own feeling has been that he is a man who lacks a moral compass and any hint of empathy, driven not by ideology, but by an unbridled, all-consuming and utterly narcissistic id. While he was clearly bent on corrupting every institution of American government to serve his interests, those interests never amounted to a coherent political agenda beyond tightening his grip on power for the personal benefits it afforded him. So the more ominous threat for me was always that of a failed state, rather than a dictatorship.
There is nothing new about the fantasies that have brought the fetid, fever swamps of Trump’s supporters to a boil over these past four years.
While it was clear from the early days that he would succeed in personalizing the presidency and the Republican Party, I was always more sanguine about the prospects for the other institutions—the press, the judiciary, the federal bureaucracy and civil society—that serve as counterbalancing loci of power in the functioning of American democracy. In the end, they held, although how much more stress-testing they would have resisted is open to debate.
More surprising to me has been the degree to which Trump succeeded in harnessing the fantasy-scape of his followers for personal and political gain. Here, as with almost everything about Trump, the relationship between cause and effect remains muddled and confused. Did Trump imprint himself on his followers’ fantasies, or did their fantasies imprint themselves on him? Did he fuel those fantasies, or was he fueled by them?
It’s been said that the difference between a psychotic and a prophet is that the latter’s personal visions are able to take on collective meaning. But Trump never offered a vision so much as a Rorschach test into which just about anything could be read.
It’s important to note, too, that there is nothing new about Trump’s ability to harness and populate his followers’ fantasies. Fiction and myth have always played a central role in politics. They are at the heart of national identity, which is created and structured by a collectively embraced narrative that, in simplifying, filtering and framing the historical record, bears little resemblance to actual fact. They are similarly central to political messaging, not just in America, but in countries—both democratic and authoritarian—around the world. For a comparable example in the U.S. of the almost divine powers invested into Trump by his followers, we need only go back to 2008, when Barack Obama was hailed by his most fervent supporters as a savior-like figure who would lead America into a post-partisan and post-racial era.
These fictionalized realities are not only deployed in the realm of domestic politics. They also figure prominently in how nations present themselves to the world. It is how a country like America, with a long history of excluding large swaths of its citizens from voting as well as allying itself with brutal dictatorships around the world, portrays itself as a global champion of democracy. It is how we describe a world characterized by persistent conflict and anarchic competition among nation-states as a liberal international order.
These fictions are on even more prominent display the moment any dispute between two nations, ethnicities, tribes or communities devolves into violent conflict. Both sides deploy competing narratives that seek to justify and legitimize their use of force, while inflaming the passions of their faithful. These narratives are almost always so divergent that it is fair to wonder whether it is even possible for humans to engage in collective violence without first dividing themselves into separate, alternate realities.
Are those alternate realities fiction? Myth? Fantasy? The borders between these categories are often not as sharply defined as we would like to imagine. It’s in part what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere meant when he wrote, “The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.” How people perceive reality might not ever replace that reality, but it can never be removed from the discussion of what’s real.
It is unlikely the fantasies that drove Trump’s followers last week will disappear from American society or politics anytime soon, given their historical longevity and persistence. It might therefore be more useful, in practical terms, to think of the events that day simply as a collision between a mob and the law. For a brief moment, the mob outnumbered the law and overwhelmed it. That moment, thankfully, did not last.
But reestablishing law and order, in their just forms, beyond the Capitol will be a longer, more arduous task. It will require rooting out the extremists who have been radicalized and emboldened by four years of enabling at the hands of the Trump administration. But it will also require some attention to the narratives that fuel their collective identities, as well as our own.
Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @Judah_Grunstein.
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