Dispatches from the present
To try to understand the present—to try, in the simplest terms, to establish a sense of what’s going on—is lately to find oneself in a kind of time warp. Each event, coming faster than the last, seems to contain within itself the ones that came before, promising a final reckoning only to be swallowed up by the next. Remember when Trump got COVID? Remember George Floyd? Remember impeachment, lockdown, Trump threatening election officials—the first time? The narrative circles back on itself and intensifies, as if powered by some infernal recursive algorithm, turning life into clickbait and the most professional of pundits into fools.
The riot at the capitol, and the humiliating final days of the Trump administration, is the latest temptation. Now, it seems, we must really have reached the end. A mob carrying Trump signs and confederate flags, wrapped in Nazi slogans and lost-cause aesthetics, motivated by claims whose passion was directly proportional to their incoherence, breached the inner sanctum of the U.S. government. Attempting to shut down the legislative process, they succeeded mostly in creating confusion, embarrassment and, by the next day, a kind of national psychosis.
The siege was, it’s true, deadlier than Benghazi, and it could have been much worse. There were long guns and Molotov cocktails, and photos from the Senate floor show men in tactical gear with flex cuffs and stun guns; a gallows went up by the reflecting pool, and chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” echoed in the rotunda. But it is clear that in the end the mob was never prepared, and in a sense did not even want, to take power. Like the Pizzagate patriot who stormed Comet Ping Pong in 2016 to “self-investigate” an underground child-sex ring—only to find that there was no basement—the rioters, having penetrated the symbolic center of American power, hit a wall; there was nowhere further to go. It was as if, as one Trump-Twitter gadfly wrote, they were video-gamers who had just beaten the level: elated and a bit numb, waiting for the final boss. But the final boss stayed in his castle, watching them on TV: also elated, also without a clue what to do. So they wandered around, posing for selfies on the Senate floor, relaxing in Nancy Pelosi’s office, shitting in the corridors of power—waiting, like the rest of us, to find out what comes next.
This mix of coordinated violence and tactical chaos, seething rage and jubilant spectacle, makes it difficult to say what, exactly, happened that day. Was this a genuine attempt at a coup that failed, or was it blowing off steam that succeeded a bit too well? Was it sedition, or merely a demonstration? In what sense of the word were they “acting”?
The answer is both and neither: what happened, precisely, was a laying-bare of the cultural and epistemological schizophrenia that has been the dominant political reality of the Trump era. This is often described as polarization or social-media and news siloing, a rift in common sense separating two camps: Democrats and Republicans, coastal elites and deplorables, the normies and the red-pilled, the “reality-based community” and those in possession of “alternative facts.” For its part, the reality-based community is keen to cite these events as a final revelation of Trumpism’s true character, and an irrefutable confirmation of the #Resistance narrative. People have been calling Trump a “literal fascist” for years; on January 6th, he incited a right-wing mob composed of ex-military, off-duty cops and lumpens to literally storm the legislature. It was our Kristallnacht, Arnold Schwarzenegger explained in a video, before comparing American democracy to a sword from one of his movies.
One can sense a secret relief, a renewed decisiveness, among the establishment, not least the “business community” (and Silicon Valley in particular), which rapidly cut ties with Trump and his ilk following the riot. Good, then, that it ended this way: now the lines are drawn, and the wagons can be circled. The Democrats are the party of sanity, committed to democratic norms and scientific facts, and thus fundamentally reliable; the Republicans, having abetted Trump and his unhinged, unwashed mob, have finally revealed their true colors as the party of chaos. Even Trump himself, while “excited” by the riot, was said to have been disgusted by it on “aesthetic grounds,” as if to see his supporters out in the open, in action, was finally to realize that they were revolting in the wrong sense of the word. Surely, this was beyond the pale.
It is true that something extraordinary happened on January 6th. But what sets it apart from the dull crush of recent media spectacle is not the distance it marks from liberal-democratic norms—by now these have been transgressed endlessly, and for longer than the last four years—but something like the opposite: the deep intimacy it reveals between the spectacle of cultural transgression and the actual work of American government. What is shocking is not that the riot interrupted the election certification; in the end, the “people’s business” was only impeded for a matter of hours—a mob filibuster, akin to levitating the Pentagon. What is shocking is that this spectacle took place inside the Capitol building—the world’s foremost “symbol of democratic government”—and that, as soon as it happened, it was clear that it belonged there. The executive directed the mob; arch-conservative Senator Josh Hawley cheered it on with a raised fist (usually called the anti-fascist salute); 147 members of Congress affirmed its collective fantasy after it left. Members of Congress tweeted their support for the riot as they were being evacuated by the Secret Service. Protesters carried American flags, and then used them to bludgeon cops.
On CNN’s live feed, a man paced back and forth in front of a row of riot cops, his voice breaking as he laid out the case for an insurrection: “This is about freedom, about democracy. If America falls, the rest of the world is doomed, doomed, doomed.” Half an hour later, Jake Tapper, speaking from what is ostensibly the exact opposite perspective, framed the scene in almost the same words. He had been talking to correspondents from around the world, he said, and “they can’t believe that America, which is supposed to be the beacon for democracy in the whole world—that this is happening there.” A city on a hill, shrouded in smoke.
This is an excerpt from James Duesterberg’s web essay, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Read the rest here.