This is the fifth and final column in a series on political life in 2020 by James Duesterberg; read the rest here.
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.
Following Trump’s election in 2016, there was endless debate about whether Trump had really been, as his online supporters claimed, “memed into the presidency.” The online troll, the “basement-dweller,” became the scapegoat for the unstable forces that were disrupting our political life. The troll is dangerous because he stays in the dark; hiding in an infinite regress of ironic distance, he refuses to be serious. Everything is a game, mere play with ideas: just a meme, just for the lulz.
Ostensibly, the danger is that the troll spreads misinformation, diluting the truth with “alternative facts” and thus muddying the public sphere. (“Democracy dies in darkness,” as per the Washington Post’s hastily adopted slogan.) But the deeper fear was that the troll’s ironism could be contagious—viral. By staying in his virtual world, by refusing to come out into the cold light of reason, the troll forms himself into a black hole, a rift in the social bedrock into which all civil debate, all collective action, vanishes. The troll’s counterpart, the #Resistance fighter, thus finds themself relegated to an ever-prissier insistence on a set of precepts (“Science is Real,” “No Human Is Illegal”) which, previously taken for granted as the foundation of liberal society, are now reduced to memes on a lawn sign.
The function of a scapegoat, like that of the carnival or the taboo, is to regulate those forces that threaten the social order, to cordon off a space in which disruptive energies can be monitored and contained. They can have their internet forums and stadium rallies. But when the trolls take the bridge, and the carnival spills into the streets, it is no longer a question of containment or blame. These energies, once unleashed, go nuclear. In modern thought, such disruption has long been seen as the precondition for revolution: a breakdown of the bonds holding society together, the clearing-away that makes possible a new political order.
The mob on January 6th were not trolls; they were grandmas, students, ordinary racists and disaffected patriots, and, storming the Capitol chanting “1776!,” they clearly believed they were doing something for real. And yet the effect was surreal: not a political revolution but a collective hallucination. It was nothing if not action, and yet there was no concrete goal, no endgame other than to access the thrill that lay at the heart of the dream. “Dude,” hollered one man on the steps, his eyes lit up with glee, “I’m excited we’re finally getting to express some of this fucking energy we got. Straight patriot energy dude!” “We are nothing but unity and love… it’s mind-blowing to me… this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said a blonde woman sounding, minus her accent, like a hippie. “I can’t believe this is reality—we accomplished this shit!” another cried as the barriers came down.” “We’re all part of this fucking history.”
Energy, love, beauty, history: as Q says, “trust the plan.” But there is no plan, and that’s the point, like in a puzzle or a game. Everyone is livestreaming, watching themselves act. The goal is not to achieve anything in particular but to actualize a network, a memetic feedback loop that, in its quest to unlock the secret of an infinitely complex modern world, builds that opaque and shimmering world itself.
Trump—the hero, the avatar—is only a node in this network, enacting his role by repeating, in his speeches, Q koans he reads online and thus completing the circuit in the newly created reality. His oblique, half-ironic, highly effective rhetoric has this same self-authorizing, self-effacing structure: he throws out a claim, a mashup of pundit takes filtered through his own amplifying ego, then disavows it and circles around it. Many people are saying it—incredible people, by the way—and we support them, we love them. You don’t have to believe in Trump as god-emperor to trust in the plan; far from it. “Incredible” is his favorite superlative: the harder something is to believe, the realer it becomes.
Since the Nineties, when the Cold War ended and the internet opened to the public, the “digital frontier” has become the place where we imagine our freedom: a virtual America, accessible around the globe. The political results, so far, have been inauspicious. One possibility is that some have simply been more canny (or less scrupulous) than others about exploiting the new possibilities. Steve Bannon, who in 2005 partnered with Goldman Sachs to try to monetize the virtual economy of World of Warcraft, realized the power of social media early on. It was his experience with the gaming economy, he has said, that made him realize how the frustrations and desires unleashed in the virtual world could be “weaponized” for politics.
But this begs the question. Reactionaries rightly point out that the engineers in Silicon Valley who build these worlds have been, by and large, politically “progressive”—indeed that the internet is a crowning achievement of the postwar liberal-democratic, technocratic state. If it can be so exploited by reactionaries, this is a feature of the ideology of liberal progress, not a bug.
Perhaps it’s true that, as cyber guru Stewart Brand said in 1984, “information wants to be free.” This is not a new idea, but a particular way of understanding an earlier one, the Enlightenment faith in reason. Just because of that, it raises all the old questions: Is this faith justified? Does information make us free?
Karl Marx, in his youthful, utopian phase, thought that it could. Progress, he wrote, would be achieved simply by bringing into the open the tensions and contradictions that had previously been confined to the shadows, shrouded in myth and religion. By “analyzing mystical consciousness,” by “confessing” the troubles that haunt society, “it will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality.” To solve our problems, we had only to wake up to them.
But this, too, is a dream: a dream, precisely, of waking into a dreamworld where happiness is an object to be pursued, like a token in a video game. In the world of pure information, there is a short circuit between desire and action, and removing obstacles becomes the same as achieving goals. But in bypassing the world of things, politics loses traction: with no common ground to stand on, there is no way to orient ourselves—no way to figure out, together, how we ought to live.
Q says, “Where we go one, we go all”: for those who are lost, this is a kind of community, but only in the thinnest sense; a collective founded on the bare idea of a collective, the possibility of one. A virtual community. The fantasy is not a foreign virus, but simply the American dream, and you don’t have to go far to find it.
For now, we are done with Trump and the fantasy of the god-emperor and meme king. Biden has promised a return to normalcy, to the old, good dream. “This is America,” he reminds us: “there is nothing we can’t do.” But it is only in the virtual world that possibilities are endless. January 6th was a reminder that there have always been Americans ready to give their lives, not for their political beliefs but for the fantasy of transcending them. To die out of nature and be born again into a new world: the desire for transcendence is only human, and those who love God, or art, know it well. But politics is about this life. Unlike with God or art, we have to live in America.
Photo credits: Tyler Merbler (CC BY / Flickr)