As corrosive and unsettling as the images of lawlessness from the U.S. Capitol have been today, there’s a twist of fate at their core so brutally ironic it can make your head spin. When the MAGA protesters, turning off their incendiary right-wing TV and Internet channels and getting off their couches, set out for Washington to foment what Joe Strummer 44 years ago called a “white riot,” they probably didn’t expect to be competing with the headline “Democrats Retake the U.S. Senate.” Because, of course, few observers were expecting the game-changing referendum we got from the two Senate races in Georgia.
The grand paradox is that you can link that seismic pair of Democratic wins directly to Donald Trump’s 10 weeks of drum-beating over his increasingly destructive fantasy of election fraud. Why? Because his descent into total demagogic loopiness revealed his nature so starkly it turned voters off? No. Because enough Republicans were actually brainwashed into believing him. They didn’t bother to show up for a “rigged” election, thereby making Trump a victim of his own success.
Since today’s insurrection was all about the issue of election fraud, the Georgia vote lent the events an irony of extraordinary bite. And what it indicated is that the whole “Biden stole the election!” issue, as perilous and scary as it has often seemed, has proved in the end to be the ultimate political orgy of hot air: a great deal of smoke without fire. The far-right uprising in Washington today was framed, in the minds of those who participated in it, as a Boston Tea Party/burning-of-the-Reichstag defining moment. But it felt more like the Last Gasp of Trumpism heard round the world.
Which isn’t to deny that it was disturbing as hell: not just a mob scene, not just a protest laced with anarchy, but a messy, furious, middle-class-yob-posing-as-rebel attack on the rule of law. Yet even as the images of the MAGA faithful swarming the steps of the U.S. Capitol, or climbing its walls like a scruffy medieval horde in windbreakers, seared themselves into our national memory play with a shock value that was undeniable, in another way the protest, the riot, the violent tantrum — whatever you want to call it — had a weird “OK, let’s finally do this!” inevitability about it.
The right wing in this country has been nattering on about “civil war” ever since that person at a Tea Party rally held up a sign that said “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!” Today’s mini high-concept rehearsal for civil war was the natural culmination of what Trump and his enablers have been egging his supporters on to do for some time — from Trump’s shout-out to the Proud Boys in the first presidential debate, when he asked them to “stand back and stand by,” to Rudy Giuliani’s exhortations to “trial by combat” this morning.
Yet it wasn’t just Trump’s winking appeals to lawlessness that incited today’s chaotic action. The nature of those who live in an alternate reality is that there’s something essentially virtual about their entire belief system. No, Joe Biden didn’t steal the election; the truth of his victory has been ratified by every state and dozens of courts. And no, the Democratic Party is not controlled by a cadre of elites who run a child sex-trafficking ring. But if you believe the former (which most Trump supporters do), or if you believe the latter (the central article of faith in QAnon, the online cult that’s now moved to the center of the Trump cult), you’re not living in the real world. And that means that politics has become, for you, a kind of media-fed shadow play, a dance of illusions dressed up as “news.” “Drain the swamp” isn’t a policy; it’s a fairy-tale metaphor posing as policy.
When your political beliefs are mired in the world of illusion, there may be a special need to transform those beliefs into something physical and tangible, to prove — to yourself! — that you’re not just another Fox News simulation-game ditto-head but a badass who means what you say. An assault on the Capitol Building is a metaphor that can feel “real” because it looks just like something you saw in a Gerard Butler movie.
Is the insurrection we saw today the beginning or the end of something? Those on the right will want to see it as the beginning. They reject the very foundation of the Biden presidency (that thing called voting, otherwise known as democracy), and so today was the day they stood up, climbed the walls, and declared that they stood for something else: power at any cost. But the flip side of power, or at least unseemly displays of it, is impotence. And that, sealed by the amazing Democratic triumph in Georgia, may wind up being the signature quality of the post-presidency of Donald Trump, and all those who’ll now follow him like lemmings off the cliff of his own ego.
It’s fashionable to say that Trump will continue to wield extraordinary influence. But I would argue that the last two months, fueled by his pathological obsession with election fraud, have changed the Trump brand. For a long time, Trump supporters could at least say that he stood for things like standing up to China or shouting down political correctness. But now Trump stands, first and foremost, for the idea that he’s “still really the president,” and that Joe Biden is occupying the office under false pretenses. That’s not just politically outrageous; it’s nuts. And that’s what the armchair anarchists in Washington stood for today: not simply trashing America but going through the looking glass to do it. They’ve left us with a lasting image of what it looks like when political action loses its mind.