Lost Lost Causes

“This is not America.” That strange, contradictory phrase seems to descend like fog every time a legible and precedented event occurs in the United States. If it wasn’t America, it wouldn’t need to be said.

The day went how it went

Photograph via Flickr.

Josh Hawley is a phenom. Four years ago he became Missouri’s attorney general. Two years later he unseated Claire McCaskill to become the state’s junior senator. Since then he has been a highly visible figure, positioning himself as best he can as Trump’s heir apparent. On January 6 he was photographed walking into the Capitol to object to the electoral college certification, ostensibly in hopes of reclaiming the presidential election for the Republicans. He is wearing a deep blue suit and a red tie, his hair tousled slightly by a breeze, his jaw set, his fist pumped in the direction of Trump loyalists who had shown up in DC to “take back” the country. The photo isn’t staged, but Hawley knows how to pose. It is the kind of image his team might have saved for later use in a campaign ad if things had gone differently. Depending on how they go now they may still do so.

The day went how it went. Trump supporters overwhelmed the Capitol Police and stormed the building, forcing Congress to flee. Journalists sheltered in place while security guards drew their guns to prevent access to the chambers. Once the rioters had won they seemed at a loss about what to do next. Watching people seize the building was shocking, but the armed anti-lockdown protesters or union members in Wisconsin or anybody who has organized a sit-in in a provost’s office could have told them that nothing necessarily follows from seizing the site itself. The rest ransacked offices, took pictures of themselves at Nancy Pelosi’s desk, destroyed a memorial for John Lewis, and smeared feces through the hallways before filing out again. At least a few were prepared to go further. One came with zip ties as though in preparation for mass detentions. Several bombs were discovered on the property. There are many who see the ease—and it was surprisingly easy—with which the building was taken as proof of a conspiracy within the police department, but footage from above shows the moments the barricades began to fall. The cops on the front line fought, realized they would not win, and fled.

A few of those cops thought it was an opportune time to pose for selfies with the people in the process of invading the building. We will probably find out that many of them were sympathetic to far-right causes, because many police officers have been for a long time. But the fact of their failure does not prove very much. During the already forgotten riots last summer, the police frequently retreated when they did not have the resources or manpower to control the situation. Years ago I found myself kettled on the sidewalk with maybe a hundred others somewhere in Midtown. The person I was there with asked a cop why they needed a dozen cars and more police than protesters to shut down a city block when they claimed that we were obstructing traffic. The baby-faced man grinned and said “overwhelming force.” Without such an imbalance, individual officers have to think hard about whether being a hero is really all it’s cracked up to be.

Confronted with the unusual spectacle of police not deploying disproportionate and lethal force against the masses, many Americans across the political spectrum have argued that the cops should have done more. They gloss over that the police did do some of what these people are demanding. At least one cop apparently fired a gun and killed a rioter. But the problem was not too little violence. We have been living through a crisis in which disparate reactionary movements have begun to find common cause at the same time that our political class collapsed into stasis. We are facing threats to civilization on a scale beyond comprehension in the midst of a pandemic that killed 4,033 Americans on the day of the assault. In the face of this stifling reality, much of the discourse seems trapped in the symbolic register, using decades-old black slang like “clap back” to describe the posturing of white gerontocrats who cannot provide relief during a recession and go into recess the day after an attack on the seat of government. Unfortunately, we’re beyond the symbolic now, back in the realm where performative means making something happen. The chief of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department offered up the excuse that the force had “no intelligence that suggested there would be a breach of the US Capitol.” This seems plainly not true: supporters of the effort had been vocal and public about their plans to do this very thing. It is conceivable that the police just did not take those plans seriously. There have been many far-right rallies over the past few years, but the violence is rarely directed against them. The police have, in kind, rarely targeted the right-wingers. At the root of the chaos there may have been a misunderstanding from both parties about the rules of engagement. “This is not America,” a woman told The Nation’s Andrew McCormick at the end of the day, in tears. “They’re shooting us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.” She wasn’t wrong. Over the summer the police, the National Guard, and assorted vigilantes maimed and killed antiracist protesters, while one of those vigilantes walked through a police line with a gun slung around his shoulders without being bothered.

“This is not America.” That strange, contradictory phrase seems to descend like fog every time a legible and precedented event occurs in the United States. If it wasn’t America, it wouldn’t need to be said. Take the 1898 Wilmington insurrection, an all-American white nationalist riot also aimed at seizing state power, only it succeeded. Its example suggests that what happened this week was not a case of chickens coming home to roost. The chickens had simply never left. A more recent antecedent—one that I didn’t think could be forgotten so quickly—was the spectacle of armed right-wingers who filled statehouses last summer. These mobs were derided by many as mere LARPers, though the photos and videos suggested a high degree of professionalism—a dress rehearsal at the very least. It’s true that many of the people wandering through the Capitol looked ridiculous, too—decked out in horns and knockoff Marvel merch and Nazi-themed hoodies and Confederate symbols. Some people may treat the appearance of a Confederate flag as another bit of absurdity, but I’ve never had the luxury of taking it in any way other than literally and seriously. In certain situations it’s not worth trying to locate the line between playacting and enacting.

Politicians, of course, are role players, too. Congressional business resumed after the building had been secured, with representatives and senators lining up to give speeches long into the night. The chamber was occupied by scene-chewers continuing to recite lines long after the proscenium had fallen. Everyone talked and talked, because there was little else to do. They talked about history—mostly just-so stories of American triumph—but for the most part it wasn’t clear who they were addressing. There was fury and obstinance and Lindsey Graham jocularly recounting the betrayal of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow in a way perfectly tailored to demonstrate that those who remember the past sometimes have a particular interest in repeating it. Earlier, in the midst of the riot, President-elect Biden demanded that Trump go on national television and command his followers to stop. Word spreads quickly these days, but the thing about incitement is that once a riot hits no one is really in charge anymore. For his part, Trump did make a video, telling his supporters that they should go home and that he loved them, the kind of thing I sometimes think about saying at the end of a dinner party when a few friends are still hanging around after the food and wine are gone. All these speeches and demands to speechify made it seem like the handful of politicians who actually do know how to make language count believe that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a film about the United States Congress. It is not. It is a film about the sound a hoarse voice makes when it’s pleading and coming out of a haunted, handsome face. Jimmy Stewart is dead. We have Josh Hawley. By the end of the day the photo from the morning had come back to bite him. As calls for his resignation or expulsion proliferated, Hawley spoke to his real audience. He stared dead into the camera somehow saying nothing and threatening more of the same all at once.

Twitter and Facebook suspended the President’s account and Shopify shut down his merchandise store. Checks and balances have had a rough time in the age of the imperial presidency, but corporations still know how to throw their weight around. Trump was allowed back on Twitter to post a concession speech. Only a day later, the company permanently banned him anyway. In the speech he condemned the attack and lied about having immediately deployed the National Guard. His followers had to have been startled when Trump told them that they did not represent America—even though he had professed his love for them just a day earlier. At one point in the video there is a just-too-sharp cut to a profile shot right as Trump acknowledges that he will not be President on January 20. Most likely his team used the cut to eliminate an “um” or a stumbled-over word, but what American politicians excise from their own discourse has always been at least twice as interesting as what they put in. As with reality television, the editing is what makes them coherent.

“America is so much better than what we’re seeing today,” Joe Biden said on Wednesday afternoon, as congresspeople were being evacuated from the Capitol. To be a good American, and especially to be a good politician, one has to commit to the work of constant disavowal. The United States has a habit of fighting emancipatory movements right up until the moment it can claim their successes. The work, then, is to deny that those fights are indicative of the nation’s character, if their existence can’t be erased outright. This sequence has applied for a while, but we have been living through an intensification of the process. Republicans who were marching lockstep with the President now deny that they meant what they said in fundraising emails that went out as the Capitol was stormed. It feels dull (and the dullness feels depraved) to point out that we are almost twenty years into a war and that in spite of this multiple members of Congress said on Wednesday that violence is never an acceptable answer. To answer the question of how things could have gone so wrong, CNN turned to former senator Rick Santorum, who once compared the fight to prevent same-sex marriage to September 11.

We live in an immensely powerful country that continues to perceive itself not only as an innocent underdog, but as the land of lost causes. They grow vicious here, since those in power are not all that accustomed to serious repercussions for defeat. The most famous incarnation of the lost cause, the one about the Civil War, is itself more a story about frustration than annihilation. Trump and his ecosystem of conspiracist allies, sycophants, and media figures succeeded in creating such a narrative before there was even a loss to behold. On Wednesday his followers—as well as those who merely find them useful—acted boldly in defense of the murky cause. In response, Democrats have begun to demand new legal powers to act against “domestic terrorists.” New laws aren’t needed to protect the government. So who will they be enforced against? Who will enforce them? Presumably the same FBI that responded to the rise of Black Lives Matter by manufacturing the category of “Black Identity Extremists.” Or better yet, the local police departments whose unions endorsed Trump last fall. If things get out of hand again they can call in the military, which has been a locus of neo-Nazi and Klan recruitment. At the end of Mr. Smith, Stewart’s character nearly talks himself to death and just before he collapses he admits that his may be “another lost cause.” But that’s no reason to quit. “You fight for the lost causes even harder than for any others,” he cries. “Yes you even die for them.” Some are dying and killing for one now and in Congress they’re still talking.

Ezra Klein, now a columnist at the New York Times, took some flak on Twitter for suggesting that the rioters themselves are not the real enemy. White supremacy and nationalism are top-down affairs, it’s true, but the people at the bottom can still do damage. There is a dubious meritocratic belief that it takes brilliant acumen to run an empire or unleash a movement. There may be evil geniuses amongst us, but you don’t have to study long to learn how to hurt someone. Several journalists pointed out that the Confederate battle flag didn’t get within six miles of the Capitol in the 1860s, but on Wednesday a man paraded it through the halls. In the picture I have seen most frequently, he is in profile in a hoodie and a vest with the flag slung over his shoulder. From another angle, you can see that behind him hangs a portrait of John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, a senator and Vice President, was a fierce defender of slavery and years after his death his visage graced the legal tender of the CSA. Bringing the stars and bars to Calhoun’s place of honor wasn’t historically dissonant—it was a slant rhyme. This is the place called “the people’s house,” but it’s never clear which people we are talking about. The day after, representative Hakeem Jefferies called into WNYC and said “There were clearly white supremacists in the building.” He was right, but then again they’re there every day.

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