Carnival in the Capitol
January 11, 2021

The storming of the Capitol on January 6 was terrible, doubtless horrifying for those inside, who had no idea how much danger they might be in. Those who trespassed and vandalized offices should be prosecuted. It was a lawless and disgraceful display of mob stupidity.

It could have been much, much worse. Some in the mob were armed with pikes and clubs and some reportedly brought Molotov cocktails to DC, but they didn’t shoot anyone or set off any bombs. Some were carrying zip-tie cuffs, apparently fantasizing about making citizens’ arrests of House members and Senators. They didn’t find any. Most of the demonstrators never entered the Capitol.

We’re fortunate it wasn’t a bloodbath. Two Capitol policemen died. One woman was shot, but, rather astonishingly, no one fought back. As insurrections go, this was a blessedly mild one.

We don’t quite know what to call it. As Glenn Greenwald notes, “There are more adjectives besides ‘fascist treason’ and ‘harmless protest,’ enormous space between those two poles. One should not be forced to choose between the two.”

To call it a “coup attempt” dignifies what was hardly a serious bid for power. As Bruno Macaes wrote, “Illegal and violent the day most certainly was, but there was no question of seizing power by sending a cosplay gallery of motley characters to the Senate chamber.” Though too risky to be described as theater, it expressed “subterranean fantasy and roleplaying.” Most of the rioters were armed only with cell phones. It was more performative than political. When Viking fools take over the seat of the President of the Senate for a few minutes, the atmosphere is more carnival than coup.

Not that we should take much comfort in that. Carnivals can release pressure, but they can also be portents of serious upheavals. The social dislocations and political disaffections behind this episode didn’t magically disappear when the Capitol was cleared and Biden confirmed as President.

Many seem to think removing Trump will return American politics to pre-Trump normal. It won’t. Trump has raised the temperature of American politics for the past four years. He never saw a fire he didn’t stoke. Trump’s enemies feel a symmetrical comfort in scapegoating a master scapegoater. For Republican leaders, scapegoating Trump is self-protective. But Trump’s departure from the Oval Office doesn’t resolve our political crisis. Blaming Trump is an easy out.

The incident was a reminder of the ferment beneath the surface of American life. Millions distrust our institutions. A large number of Americans think the 2020 Presidential election was rigged. Many on the Right have been radicalized over the past few years – some by Trump, some by QAnon, some because cultural and political elites regard them as contemptible racists, terrorists, and white supremacists. Many on the Left have been radicalized too, convinced that they’re surrounded by Nazis.

Aris Roussinos captures the atmosphere: “each side wants their riots supported by the state, and the other side’s quashed; their own rioters handled with kid gloves, and the other side’s shot: there’s nothing deeper to it. There are now two popular factions, who hate each other and wish for the other’s total destruction: Trump and Biden are just the avatars in wrinkled flesh of the two opposing popular wills.”

A nation can’t be healthy when a very slight majority scapegoats the very slight minority, and vice versa. We won’t make progress until we stop talking about Trump and start a serious discussion about why millions of decent Americans support him so fervently.

At the center of American radicalization and polarization is what Timothy Carney calls the “unchurching of America.” Once the church provided the cultural glue that kept the melting pot from boiling over. No longer. Many on the Left left the church long ago. And in Trump country, Carney says, “The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches.” Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters are under-churched semi-Christians who have substituted Trump for Jesus and America for the church.

This leaves us in a volatile position. We’ve been in a cultural struggle since the 1970s, but until recently the Right has been dominated by Christians, who have built-in constraints on what they’re willing to do to stop the progressive juggernaut. What happens when those constraints disappear, and the Right and Left both become more pagan than Christian? What happens when real barbarians storm the Capitol? Marx to the contrary, sometimes the farce precedes the tragedy.

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