The Implications of the 6th of January

Dreampolitik became real in the Capitol Riot. Did History come back with it?

In the paperback edition of The Decadent Society I tried to reckon with the implications of some of the crazier events of the coronavirus summer for my stagnation-and-unreality take on American politics as a whole. This involved acknowledging the real change, in 2020, from the pattern of preceding years: Instead of online playacting you had real mass protest, instead of Twitter mobs you had the worst riots in decades. But it also involved stressing the unique conditions of the pandemic, and questioning whether there was actually a mass commitment to radicalism, on the scale of the Days of Rage if not Weimar Germany, that would outlast the weird context of the Covid moment. For evidence that it might not, I cited the way that even a whiff of grapeshot tended to scatter the radicals of left and right alike:

… you can tell that it remains a game because nobody wants to play once the stakes turn to life or death. The famous “CHAZ” in Seattle, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone established to model the left’s no-cop utopia, did not exactly eclipse the Paris Commune in ferocity or zeal. It lasted weeks only because of the left-wing city government’s forbearance, it took exactly two murders in its precincts to bring the cops back in, and they met no resistance whatsoever.

Or take the most extreme and briefly terrifying example: the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that promised to “Unite the Right,” and brought white supremacists of the old-school skinhead and new- model “preppy dudes with tiki torches” varieties together for a week- end of marching, networking, and phony brawls with their Antifa equivalents. When one of their numbers took the Weimar playacting literally and drove his car through a crowd of counterprotestors, killing a woman outright, did it invigorate the nascent movement, inspiring organized violence, and bring in new recruits eager for a chance at real mayhem? Not really: the movement rapidly disunited, dissolving into finger-pointing and disavowals, and by the time the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville rolled around, the attempt to host a similar rally in Washington, DC, produced the indelible image of a few pathetic- looking white nationalist leaders huddled together in their special DC Metro car—generals abandoned by their foot soldiers at the first whiff of real violence, outnumbered by the gawking journalists.

But after the paperback went to press, the “Unite the Right” rally ceased to be the “most extreme and briefly terrifying” example of right-wing radicalism. In its place we had the January 6th riot, in which some of same types who showed up in Charlottesville acted as instigators for a larger and more motley MAGA mob. People died, politicians were menaced, a shaman was enthroned, and the peaceful transfer of power was, if not exactly imperiled, then certainly disrupted on a 19th-century-Paris scale.

Was this the return of History? Certainly it was more vivid, more dangerous and more capital-H Historical than what I expected from Trump’s endgame. Some of what I wrote in this pre-election op-ed about the impossibility of a real Trump coup holds up, but I turned out to be too unimaginative. The mob didn’t have a plan to overthrow the government and neither did the man who egged them on, but still the strange alchemy between Trump’s lies and bluster and his supporters’ online fantasies distilled something like an actual insurrection.

I say “something like,” though, because two months after January 6th the day remains an unstable happening, which condenses into different shapes depending on how you squint at it. On the one hand some of the early right-wing apologetics for the mob — that they just wandered into the Capitol, that they were simple patriots who thought they had a right to be there — were always ridiculous, and a quick browse of the House impeachment managers’ video shows how easy it was to find legitimately scary footage from the day’s events. The cop crushed in the doorway, the pipe bombs, the cop beaten with the flagpole, the apparent PTSD suicides afterward — none of this can be written off as mere playacting or selfie-snapping.

Yet at the same time there obviously was a lot of playacting and selfie-snapping, and while any riot is likely to include a mixture of violence and hanging-out, the maximalist narrative of the day, that this was really an organized terror-and-assassination plot akin to 9/11, hasn’t held up particularly well. The zip-ties weren’t there to bind Mike Pence, there’s no evidence of a real kill-and-capture plot, the only shots were fired by the officer who killed poor deluded Ashli Babbitt and nobody still knows exactly how Officer Brian Sicknick died. The fact that the rest of the dead were Trump supporters doesn’t diminish the reality that it all could have been much worse . . . but if you were writing a screenplay where an aging society plays at political unrest and you had more rioters dying from heart attacks and strokes than from gunshots, you’d be accused of being a little too on-the-nose.

Meanwhile, the predictions that were made about January 6th representing the opening act in a period of violent insurgency have conspicuously not yet come to pass. Basically nobody showed up to protest Joe Biden’s inauguration at state capitols. Various dates of supposed extremist fixation have come and gone uneventfully. Reporting on groups like the Proud Boys started out by emphasizing how January 6th was a huge PR triumph that would foster recruitment, but now it’s clear the actual consequences are likely to be a fracturing and diminishment. This can be still be spun as dangerous in its own way (“experts who study far-right organizations warn that as members distance themselves from the group, the Proud Boys could metastasize into an increasingly violent organization …”) but it seems more like a replay of the white nationalist right’s post-Charlottesville declension, where people who signed up to pose as Freikorps tough guys decided that they weren’t actually interested in sticking with it if there was real violence involved, or for that matter a real chance of ending up in prison:

But just as I was premature in assuming that the impossibility of a real Trump coup made all fears of insurrection overblown, it’s also still way too soon to know what will ultimately come of January 6th, not least because the implications of the riots are linked to whatever next act awaits for Trump himself. And they’re also linked to the question of whether anyone else after Trump can perform his kind of alchemy, and inspire participants in right-wing online role-paying to take their games into the streets.

The answer might be no. In The Decadent Society I present Trump as both a rebel against decadence and its embodiment, but sometimes I wonder if he isn’t a bit more like the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels — a figure uniquely capable of messing with the normal patterns of a stalemated U.S. politics, as the Mule’s psychic powers enabled him to defy the laws of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory, but also someone whose powers aren’t transferable, and whose suspension of the rules of decadence only lasts until his death. The kind of Very Online Thing embodied by QAnon will certainly outlast the Trump era, but which of its future participants will literally man the barricades for Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Ron DeSantis? (Only in the reign of Barron Trump will they bestir themselves, perhaps …)

Anyway, I’ll end with a last, less nerdy thought. Whatever develops or doesn’t on the right, at the very least the whole post-election drama, the wave of conspiracizing and Stop-the-Stealing of which the riot was just the crest, helped push us a little bit away from stalemate and gridlock in one way: Not by establishing an armed QAnon terror group as a permanent feature of the U.S. landscape, but by handing the Democratic Party a political opportunity to really go for aggressive full-employment Keynesianism against a G.O.P. fractured and diminished relative to where it stood on election day.

I’m skeptical that there’s a progressive path out of decadence, a Great Society solution to economic stagnation, but if there is then January 6th will be remembered as an important catalyst — not for the Weimar era it evoked but didn’t really bring to life, but for the extra dose of power that its frightening futility helped deliver to the Biden Democrats.