Trumpist “shaman” Jake Angeli yells inside the Senate chamber of the US Capitol, January 6, 2021 (Win McNamee/Getty)
Written for EA’s partner America Unfiltered:
The storming of the Capitol building in Washington on January 6 produced startling scenes of anarchy, the symbolism heightened by the intense media coverage of events. This was a frighteningly apt visual representation and conclusion of the Trump Presidency, a four-year-long trashing of democracy – always in plain sight, yet rarely so dramatically performed.
Fittingly, it took the form of carnival, the logical cultural form of Trumpist insurrection.
America Upside Down
Mikhail Bakhtin explained that the carnivalesque is a form of representation or performance that subverts assumptions and hierarchies of the dominant social order. It is an anarchic and ludic force that turns the world upside down, often by profanely debasing norms and suspending normative reality. In its chaotic dramaturgy, it creates performances and spectacles in which performers and spectators are combined.
The siege of the Capitol building was carnivalesque, subverting the dominant liberal order in one of its centers of power through ribald and chaotic activities. The authority of the power elites was briefly upended and the civility and prestige of the environs debased. All the while, the protestors-cum-mob were both performers and spectators, constantly filming their own antics for social media.
The siege was a dramatic spectacle in which the performers played their parts knowingly, using the Capitol as a backdrop for images and memes, with the interior and exterior environments of the iconic building functioning as stage sets. The incongruities and ironies of the imagery echoed the carnivalesque debasement of civil decorum and order.
The images accentuated the subversive inversions of democratic comity that were evident throughout the siege. There is an image of the mob moving against police lines while displaying a banner reading “Blue Lives Matter”, and as Trump’s supporters ransacked the building, he tweeted “Remember, WE are the party of Law and Order respect the Law and our great men and women in blue.”
Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
This absurdity reflects the carnivalesque fantasy world in which many Trump supporters imaginatively and emotionally invest, a world in which conspiracy theory and social media combine to create an alternative reality, an “upside down” world that is self-contained, self-reinforcing, and impervious to facts. The powerful appeal and effects of the fantasy should not be underestimated, nor its violent potential be disavowed as the actions of a few zealots.
President-elect Joe Biden gave a powerful speech during the rioting in which he decried it as the action of a “small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness”. He asserted, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” That is wrong, the scenes of chaos do reflect a true America albeit in distorted, carnivalesque form.
The alternative reality that has been constructed in the US by alt-right political and media culture, galvanized by Trump’s near messianic leadership, is pervasive and deeply embedded in the imaginations – the fears and desires – of millions of Americans. It cannot simply or swiftly be undone. Trump’s deceptions are widely endorsed as an alternative reality – his very performance of lies and fabrications is what designates his reality for supporters.