What do we see in the images of Wednesday's bloody and lethal attack by Trump's terrorist mob on the Capitol Building and American democracy?
There is the superficial. The tens of thousands of rage-filled white people running amok and defiling the Capitol Building as they looted, destroyed public property and attacked police officers in a lethal white supremacist insurrection and mob action. Many of those same police even went so far as to allow the pro-Trump terrorists to enter the Capitol Building and the surrounding area. After the coup attempt, the Capitol police then allowed most of them to leave without being detained or otherwise stopped.
There are now iconic and infamous images of Trump's terrorists in their MAGA regalia — including one traitor dressed up as a buffalo. Trumpists broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and sat in her chair, mocking her. Other Trumpists urinated on the floor of the Capitol Building. It was all a party or some type of right-wing fascist Saturnalia, with Donald Trump in the role of Pan or Dionysus. Of course, Trump's mob of terrorists carried weapons. Congresspeople and their staffs and others who work in the Capitol Building were under siege. To say that the Capitol police and other security forces were on the "defense" is a polite way of saying that they were overrun and routed. Five people are now dead because of Trump's coup attempt, including a police officer. A member of Trump's mob was shot by the Capitol police. Broadcasters were aghast at the images of her bloody body.
When one looks more deeply, slowly, and more meditatively at the images of Trump's coup attempt we can see something else — if we so choose.
Breathless media coverage makes contemplation and such viewing and thinking more difficult — this is especially true during the long moment of never-ending crises that is the Age of Trump. So-called "hot takes" by the news media and other observers fill the bottomless hunger of the 24/7 news cycle, but almost by design such writing and thinking is ephemeral and almost a type of journalism and reporting as planned obsolescence.
It is that type of writing and thinking which helped to enable and normalize Donald Trump and his Republican Party and their fascist movement. The controversies were exhilarating and exciting — however horrible and vile their substance was and is — but the news media's tenet "if it bleeds it leads" all too often denied the American people a critical framework and the knowledge to explain exactly why these horrible things were happening to them. In total, the myopia caused by the real and imagined controversy of the day or week (or perhaps even month) all too often hides more than it reveals.
And in that way, fascism and authoritarianism get and retain power and control by creating a society-wide feeling of disorientation and exhaustion. The result is more than just the feeling that reality itself is broken, because in the ways that matter reality itself is in fact broken in Trump's America. We can try to counter that force by engaging in acts of critical self-reflection. Who are we? What do we represent? What are our values? Who am I in this society? How do we and I see the world? What of our relationships to and responsibilities for others?
I am a working-class Black American. For me this is a declaration of my first allegiances, description of my material realities, and mission statement for how I make my way through the world. Thus, when I reflect upon and look deeply at the images of Trump's fascist riot and coup attempt, I see another of the many temper tantrums of white supremacy and white entitlement and white aggrievement which have occurred throughout American history. I see the enemies of Black and brown strivers like myself. I see the people who denied Black and brown people the ability to accrue intergenerational wealth and income. I see the people who tried to take away the dignity of Black and brown people — and yet we succeeded over and over again nonetheless. I see the enemies of a better and more inclusive American Dream.
I also see Trump's favorite president, Andrew Jackson, a literal white supremacist slave driver and a man who led a genocidal campaign against First Nations people. In 1829, Jackson's populist supporters (of course this version of populism mostly excluded Black people) ran amok in the White House on Inauguration Day. Almost 200 years later, Trump's fake populist white fascist mob attempted a coup against America's multiracial democracy by invading the Capitol Building.
Because images do not exist in isolation but rather in relation to one another, in the rage-filled faces of Trump's goons I also see the reflections of the Black and brown folks (and white brothers and sisters) in the old Jim Crow state of Georgia who the day before bravely overcame voter suppression, vote theft, voter purges and the coronavirus plague to elect a Black man and a Jewish man to the United States Senate.
Many Black folks were lynched in Georgia during Jim and Jane Crow. A Jewish brother was lynched in Georgia during Jim and Jane Crow too.
Trump's fascist goons who defiled the Capitol Building and sought out congresspeople to put on trial — and perhaps even execute — were not just attacking the idea of democracy in the abstract, but purposefully trying to smother multiracial democracy.
As such, the Trump mob's fascist rampage was much more than a political "protest": it was the physical manifestation of death anxieties about being "replaced" by non-whites. Such fears are the heart of Whiteness since its invention in the 15th century. These anxieties of Whiteness are the fuel which sustain and fuel Trumpism, the Republican Party, and other forms of American fascism and white supremacy both historically and through to the present.
On Trump's fascist mob and the overall threat to America's multiracial democracy historians Rhae Lynn Barnes and Keri Leigh Merritt offer this historical context in a new essay at CNN:
"The helpless white minority."
That simple lie lays bare so much of America's misery and suffering. The far-right and White supremacists' purported fear of losing status, wealth and most importantly, political power, in the face of mass Black voter turnout has always been part of what animated racial violence in this country, from riots to lynchings to police brutality.
There are many other images and moments made clearer through contemplative viewing and thinking about Trump's fascist siege of the Capitol Building on Wednesday.
I felt waves of sickness at the images of Black Capitol policeman being chased by a mob of racist white Trump terrorists. Many of the latter were armed. Those Black Capitol police were granted power by the State to use deadly force. They did their best to protect the congresspeople, staff members, others there, and the Capitol Building itself. But they were limited in their power to do so. White police would have showed little if any hesitation at shooting a mob of Black and brown people chasing him down with the intent of causing them harm. But Black or brown police must always show restraint in how they use force against white people. In a racist society Whiteness and white people are to always be given deference.
Trump's white thugs were having fun chasing away an armed Black cop because they were secure in the fact, either consciously or subconsciously, that Whiteness empowered and protected them. Watching those Black Capitol police do battle with, flee, and eventually be run over by Trump's mob, I could hear the white slave driver singing in the movie "12 Years a Slave." In another year not too long ago, Trump's mob would have been out in the night hunting down Black people to hang from the lynching tree. Several Black Capitol police officers were quoted in a recent feature at BuzzFeed News where they shared the following:
"I sat down with one of my buddies, another Black guy, and tears just started streaming down my face," he said. "I said, 'What the fuck, man? Is this America? What the fuck just happened? I'm so sick and tired of this shit.'"
Soon he was screaming, so that everyone in the Rotunda, including his white colleagues, could hear what he had just gone through.
"These are racist-ass terrorists," he yelled out.
In the seven years since Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry, the image of a white cop deciding how and when to enforce law and order has become ubiquitous. On Wednesday, Americans saw something different, as Black officers tried to do the same, as they attempted to protect the very heart of American democracy. And instead of being honored by the supporters of a man who likes to call himself the "law and order" president, Black Capitol officers found themselves under attack.
"I got called a nigger 15 times today," the veteran officer shouted in the Rotunda to no one in particular. "Trump did this and we got all of these fucking people in our department that voted for him. How the fuck can you support him?"
"I cried for about 15 minutes and I just let it out."
White men walked throughout the Capitol Building as though they were on vacation, entitled to be there because in their minds at least, the world is theirs and America is theirs for they are the "Real Americans." In the collective imagination of the so-called Real American, non-white people are just guests in the United States.
Trumpists proudly carried the Confederate Flag, a symbol of white supremacist treason. That evil cause was defeated by the Union. But in the 21st century that hateful and traitorous flag and those who rally beneath it had a moment of revenge as they rampaged throughout the Capitol Building. Not to be forgotten, the Confederates believed themselves to be real "patriots" and to be carrying on the legacy of George Washington. This is the same thinking that animates Trump's fascist mob and larger movement.
There were the Black janitors and other maintenance people cleaning up after Trump's coup rampage. I am the child of a janitor. I saw my father's face in theirs. Both literally and symbolically, Black people are always cleaning up White America's messes. That is true in the Capitol Building. It is true for the so-called "essential workers." It is true in Georgia. It is true on Election Day. It is true from before the Founding and through to the present.
When they look at the images from the Capitol Building, what do Trump's followers and other members of the right-wing see?
The right-wing media and other fascist myth-makers are claiming that the Trump traitors are "victims" who have been "misrepresented." Donald Trump is also a victim of the "liberal media" and did not attempt to incite violence and lead a coup.
Some of the most deranged members of TrumpWorld and the right-wing echo chamber more broadly even believe that the mob which attacked the Capitol Building and democracy were actually antifascists in disguise. Therefore, Trump's coup is imagined as being some type of "false flag" operation.
And for those in TrumpWorld who acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that Trumpists overran the Capitol Building, such an act was "patriotic" and was mostly "peaceful," as dishonestly compared to Black Lives Matter, for example.
In total, TrumpWorld is a "reality" of lies, conspiracism and other distortions and delusions where reality itself is not just realistically and reasonably mediated through experience but instead wholly made into something grotesque and deranged.
What Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels described as "the big lie" is the foundation of TrumpWorld and its coup attempt.
In a series of posts on Twitter, historian Timothy Snyder explained this in the following way:
The claim that Trump won the election is a big lie.
A big lie changes reality. To believe it, people must disbelieve their senses, distrust their fellow citizens, and live in a world of faith.
A big lie demands conspiracy thinking, since all who doubt it are seen as traitors. A big lie undoes a society, since it divides citizens into believers and unbelievers. A big lie destroys democracy, since people who are convinced that nothing is true but the utterances of their leader ignore voting and its results. A big lie must bring violence, as it has. A big lie can never be told just by one person. Trump is the originator of this big lie, but it could never have flourished without his allies on Capitol Hill.
The Age of Trump and all the societal and other evils and ills that it has unleashed, legitimated, and empowered has left America a type of undead nation. Sacred civic myths have been shattered about the country's democratic institutions and the inherent goodness of its people. Even with Trump removed from the White House, his cult members and other deplorables will be a mass of tens of millions of fascist zombie followers that he will control with shaman-like powers.
Ultimately, Trumpism and the forces which made it possible have transformed the United States even more into a type of fun house mirror society ruled by twisted images and confusion about the very nature of reality and truth — and without such a consensus a healthy democracy is impossible.