History's bunk — but it still rhymes: From the Bastille to the Winter Palace to the Capitol

Will history judge the Capitol riot as an absurd footnote, or a turning point? Don't assume we know the answer

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 17, 2021 2:21PM (EST)

Storming of the Bastille | Capitol Riot (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Image)
Storming of the Bastille | Capitol Riot (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Image)

When we consider an extraordinary event that seems to rupture time into before and after, like the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it's probably best to approach history like an unexploded bomb: We can't be quite sure what lessons it contains, or whether it will blow up in our faces.

While the raid or the siege or the riot was going on — words matter, but in this case it's hard to know which is most accurate — I was inclined (along with many other people) to view it as both terrifying and more than a little ridiculous, a faded, third-generation photocopy of events its participants knew about only as distant rumors, or more likely not at all. Karl Marx's famous quip about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, gets repeated so often because actual history keeps offering irresistible examples.

That may well be a valid analysis, in the long run. Marx would no doubt be amused by the dark historical ironies at work here: While the mobs who overran the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1917 were ostensibly seeking to overthrow autocratic regimes, the Capitol mob — as most of us perceive them — were hoping to install one. 

But as we learn more about the confusing welter of overlapping forces, motivations, groups and individuals that came together on that surreal afternoon in Washington, it may be helpful to find a little analytical distance, and even some humility. History gets written by the winners, to repeat another truism. We have no way of knowing, from this vantage point, who the winners will be, or how they will understand the unhinged, stranger-than-fiction twists and turns of recent American history.

Amid the onslaught of boastful, bewildered and profoundly delusional testimonials we've heard from members of the Capitol mob over the past week and a half, a couple of themes have stood out for me. I don't mean that the rioters almost universally believed they were answering Donald Trump's call, which is obvious, and I'm not especially interested in the legal or even moral question of Trump's individual culpability. 

In every important way, Trump is a symbol of America's political dysfunction and decay, not its cause — including the fact that he himself is understood both by his followers and his enemies as a uniquely powerful, almost superhuman figure. He has channeled and catalyzed forces that have been with us for generations, perhaps for centuries, and that broke through the surface of history in dramatic fashion on the sixth day of this new year. But Trump's personal agency, as he is only now beginning to discover on his way to an embittered gilded-cage retirement in Palm Beach, has limits; he cannot actually bend reality to his will.

Since roughly the middle of the 20th century, American politics — in the commonly understood sense of presidential elections and related phenomena — has increasingly become a shadowplay narrative of warring symbols and personalities, in which questions of policy and ideology have played an ever-diminishing role. In both victory and defeat, Trump is the ultimate symbol of this triumph of symbolism, a self-entangled and self-invented Russian nesting doll of macho belligerence and racial resentment, at whose core lies nothingness. 

Trump's instinctive genius, if we must give him credit for something, was to understand that his salesman's lack of convictions and his ideological fungibility were strengths in the empty drama of contemporary politics, not weaknesses. Viewed in that light, the Republican Party's decision not to bother writing a platform for the 2020 campaign was an irruption of refreshing honesty. Pretending that party platforms matter is an especially dumb manifestation of a more general disorder, in which we pretend that elections in which barely half the citizens vote are "democratic" and that the two-party system represents the full range of valid political opinion.

Is Trump a fascist? I don't think that's a yes-or-no question, and furthermore the more interesting question is whether he was even a real president. He certainly hasn't enjoyed the job, and has made little pretense of performing the duties conventionally associated with it. It comes closer to the truth to say that Donald Trump has been a simulation of an American president (or of an aspiring fascist dictator), both in the computer-science sense of that word and the more theoretical and philosophical sense associated with Jean Baudrillard and other Continental-breakfast deep thinkers.

That detour into the bottomless vortex of He Who Dominates All Conscious Thought — which I did not intend to go on so long! — brings us back around to the Capitol rioters, who were themselves acting out a kind of simulation and in many cases appeared surprised to discover that it had consequences in physical reality. I guess I'm late to the party with this one, but I was intrigued, in an especially dark and cynical vein, to learn that among the fantastical array of flags and banners flown by the invaders was the flag of Kekistan, an entirely imaginary country invented to troll the libs with Pepe the Frog memes and pseudo-Nazi graphic design.

We don't yet know for sure whether discrete groups within the mob had specific plans to kidnap or kill Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi or whoever else they could find, or whether the guys with zip-ties and body armor are better understood as the armed forces of Kekistan, paramilitary cosplayers whose live-action game got out of hand. How much distance is there between those things, especially these days?

Similarly, did people in that mob really believe they could overthrow Congress, or force it to use a constitutional formality — the ritual counting of electoral votes — to overturn an election? We need to be cautious in answering that question, but clearly some of them did. There's a cluelessness or naiveté at work there that merits closer examination: They failed to understand how American electoral democracy works in practice, yet tried to insist on a literal reading of the Constitution in support of a deranged despot's conspiracy theories. There's enough tragedy and farce there to demand an entire new essay from Marx's ghost. They also believed that law enforcement would either stand down to let them in or join them in sweeping aside the corrupt forces of the deep state, and the rest of us are now uncomfortably aware that they had at least some reason to believe that. 

The Capitol rioters also believed they could live-stream or otherwise document themselves committing numerous crimes in the supposed heart of American democracy with complete impunity. If they were mostly wrong about that — the "institutions" are holding up so far, somewhat creakily, in that regard — their blithe confidence reflects not just "white privilege" (although most certainly that) but moral clarity. They felt sure they were on the right side of history. We laugh at that, or brush it aside, at our peril.

Many of those who stormed the Capitol knew they were echoing or emulating something, even if they weren't exactly sure what. Consider the now-legendary video clip of "Elizabeth from Knoxville," a woman who was upset to get maced by the cops during what she described as "a revolution." Leon Trotsky could have warned her that such things, and more, are entirely likely to happen.

Many rioters have also displayed a deeply conflicted sense of responsibility over what did and didn't happen — a mixture of shame and pride, along with an eagerness to claim that things could have been much worse. A truck driver from Oklahoma named Eric Dark told a New York Times reporter on the scene that day that storming the Capitol was "probably not the best thing to do." By his own account, Dark (like Elizabeth from Knoxville) was tear-gassed on the Capitol steps and never made it inside. As if to make up for that, he then said, "We had enough people, we could have tore that building down brick by brick."

That's wildly unlikely, to say the least. But consciously or otherwise Dark was conjuring up the storming of the Bastille in 1789 — an event commemorated every July 14 since then, at least whenever France has a republican government — which has often been described, in shorthand terms, as a revolutionary mob physically destroying the medieval fortress that represented royal authority in the heart of Paris. Like so many historical narratives, that's not quite true: Rioters broke down the gates and ransacked the place, murdering a few hapless soldiers and authority figures they found inside, but the building itself stood abandoned for the next few weeks, until the revolutionary government ordered it demolished by a contractor. Pieces of the Bastille can be found in various Paris parks today, and its wrought-iron key — I didn't know this — was given to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette, and is on display at Mount Vernon. (You can buy a replica in the gift shop. Made in USA!)

Like the storming of the Bastille, the invasion of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks (along with a bunch of random angry citizens) in 1917 was a disorderly and brutal affair, later enshrined in revolutionary mythology in heavily sanitized form. Sergei Eisenstein's spectacular cinematic recreation in the film "October" was clearly based on the elaborate theatrical re-enactment staged by Lenin's Soviet government to commemorate its third anniversary in 1920, rather than the real event. (Photographs of the 1920 spectacle have frequently been presented as authentic evidence from the revolution itself, and not just by Soviet sources.) In other words, it was a simulation of a simulation — as I suggested earlier, looking for firmly fixed meanings in history is a fool's errand.

While every aspect of the Russian Revolution (and the French Revolution too) is subject to intense historical dispute, it seems most likely that the Red Guards did not "storm" the Winter Palace in a heroic frontal assault, as in Lenin and Eisenstein's versions, but entered through an unlocked back entrance guarded only by a handful of demoralized imperial soldiers, who promptly surrendered. Many observers reported that an orgy of looting followed, in which many of the Romanov dynasty's artworks and treasures were destroyed or disappeared. It's plausible those accounts were exaggerated for Western propaganda purposes, but there's little doubt that the czar's private wine cellar — supposedly the finest in Europe — led to such widespread public drunkenness that Lenin's newborn regime tried to dump the remaining booze into the storm drains leading to the Neva River, and was ultimately forced to declare martial law simply to sober the city up. 

There are any number of stark differences between those legendary events and what we witnessed earlier this month on Capitol Hill — as far as we know, Mitch McConnell's private stash of vintage Kentucky bourbon remained unmolested — but also some troubling echoes and similarities that should not be dismissed out of hand. What's at stake is less "what really happened," a murky and contentious subject in the earlier instances and again today, than the question of how it will be remembered. Americans, by convention, look at Paris in 1789 with some degree of sympathy and St. Petersburg in 1917 with disapproval. But the meaning of both events has shifted dramatically over time, and all of us look back at them today through our various ideological lenses and encrusted political myths, along with an overlay of romance that makes the "facts" all but irrelevant.

In all three instances, we see disorganized or semi-organized mobs, convinced of the rightness of their cause, lashing out in anger at a power center they believe has oppressed them or rendered them voiceless. I'm not suggesting that the Capitol mob was guided by anything remotely resembling a coherent moral or political case, or that their rage was directed at a legitimate or worthy target. I'm saying that what happened in Washington on Jan. 6 was a reflection not just of the delusional armies of Kekistan or the imaginary presidency of Donald J. Trump, but all of us. How history records these events — as the beginning of the reinvention of democracy, or as its downfall — depends on what we do now.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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