Indeed, without any knowledge of the savagery, the spectacle did not so much appear to be an existential threat to democracy mounted by the violent forces of sedition and insurrection as it appeared to be something out of the Theater of the Absurd. Beyond absurd: the image of Pseudo-Dionysus and his votaries occupying the House chamber was offensively ludicrous. These initial real-time images of the Capitol breach circulating instantly across the globe magnified a national embarrassment that had been intensifying for four years, suggesting that Trump’s real crime against the nation was a moral one, a crime against our dignity. What crueler blow to one’s dignity is there than to be mocked? One could feel the Schadenfreude drift across the Atlantic like an ugly, slowly spreading fog as the damning footage was obsessively posted and reposted to social media by foreign friends and adversaries alike. An old friend of mine remarked, “It takes a village to raise a village idiot,” and it felt that, perhaps through guilt by association, we might all be implicated in making America “great” again. One felt the urgency of what Nietzsche called the “pathos of distance,”2 to keep the wretched of the earth at arm’s length, as if apologizing to an invisible waiter, “Oh, they’re not with me.”
We have since been disabused of any illusion that the composition of the mob conformed to the caricature offered above, of inflamed rural idiots storming the Bastille. One study found that of the Capitol arrestees sampled, 40 percent of the mob were business owners or held white-collar jobs, only 9 percent were unemployed, 90 percent had no connections to far-right militias or white-nationalist gangs, more than 50 percent came from counties Biden had won (as opposed to having “marinated” in deep-red strongholds), and that overall, the rioters’ various places of origin mirrored the American population as a whole: “And that is the point. If you presumed that only the reddest parts of America produce potential insurrectionists, you would be incorrect.”3
The media chorus thundered on in real time about the “attack on democracy.” Perhaps, though, it was more an attack on our idealist assumptions about democracy than an attack on democracy itself (whatever that means). There was a sense in which the attack was, both in its violent and absurd aspects, eminently democratic. Arguably, what was attacked (apart from the Capitol building and the people inhabiting it) was the meaning and worth many of us place on democratic institutions, processes, and the American tradition of a peaceful transfer of power that is indeed admired throughout world. However, “democracy” also refers to the potentially explosive power of the demos, such that an attack on democracy can paradoxically be an expression of it. The idea that the entire democratic system of governance in the United States, with the extended network of laws, institutions, and traditions devoted to both practicing and defending it were ever seriously threatened by a mob assault on the Capitol seems fanciful at best.4 What is really noteworthy about the attack was its expressive power and, underneath the overt political violence, the social-psychological mystery of what was being expressed, which, in the long term, may represent a very real problem of political legitimation.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor