We had been waiting for barbarians for some time. The President had, for over six years, mapped the threat of the barbarians advancing from across borders as a security threat. And so we imagined that they would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years. When they did arrive on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the picture was not clear: ten thousand had entered the grounds, and some had scaled the scaffolding set for the inauguration two weeks off; even if the border was fortified by a complex system of defense, informed by threats a border that without adequate defenses would leave the nation facing an existential threat, the grounds of the Capitol were breached to protest the transition of that the Presidential election had determined. Congregating before the Capitol on the day that electors were to be certified, Trump supporters sought to exploit the apparent lack of conclusion in an expanded conclusion of the 2020 Presidential election, targeting the Capitol building itself as if in a moment of reckoning that was the culmination of a false narrative of absent electoral transparency. Presenting the innocuous sounding “march” as a last opportunity to make their voices heard, the unprecedented targeting of Congress and elected representatives sought to interrupt the transition of power, by interrupting tabulation of electoral votes: in questioning the transparency of congress, the march questioned the transparency of how the nation mapped onto the halls of representation, whose organizers pledged in allegedly figurative terms commitment to appear at Freedom Plaza “fight to expose this voter fraud and demand transparency and election integrity” as a civic duty.
Despite confirmations of no evidence any voting system, the combative terms sought to prevent an absence transparency argued to undermine American democracy, in the narratives that President Trump devoted his final months in office to perpetuating. The hopes to continue his claim on Presidential power was almost secondary, after a narrow election both for the Presidency and Congress, than the prevention of a loss argued to be enabled by massive voter fraud, fake news, and dissimulation, and claims for fraudulence that multiplied and perpetuated to erode the very foundations of the alleged democracy for which Congress stood. If electoral loss was apparently determined by the inclusion of absentee ballots of long-undercounted minority voters, the claims of an erosion of democracy was a claim of a loss of the entitlement of white voters that Trump had come to embody, and protection of their interests, tied to hateful myths of “replacement” of the franchise and white majority status of America, a shattering of a global picture that mapped, in the frenzy of counter-charges of the perpetuation of fraudulent voting, pursued in multiple lawsuits, that seemed to seek to turn back time, literally, to the first returns of electoral votes and the projections of possible Trump victory, rooted in a misunderstanding of voter trends and patterns that would not deviate from early results. But it was also to turn back time, by whatever means necessary, to white regimes of the past, embodied in the sea of white supremacist flags, confederate flags, MAGA flags, flags of crusaders, and TRUMP 2020 flags, preserving fake dreams in the name of continuing what Amy Kremer, in the two week, cross-country bus tour rallying support for what were literally the troops, claimed would be the second and perhaps more important goal of the March on Washington: “to support one another,” to nourish false fantasies of a lack of transparency, and to hearken back to an era of “electoral transparency” that excluded access to the ballot by many.
This was an image of governance, combined with the imagery and logic of impending wrath, designed to take back the coutnry by an occupation of the Capitol from “corrupt politicians” who had distorted the votes, as the true delegates from all fifty states might fight the ultimate reality game, claiming to be liberators and “rightful masters,” a mashup of Lincoln’s famous call to power with the urgency of a playstation episode of Star Trek: Invasion, and a call to summon their skills of combat as the moved to occupy the capitol grounds to remediate the alleged absence of transparency, even if that meant crumbling the pillars of democracy.
The invocation of a revolutionary mythology, a crowd-sourced lightening storm whose disastrous advance was targeting he Capitol from the heavens, as if it came from a 1930s Hollywood studio, or a recent thriller about the need to save society in a single moment, summoned the associations from early modern medicine of a critical point, but the critical point was in the social body–as the impending advance approached the Capitol, rocking its foundations as never before as the thunder was called down from the heavens, more spectacularly than Avengers: Endgame. The ESRI story map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol seems to have been crossposted on TheDonald to attract a new sense of enforcing the transparency of government the protestors had claimed, luring them through the image of “sprawling underground world . . . curving like tentacles made of brick,” that it described, evoking the idea of an underground secret access to the restoration of democratic representation by force in a world gone disastrously wrong and demanded repair lest the tentacles of the opposition party–the Democrats–come to control the U.S. Congress, as they would in the double whammy of the election of two Democratic Senators from Georgia and an African American Vice President the night before. The moment of crisis was imminent, and the routes to power seemed evident; it helped that Capitol Police were poorly equipped with old plastic shields destined to break upon impact, giving the mob as it advanced a further sense of the inevitability of their utterly unfounded claims to power.
Was not the prominence of a map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol Building that circulated widely on TheDonald in anticipation of the event not an image in itself of the failure of electoral transparency. Don Jr., never the brightest bulb but the most eager, seems to have been overly transparent in telling the assembled crowd in Freedom Plaza that the time had indeed come to confront Republican representatives reluctant to support the seating of electors that would confirm the transition of power, claiming “we’re coming for you and we’re going to have a good time doing it,” hours before the crowd attacked the U.S. Capitol to affirm his overly earnest claim that “we have a country to save and [rioting] doesn’t help anyone.”–after urging the crowd, “if you’re gonna be the zero and not the hero” to prevent the transition of power, “we’re coming for you and we’re gonna have a good time.”
They were rather supposed to be having a good time. They advanced to the U.S. Capitol, having been urged on by how President Trump nurtured fantasies of “Making America Great Again” with existential urgency, and had delegated responsibility with urgency by letting them know that it was their turn to fight at the gates: “It is up to you and I to save this Republic! We are not going to back down, are we? Keep up the fight!” The barbarians were brought to the gates, and he all but invited them in, by activating their discharge down Pennsylvania Avenue, to bring a conclusion to what he had long postponed or deferred as a conclusion to the election that he had long argued would decide America’s future was at stake, with President Trump telling his supporters that his opponent would “destroy the American dream,” building anticipation for “the most important election in the history of our country” to magnify his supporters’ sense of a mission; as Trump predicted that the cities would be given over to roaming crowds of “violent anarchists,” and intoning about the existential dangers that immigrants who crossed the border, and failed to show up for court hearings would cross the border en masse–indeed, only by sending Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol who had become his personal army to find immigrants failing to show up for immigration court hearings could the U.S. Border and the nation be kept secure and we allow “a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny” as a nation.
The barbarians had been summoned to the gates of power, perhaps looking for violent anarchists, but looking more like insurrectionists. Trump had promoted the specter of the invading migrants by celebrating the border wall as a prop for his Presidency, arguing “if we had a wall, we wouldn’t have any problems,” the specter of immigrants as a threat to the nation’s sovereignty, the tocsin sounded when the President called his base into action to forestall the transition of power. “They cross the border, and they they disperse across the country,” Trump had long warned of immigrants; but the busloads of protestors who arrived in Washington, DC, assembled before the authoritative structure of the prime chamber of American government, ready to cross barricades to stake a counterweight to its historic representational functions, as they sought to make their voices heard with urgency, least the boundary to the nation be opened, and the security of the state be fully compromised.
As if hoping for a last-minute reversal of fortune, Donald Trump invited these barbarians into the gates, having granted them honorifics as “patriots committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious republic,” ready to “patriotically make your voices heard.” “I have never been more confident in our nation’s future,” he said in closing, reminding the patriots assembled that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” These patriots arrived on the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol, convinced that they would present a new ideal of sovereignty, a popular sovereignty, that would overturn not only the certification of electors but the falsity of a tainted electoral process, as if they might replace it with direct sovereignty evoked in the sea of flags that so exultantly if chaotically unified the voices and identity of the mob that rushed the U.S. Capitol, streaming their success on social media, to give a transparency to their own actions that they found lacking in the electoral process. The prominence among the crowd of confederate flags beside TRUMP 2020 banners, American flags, and a range of flags from the Gadsden Flag to the Blue Line Flag to states’ flags, suggested that the imaginary of the nation for which they were fighting was greater than the nation, and proclaimed a project of national reinvention, glorifying as “revolutionary” the protestors’ insurrectionary intent.
These yahoos were not from the edges of empire, from outside of the borders of the nation, but were claiming to be from its heartland. They were, rather, crowd-sourced from social media platforms and news sources of political disaggregation, animated by the inflation of abstract values–arriving not from the southwestern border we had been warned of an invasion by gangs, druglords, child-traffickers, and illegal aliens, but from across the nation. They were different barbarians, promoting popular sovereignty. The Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy began Waiting for the Barbarians, by imaging the expectation of their arrival as government ground to a halt: toga-wearing legislators, bored, seem to wait something to break the logjam of their work to lift them from their idleness: “Why should the Senators still be making laws?/ The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.” The hope that those who invaded the Capitol grounds had for forestalling government would respond to what they saw as the true emergency–the end of the Trump Era, the fear of losing automatic weapons, immigrant protection programs, and the fear of a fraying of law and order that the Republican party had encouraged them to believe were all too imminent, warranting the emergency sign of flying an inverted American flag.
When Elias Canetti examined the formation of the crowd’s sense of license, tracing it from a moment of ‘discharge’ when its members sense of bonds to one another solidify, he may have downplayed the formation of a crowd form a sense of timing: this crowd was long prompted by an urgent sense that January 6, 2021 was a critical day in the history of democracy, and of the union, and as the final moment of the selection of an American President, not by an election, but the final moment to question that election’s results–a true critical moment in the preservation of a democracy.
The crowd that progressed from the Ellipse gained new clarity as a body as they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Mall, and entered in waves into the chambers of the U.S. Capitol. They arrived to fulfilled their ambitions to fill the “our house”–occupying the architecture of the ship of state and government. They had arrived with an ease as surprising to many members of the mob as their leaders, as well as the President they would continue to support in his calls for patriotic defense of liberties.
The crowd that wanted to preserve the “red map” FOX Anchor Tucker Carlson displayed as greenscreen backdrop of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the highest-rated news program Fox airs, to orient viewers to his perspective and to the news. Perhaps that map has helped promote Carlson’s improbable rapid emergence and designation as the hands down “front runner” for the Republican nomination in 2024: a race-baiting, dynamic figure who would affirm the Trump constellation, and fluidity of the White House and Fox news, who Roger Stone had attempted to persuade to run for President against Barack Obama, all the way back in 2012. A young Conservative pillar whose news show began by featuring the backdrop of the electoral map in November, 2016, the most watched Fox News program of the year, Carlson made clear his promotion of Trump from the start, and adopted the conversion of the electoral map from a form of consensus to a declarative statement that Donald Trump was associated in a telling hanging of the map-of 2016 election results Trump had displayed in the White House in a frame–an image he had long given out to visitors to the West Wing, as if in a sign to the broadcaster who had in early 2016 heralded Trump as able “to fight Washington corruption, not simply because he opposes it but because he has actually participated in it” in Politico, able to become “the most ferocious enemy Ameican business has ever known,” as if he were Teddy Roosevelt: Tucker Carlson even went so far as to openly sanction Trump’s vulgarity by his allegedly pugnacious populism, creating a person of the former President that struck a clear chord in FOX viewers.
Did Carlson help to inspire the riots? Carlson’s “fighting words” crystallized an image that stuck of Trump’s ability to represent the other America Carlson had tapped at The Daily Caller, piling scorn on Washington as a seat of corruption even at CNN, sanctioned Trump’s vulgarity as of a piece with his ability to attack Washington, e exponent he became as founder of the Daily Caller, who left CNN and MNBC for Fox. Trump had never participated in public politics, if he had threatened to since 1996 or earlier, but Carlson’s uncanny knack to converet any position to a pleas to sound like a righteous rebellion against double talk and political corruption anointed Trump as the one able to take on Washington, before Trump had even won the Republican nomination, and was incarnated in the very map of “election results” that magnified the size of Trump’s small share of the popular vote, by making it seem that Trump “big red, using the visual of the county-by-county vote as a proxy of sovereignty which he tweeted out to his 70+ million followers during his second impeachment. An example that might be understood in Trump’s taste for “truthful hyperbole,” it does the trick of showing his victory in 2,626 counties to Hillary Clinton’s 487, but cleverly masked that she had almost three million more popular votes.
The cultic status of the alternative map Carlson long used as a backdrop to tell the news was perhaps a form of brainwashing. It was the map, to be sure, that the crowd in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 believed to exist, and obstinately refused to stop believing in. Tucker promoted the map as he baited viewers by denigrating social justice protests as the work of “criminal mobs,” and identified the insurrectionary riot as only seeking to promote “justice.” The crowd hoped to turn back the clock on the electoral map, by a license prefigured by interactive tallying electors FOX invited viewers to build interactively and to share in teh 2016 and 2020 elections–
–maps that may have contributed to entitlement to dimiss the electoral maps perpetuated by “Fake News Media.”
Much as Carlson had spoken from before the map of Trump’s 2016 victory, the same map before which Carlson later dismissed the presence of white supremacists in any responsible role at the rally–and even denied it was an armed insurrection–the spokesperson who has been a major apologist for Trump, promoting the illusion of a “heartland” victory of 2016 across Trump Country, a stretch of the nation that had come into existence in 2016, convincing viewers to keep their eyes on the prize, and imagine “your own 2016 presidential election forecast” as if the election could be personalized to reflect their historical role to promote a Trump victory on the “road to 270.” Their arrival in Washington, DC was bracketed by a sea of blue streamed from red states across the nation, as if to continue the Presidential campaign and to bring it to a final conclusion, as the 2020 electors were being certified.
Were they not an expression and manifestation of Carlson’s own sense of utter indignation at being wronged? This was the need to actually attack Washington, DC, and what way to do so than by attacking the Joint Session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol? The collective rage of the crowd was cast in righteous terms, and they had been baited by the very categories FOX news had purveyed. Advancing to the U.S. Capitol as Senators and Congressmen stalled for time to prevent state electors from being certified, the crowd aimed to empty the U.S. Capitol of the sacrality it commands. They did not need the government any more, or need its representatives. The argument in early 2016 that “Trump is leading a populist movement” led Carlson to invoke Teddy Roosevelt, while attacking the elitism of Republicans. In a robust attack on his former party for their attention to details of sexism, he attacked “people who were to slow to get finance jobs and instead wound up in journalism” as betraying the Party of Ideas, dismissing Trump’s critics as “fixated on fashion and hair,” and in an explicit sense to effeminate to appreciate Trump’s robust challenge as lying in straight talk and masculine confrontation–as if he were not a Member of the Tribe.
Was this a crowd that channeled the righteous indignation that Carlson had summoned over four years, from when he scolded a political caste of “Washington Republican” to let them know that he believed voters “know more about Trump than the people who run their Party,” the attack on the elites who were beholden to vested interests, as only “proof that you live nowhere near a Wal-Mart” in their priggish readiness to call Trump “a ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” This wrath of Carlson was in a sense the wrath of the mob, directed by the conspiracy theories he had spun about an attempt to “bypass voters” and the autopsy he delivered from his news desk of a man Minnesota police killed. Carlson’s accusations of “rigging the election” led to the anger of the mob as they targeted that symbol of Washington–the Capitol–to “make their voices heard.”
Were the the true barbarians of whom the United States senators and congresspeople were in fear, and took the place of actual invaders? In a chastening poem that meditates on the dynamic of an end of the Byzantine empire, that evokes the fall of Rome to outsiders, poet and historian C. P. Cavafy drew on his erudition to conjure the dramatic scene of an utter inability of senators as they wait for the arrival of the “barbarians” to see the large picture. They have retreated from the larger consequence of inviting the crowd who posed as “patriots” to enter their very chambers in a perverse attempt to defend their country–or the country of red states and white majority with which they identified . Cavafy describes the legislators “bored with eloquence and public speaking,” as they found that with the specter of the barbarians from across the southern border were hidden behind, senators fled from the specter of the advancing MAGA mob, relinquishing their offices in fear: after four years of affirming the sacrality of the border wall to the nation, they shamelessly cowered from these barbarians without responsibility.
President Trump had incited the crowd to occupy the sacred architecture of government, in the neoclassical Palladian capitol building that he spoke before–what Joe Biden affirmed, in the hours of the riot, as an unprecedented assault on the very “citadel of liberty” and heart of government, occupying the sacred space of government and “most sacred of American undertakings,” the “sacred ritual” of the certification of the Electoral College vote, by occupying and filling the architecture of government into which they flowed. President Trump talked of the Capitol not as a sacred architecture or citadel, but the arms and tactical gear brought to the rally made clear it was a site to be filled: President Trump described an “egregious assault on our democracy,” a strange collective, as if the Capitol were a site of a wrong, rather than sacred, where the “brave senators and congressmen and women” would be cheered on, as in a sporting event, while not cheering much for others, to “make our voices heard” and in doing so “take back our country,” shifting sacrality from the architecture of the Capitol and making it appear a site to be filled by a cheering and booing crowd, as it had been almost evacuated of sacrality in a Presidency that was committed to the sacrality of the border wall. Teh rioters who affirmed a red-state religion of states rights held many obsolete flags–campaign flags, confederate flags, Betsy Ross flags, crusaders’ flags–not only to create a lineage for their protest but to protest their patriotism during the insurrection.
Only less than a thousand of those attending the Save America Rally on January 6, 2021 forced their way into the doors of the U.S. Capitol, hardly a fraction of the minimum size of 250,000 Trump claimed to face, as the “low number a few hundred thousand, high 2-3 million” that the rally organizers had promoted–but the spark for the crowd was set by the urgent request to save their country, from a threat that was all too real. The social media whistleblower who urged his followers to “take action” before the Capitol Riots taunted the Capitol police on poor planning for an event he hoped would attract three million American patriots, as if they were woefully underprepared for the reckoning the Save America Rally would create over the coming days.
The apparent abdication of the President from his executive responsibility was mirrored in the refusal of Republicans to recognize the danger of advance of militant resisters of a peaceful transfer of power. If only eight hundred entered the U.S. Capitol on January 6, breaking police lines and forcing their way into locked and guarded doors, the dissolution of momentum as the crowd could no longer fill the cavernous rotunda seemed to let it dissipate energy, but the insurrectionary force of entrance had already destabilized the workings of government and shocked the nation. It seems probably the organizers expected many more would have followed, as they insurrectionists hung Trump 2020 flags atop the Capitol building, from flags of the Trump campaign to other lost causes, from the Confederacy to South Vietnam–and tore down the American flag from the flagpole, to replace it with a Trump flag. When they entered the chambers of Congress, they cried “Trump won that election!”
They communicated a truly chaotic sense of exultation and arrival, as if that was their purpose. The many flags of imagined nations that no longer exist were on display at the insurrection linked the riots to an imagined heritage by radical telescoping and “umbrella descriptor” able to conjure “utopic” parallel worlds of whiteness. From the assembly of a “new American to the refighting of lost battles–evident in the many flags of the Confederate States of America; Trump 2020; Thin Blue Line–the array of flags suspended on the walls of the Capitol and from its flagpoles and windows suggest realities that were all no longer past, but, as Danielle Christmas reminds us, but synchrony of imaginary spaces which –from the Betsy Ross flag; the Confederacy; League of the South; Knights Templar; Vinland–validated a sense of belonging to a heritage of whiteness, in the attempts to give a national coherence to white nationalism, and even more a sense of authenticity and transparency to their aims. The attempts to untangle the mashup to sanctify their cause in hyper-masculine tropes eliding patriotism and militancy may explain the ebullient apparent chaos in the use of Confederate flags with neo-pagan flags, militant flags of crusaders, early revolutionaries, and diehards of the 2020 election, were images of white strength. Against the backdrop of accusations of failed transparency, an iconography of “lost causes” staked out an authenticity of faith, for all its fakeness and lack of historical accuracy.
While his social media followers may have been unmoored from any stable epistemological ground, the ability to warp the truth over the past five years may have made it incumbent upon them to respond to this lack of truth, to dislodge them from ties to any reality other than his refusal to concede the already decided Presidential race, as he sent his own troops into battle to rally against the reality of his political defeat. The flags pronounced claims to faith in lost causes that both magnified the crowd and its energetic claims to belonging to groups that were more transparent than the alleged “false media” narrative of an election defined, in contrast, by a lack of transparency. The power of belonging in a crowd no doubt attracted many to the Capitol, as it would reprise the many rallies Trump had staged nationwide since 2015. But after promising his audience that he would accompany their progress down Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump cannily left the rally he had called, gleefully watching the progress to the U.S. Capitol on television from the White House with friends and advisors, as if relinquishing center stage; he abdicated responsibility for inciting the ensuing violence he followed gleefully in the Oval Office with his son and several advisors, and seems to have waited for his Vice-President to summon the National Guard, so ecstatic was Trump in what seemed an Insurrection Party with a soundtrack of upbeat rock. The open transparency of these patriots was on view for all to see, and was being documented live on camera, evident from the map of cel phone signals from towers near the Mall and U.S. Capitol as the crowd advanced.
Animated by the defense of a sense of patriotism, if not of the delicate boundaries of the Republic, when Trump vowed “we will never give up, we will never concede,” at the very start of his speech, repeating the useful conceit “we won by a landslide,” he created a bond of collective relation to the crowd, before he affirmed that if “we don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The tweet that arrived to the followers who all had brought their phones to stream the event to which they were amassed to follow lit up at 2:24 p.m. with the alarming news the acting President of the Senate failed to question the validity of seating electors, and indeed lacked the “courage to do what should have been done to protect our County and our Constitution” that triggered the mob to form from the crowd, waving a raucous abandon of flags semiotically difficult to process–TRUMP 2020 flags; Betsy Ross flags; Gadsden flags; 2nd Amendment flags thin blue line flags; and, of course, confederate flags–in an abandon of over-signification born of deep desire to destabilize sovereign unity, lifted by an eery undercurrent of red MAGA hats.
About a sixth of the way through President Trump’s address–and just after he claimed that the voice of the crowd of believers that would not be silenced, martial chanting filled the space that Elias Canetti, who found that history of the twentieth century a history of mass psychology–termed the “acoustic mask” of the collective, more akin to sports events than individual articulation, a subsuming of the self in the crowd, of openly martial tones. Canetti’s distinction between the “open” crowd whose expansion knew no limits and from the “closed” crowd that fills an architectural space to take it over, and fills it while sacrificing its mass size by accepting architectural definition. The crowd at the Capitol combined both aspects, as it was a crowd that had assembled at multiple earlier rallies and online, but was determined to expand to fill the architecture of the Capitol, opening a preserve of government as it was determined to make its voices heard. Architecture provided a stimulus for the crowd to gain its sense of a unity, Canetti argued in his distinction between the “open” and “closed” crowds, echoing the image of the Nuremberg Rallies of Hitler, no doubt, when he claimed that architecture “postpones [the crowd’s] dissolution,” but the limited number of entrances to the closed space where the crowd assembles not only attracts them, as a space that the crowd will fill, harnessing the power of the crowd which realizes “the space is theirs,” and its very emptiness, even if they cannot fill it entirely, “reminds them of the flood” or crucial metaphors of conceiving the crowd as a stream, tide, or waves–metaphors usually based on water, to illustrate its cohesion.
Seeking to understand the twentieth century as a history of crowds, Canetti addressed the inadequacy of a Freudian concentration on ego to understand these mass movements of fascism, and relation of self to collective. The crowd allowed him to focus on the question of the political fusion of self with crowd as a moment when all inhibitions are overcome by a drive toward greater density and physical proximity; the procession of the crowd as it moved toward the U.S. Capitol became a mob, gaining identity to cross the Capitol’s perimeter, realizing its transformation from the open crowd of online space to the physical space that it might occupy: in this case, the mass of Trump supporters that was assembled before the U.S. Capitol was it fear of the arrival of the barbarians that Trump has himself warned against, but seemed to seek acceptance as a new political unit. They gained power as a mob as they approached the U.S. Capitol, defining their power by their proximity to the U.S. President, and growing in power as their distance diminished to the Capitol building that appeared within their vision on the horizon, just out of reach of their own pressing raucous popular demands.
Drawn toward the Capitol as if to hope to fill its space, the logic of the crowd that had assembled was oriented toward the building where Trump had baited them to disrupt the votes, as if it was within their power to do so, removing and prohibition from entering the property that they were convinced was their own to possess, as they had been instructed by the leader to whom their banners all proclaimed fealty, as if they were a separate country–a nation that might be the nation of Trump 2020, of Confederate America, or of America Made Great Again, as they pursued the MAGA agenda into the halls of government to finally make their voices heard. From imagined lands to alternate realities, the flags provided an imagined inheritance of precedent–often of mythical nature, as the so-called “Vinland Flag,” repurposed from an old punk band that suggested an original pre-American world discovered by Norse voyagers who had arrived in North America in the eleventh century, repurposed to suggest a mythic white majority nation for extremists, often combining it with the image of a modern semi-automatic AK-47 as if it was a territory worthy of armed defense.
The approached the U.S. Capitol, waving Second Amendment flags and hanging their banners that celebrated the recent candidacy of Donald J. Trump as if it was indeed marked by victory, still with meaning, not able to be consigned to a trash-heap of history. The moment of heightened proximity to one another outside the White House walls marked the transformation of the audience to a mass, identified by professions of patriotism, patches, clothing, hats, and the acoustic mask of any cry they could improvise. They wished they had brought a boom box, and had a soundtrack by which to enter the chambers of Congress in a mask of dignity.
As martial chanting was a mask, a new collective identity by assuming the power to overturn sovereignty, the flags, MAGA caps, and weapons and tactical gear were a mask of identity by which they were made suddenly visible, accountable, and politically powerful, in collective denial Trump had lost the Presidential vote of 2020: as much as perpetuating a big lie that Trump planted, they laid claim to the collective identity that would not be ignored Trump championed. The acoustic mask was mirrored in the mask of signs, flags, demands, and an interruption to politics as normal. The flags were a baiting of power, a refusal of the sovereign power of the Joint Session of Congress, and a denial of its authority to certify electors: the mass of Trump supporters offered a new form of power, a delegitimization of the sovereignty of the U.S. Capitol itself, as the crowd presented a new form of power, ready to supplant it, unassailable by Capitol police, but that had in this moment before the Rotunda assumed an identity of invulnerability, in the new identity they presented as members of a crowd, and took a new sense of their own power as a crowd, attracted to their own ability to “save America” lest it not be “Great” anymore. They had all been, after all, invited to the event.
1. Trump urged the crowd to step into the breach opened by political polarization across the nation, to right the ship of state at the site of government, by going to the U.S. Capitol. This was the dominant trope of the deep risk of the Republic that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had channeled, as a task of righting the voyage of the Republic lest it plummet into fatal waters. And the crowd approached, as if it embodied the hopes of the Republic and of mankind, magnifying its own power as a renewal of the Union, akin to a new state of civil war, and of democratic dignity, if the collective construction Longfellow called for imagined timbres from across the nation would be used to “bring tribute, great and small/and help to built this wooden wall . . . of oak and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp,” to contain “humanity with all its fears.” For Longfellow, the shore was a site of contact, commerce, and danger of natural forces, rather than the fantasy of native purity Trump mapped as a source of fears to be contained by the still unbuilt border wall as a reimagined architecture of sovereignty. When Schoen read the envoi from “The Building of the Ship” inseparable from American Presidents standing steadfast in the face of disunion from Abraham Lincoln’s admiration of how the verses powerfully “stir men” on the eve of the Civil War to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sending them with Wendell Wilkie to Winston Churchill–“Sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union strong and great./Humanity with all its fears . . . /Is hanging breathless on thy fate”–before the United States entered World War II, as a commitment of solidarity the former Lord of Admiralty, desperate for reassurance of an Atlantic alliance, would see “applies to you people as it does to us.” (Churchill would frame the hand-written letter on the walls of his Chartwell home, “I think this verse applies to your people, as it does to us.”
In electing to recite the poem in closing arguments, Schoen’s reading tied Presidential authority and a foundational reading of the constitution to the nation’s fate. His lawyerly reading of the envoi for the ship’s departure summoned an array of Presidential authority in defense of Trump’s accusation of violence that mimicked the exhibition of multiple flags arrayed behind Trump as he addressed the Ellipse on the morning of January 6, 2021, taking the figurative reading as a declaration of the innocence of his client in the face of the violence against the capitol and due process, and even Trump’s own taunting words by which he worked the crowd into a mission to move on the Joint Session. Longfellow’s poem had long provided a powerful topos of national unity, and transnational unity, any sense of the shared collective meaning of a transcendence–and the transcendent role of Presidential authority–were hard to recuperate days after the insurrection incited by an intense partisan opposition of an outgoing President, hard to read as deferring fears of the lack of consensus Trump hammered home in provoking the crowd by insisting the media suppresses “free speech” and urged them “we’re going to have to fight much harder” to prevent a “sad day for our country” of the ship of state hitting the rocky shoals of a smooth Presidential succession. In delegating the defense of the constitution to the crowd he addressed, he summoned a flase populism by inciting crowd members to band together, and gain their unity in order to defend their version of false “freedoms”–freedom of speech without fear of reprisal for hate speech, at a “Free Speech Event” to protest second amendment rights to possess guns; freedom of the”right” to assemble to promote civic disunion.
Schoen’s stilted reading of the trimeter of the envoi beseeched us to place faith over fears–“faith triumphant over our fears”–seemed to steel the nation against the insurrection. Longfellow’s language of righting the course of the ship of state became the language of a mob seeking to make their voices heard, in an insurrectionary slogan that granted license to trespass government property to disrupt Congress before electors were certified. And the mob of rioters who advanced on the U.S. Capitol inspire more fears for the future of the unity of state, than a manufactured by a steel wall of concrete core might stop, impelled by the fear that America as they knew it might suddenly stop if Joe Biden assumed the Presidency, and the America Made Great Again would no longer be America any more.
If the performance seemed theatrical, the summoning of the great bearded poet who crafted Romantic epics of America seemed to suggest the permanence of a society that vested faith in its President, and in the literal reading of the law, whatever deeply disturbing turbulence had almost led to a chaotic picture of the absence of authority in the distress signs that rioters held before the U.S. Capitol as tif to interrupt certification of the electors indoors.
Poetic Intermezzo: the Uncertain Ship of State
The invocation of the timeless precepts of a “ship of state” transcended time, and were hardly rooted in a poetics that Longfellow began: Longfellow was an ardent abolitionist, In a poem that formed the conceit “it is not the sea that sinks and shelves/But ourselves/That rock and rise/With uneasy motion,” the uncertainty of the fate of the ship that forms the dramatic tension in Longfellow’s poem–and about which he was uncertain until the proofs were submitted to the printer–was rewritten as an affirmation of the timeless constancy of the Constitution–the timbers of the ship whose sublime form and graceful design arose from its architect’s model to ensure smooth passage–and nation’s mission. Schoen’s delivery halted and broke over the triumphant trimeter of an envoi to the frigate, but the riots suggested the clear and present danger of the hurricane that in his earlier draft would not defer the catastrophe at sea, but find the ship crashed, “wrecked upon some treacherous rock” despite its “loveliness and strength,” reduced to “rotting in some loathsome dock” despite all of its earlier hopes vested in its sublime design: if the best laid plans may go astray, Schoen distorted the poet’s dramatic focus on a vessel built to withstand stormy tempests at sea as a way to shift focus from the insurrection–the storm that was created by human agency and incitation of the crowd to advance to the US Capitol–to Congress’s ability to right the vessel’s course by following precepts he argued that the founders placed in the Constitution and rights of immunity of former Presidents and protection of “Free Speech.” The addition of the injunction, “Sail on! Sail on! O Ship of State!” which clarified the Horatian metaphor solidified its place in American Presidential rhetoric over the years.
The ship of state–or a ship of diverse affiliations, united as in a new “Unite the Right” rally to support a second term for Donald Trump or to force elected representatives to resist certification of electors–seemed to find a model for perseverance and the continuity of national duty. David Schoen cited the bulwarks of Presidential authority and constitutional precedent, but not “rocking the boat” provided the motif for his stilted oratory. The overcoming of the turbulence of the ocean was a late revision that Longfellow had made to the poem, but the urging of faith and dismissal fears that unruly forces might overpower the American ship of state’s timbers, as the revolutions of 1848 that might cause the ship of state to “with wave and whirlwind wrestle!” Lonfellow’s envoi offered an imprecation for faith in the works of the architect against the tempest’s roar, and “fear [of] each sudden sound and shock” may have tried to quell fear at the abiding chaos of the riotous crowd–whose members bore telling black flags including “2020–the SEQUEL” as they charged the joint session to Make America Great Again by the dramatic force of Trump’s campaign. The call for faith before a “restless, seething, stormy sea” extended beyond metaphor, far from the cosplay social disruption, for faith in how America’s ship of state built on American shores would serve the world. Longfellow suggested security in the stability in the U.S. Constitution, built on clear precepts, e pluribus unum, as the origin of the timbers sent to make the ship’s planks from disparate coastal states of the Republic–Maine, Georgia, Vermont, Virginia–revealed the craft of democratic legislation in 1849, against the backdrop of European revolutions, distinguished America from the instability of the conservative governments who had supported their monarchies, and struggled to meet demands for a constitution.
The design of the ship of state Longfellow evoked, of course, was not in need of displaying a flags so prominently, but revealed its craft most apparently in the harmony of its design. To endure turbulent seas, the “worthy master” who had designed it had regularly enraptured audiences of landlubbers who assembled on shore to wonder at the construction of a goodly ship “shall laugh at all disaster/And with wave and whirlwind wrestle.” What was repurposed as an appeal for stability after the whirlwind of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol adopted Longfellow’s image of he framing of a harmonious ship of state, “Built for freight; and yet for speed,/ A beautiful and gallant craft,” to echo the sturdiness of constitutional precepts apparent in a ship both “beautiful and gallant” and of “larger proportion” whose “silent architecture” could withstand the blows of ocean whirlwinds and rocky reefs as it sailed to the Fortunate Islands without any need for fear. Poised on the coast, where ship-building was a collective spectator event in the maritime coastal region of Portland, Maine where Longfellow grew, the architecture of the ship was praised as a wall that oceanic waves would not be able to ever overcome, on which “all the hopes for future years/ . . . hanging breathless on thy fate.”
Senators were asked to direct attention to the construction of the state rather than the deep turbulence that the riots had revealed. Longfellow had created a dramatic tension between the dangers of ocean travel and the construction of the ship as a metaphor for the craft of his own trimeter and pentameter, but would have long seen the shore and coast as a site of sociability, where he often talked with sailors, and found confirmation of the broader ties to the world when navigation tied the New England coast to global trade, and a romance of the seas: but the Capitol Riots rather stood, festering on the shore, not as confirming the launching of the “goodly vessel . . . safe from all adversity,” but channeled the “boiling, bubbling, seething,/Cauldron that glowed/ and overflowed with black tar,” more than auguring the stability of a ship able to withstand the ocean’s shallows, rocky reefs, and secret currents.
The announcement of the ship’s construction and boasts of its ability echoes the genre of Sailing Cards placed from 1848 in the shops of waterfront ports, featuring elaborately engraved scenes of long-distance travel, offering promises of the possibility of safe passage across a tempestuous windswept sea, that almost echoes Longfellow’s evocation of oceanic peril.
The experssion of confidence in the master architect inspires trust in the building of a ship that resembles the Master’s daughter–the figurehead first inspires love for his daughter, the maiden that the young man marries–and culminates in the envoi of the ship. For readers of “The Building of the Ship of State,” the awe of constructing freight ships was a collective event of spectatorship, as well as an investment in commercial ties, attracting crowds of land-lubbers, as an engraving for the poem foregrounds, but also a prospect of fear. As much as praising the architecture of the craft built from native timbers of different states from the Roanoke, to Maine in The Building of the Ship, Longfellow praised the sturdy building a vessel fit to sail to the “magic charm of foreign lands/With shadows of palms and shining sands” that cast foreign seas as sites for open plunder, across the vast ocean that “divides yet unites mankind” as if the ship was a vehicle for national and global unity, in a barely concealed mercantilist fantasy.
But the affirmation of the final envoi that elevates a call to faith in the architect’s design of the ship over our fears–the imprecation to “fear not each sudden sound and shock” as “‘Tis of the wave and not the rock;/”tis but the flapping of the sail,/And not a rent made by the gale!” was such an odd closure for a trial for inciting attempt to incite crowd violence designed to rock the very ship of state. If Longfellow’s poem is essentially a deferral of these fears–and, indeed, he chose to add the envoi in final proofs of the poem sent to the publisher to alter the ending of the ship striking a rocky reef with a call to national unity that would increase its national appeal in the American canon, that Schoen referenced in treating the ship as a metaphor for his constitutional defense.
Longfellow’s affirmation of faith over fear revealed his commitment to the nation, but led to his canonization as a figure of state, in an era when “In God We Trust” was not minted on American currency before 1864, added only after clergymen gave voice to fears that “if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction . . . . .the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation.” If the Founders kept church and state were kept strictly separate, the motto prominently featured in 1866 on all subsequent coinage-and mandatory from 1908, emphasizing the motto affirming collective faith in God even above the motto, “E pluribus unum,” that described the collective power of the former colonies as a unified state. Longfellow crafted a call to faith, before the Civil War, placing faith in a human architect, but the coining of the motto, a last minute alteration of “In God is Our Trust,” appeared on the two cent piece as a monument to the nation that had been used in the Union army, placed the nation in a form of divine protection later adopted as a national motto at the height of the Cold War in 1956: a Presbyterian pastor hope that the motto “relieve us of the ignominy of heathenism” demanded “recognition of the Almighty God in our coins.”
The director of the Philadelphia Mint, James Pollock, acknowledged that “distinct and unequivocal recognition of the divine sovereignty in the practical administration of our political system” as “a duty of the highest obligation,” and took the mandate to reflect that no nation could be strong without divine favor–and to acknowledge that “trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins,” as Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary reasoned. Longfellow called for public faith in the ship’s construction as a locus for collective “faith” had universalized a patriotic creed in verse, before the currency would provide a monument to collective faith of he nation: if the settling of Acadie had been the subject of Longfellow’s earlier epic poetic project, Evangeline, about the faithful wife among Acadians expelled with Francophones refugees in Le grande Dérangement, set in a primeval forest but during boundary disputes of England, France, and Massachusetts over the island’s future as a story central to the nation. While Longfellow seized on the story of religious refugees to tell by a story of faith in the face of geographical separation, in 1848 the waters of state became truly uneven, leading Longfellow to craft a an optimistic statement of the place of faith for national stability that defined him as one of the first of the future canon of American poets. Longfellow had imagined the need for a new epic for the nation in ways that had placed him in a canon of white American authors that had been crystallized in a literary canon–in an image of Anglo clubbiness–
The Canadian photographer and landscape artist, Eugene l’Africain (1859-92), a Montreal-based artist in the photographic studio who specialized in photolithographs of composite collective portraiture, and his images of Union and “Southern Commanders” of the era of Reconstruction marketed as a patriotic calling cards, assimilated the confederacy to the nation, in an eerily echo the persistent commemoration of military bases of Confederate generals that were only recently called to be redressed; the problem of national belonging was raised by the 2020 insurrection attempting to block electoral certification by disenfranchising black and minority voters in Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania–refusing the extension of the franchise that the confederacy had so adamantly opposed. Notman Studios’ 1885 composite celebrated the Southern Commanders, posing in decorated uniforms, before scenes of martial victory and the very confederate flag carried by many at the Capitol insurrection, placed the commanders in a national pantheon in ways still redressed by protests of commemorating confederates in military bases in the summer of 2020.
The colloidal collotype in which Eugene l’Africain specialized was a precursor of photoshop. Years after the war had ended, the studio for which he worked created collective photo-portraits as a surrogate for national memory, that seemed to create was stubbornly homogeneous and preserved a racial hierarchy; the place of Longfellow in the collotype foregrounds the bearded national hero on its far right, in an imaginary library’s fantastic architecture, as if situated near their stately Boston residences–taking advantage of a new medium pioneered after 1855 to replace pasting individual photographs in to books, refined for mass printing in the 1870s and suitable for wall hangings. Did they complete a national memory after the Civil War so eerily present to protestors who bore confederate flags to overturn electoral results that would retroactively forestall black voters’ choices? The photographic technique produced a quite neoclassical constructed memory of a war that had divided the nation as if it was not lost by these commanders, but celebrated the bravery of separatist commanders as heroes in American public memory, a counterpart to the collective portrait that he also created of Union Commanders, a pair of portraits of a healed nation. The same memory of whiteness informed the naming of American military bases.
But it was hard not to declaim the verses of “the poet Longfellow” in the vein of America First. The sense of a collective healing was something that David Schoen seemed to be creating for the nation in reciting the envoi with which Longfellow had concluded his poem. As has been shown, the very verses that were included in elegiac manner in the poem provided a revision of its narrative as a romantic tragedy in which the ship crashed on the rocks, to become a ruin and monument of sorts, despite the architect’s plans: the transformation of the poem by the addition of a heroic envoi invested it with an epic status, and David Schoen selected a poem of patriotic overtones to instill a similar monumental function intertwined Presidential and Constitutional identity with the figure of speech, even if he was not aware of this, reciting the envoi with breath breaking as if its recitation was a coded warning to Congress of the need to move on lest the ship of state be allowed to crash yet again. Schoen theatrically choked as if to express shared reverence for a frame of state authority, an Anglo poetics of global dominance, to be sure, that dignified the form of government, more than Longfellow’s own abolitionist convictions might suggest.
Schoen’s voice patriotically cracked as he read the poetic imprecation to “Sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union, strong and great!”as if the incitation of insurrection was but a Republican version of “Move On”–a group founded in response to the impeachment of Bill Clinton For Schoen recited the poem without any argument that this was for the benefit of humanity, but to mask for the venality of pursuing falsified claims of electoral fraud and a failure of electoral transparency. Schoen’s distorted reading of Longfellow’s verse was an appropriation of its jingoistic slogan as an imprecation to respect its sovereign structures even in the face of the incitation of violence, but was celebrated on The Daily Caller as if the recitation was a patriotic act. The neoclassical epic that Longfellow created had to end with a celebratory envoi, indeed, by the poetic logic of patriotic poetry, in good Horatian or Virgilian form, lest it provide a bad augur of the nation that seemed destined to fragment. While Longfellow was an ardent abolitionist, he wanted to modernize the image of the ship of state for a democracy, as “all the hopes for future years/ . . . hanging breathless on they fate,” removing the Horatian conceit of a ship from a philosopher king not to an architect, but to the principles of democratic government and the states that had contributed its wood; it seemed to invoke the precedent of design and foundational status to the Constitution lawyers claimed would void the prosecution’s case, preserving the craft despite evident and willful distortion of the franchise that President Trump had so actively promoted the morning of the riots.
There was no reference to how Trump had incited the crowd as he mobilized it by directing a barbaric level of anger to the US Congress’ joint session, and sanctioning the advance to the U.S. Capitol as an occasion to teach a lesson to the Vice President he described as able to forestall his electoral defeat. Trump was confident the crowed would act as his soldiers and reinforcements in a time of need. As defendant, Schoen invested the reading of the poem with patriotic intent. To be sure, he read against the poem’s grain, but, no doubt unconsciously, mirrored the revision of narrative thrust of a poem Longfellow had altered only at the final submission of galleys to his publisher, to end with an envoi of perseverance, in place romantic consideration of a tragic ending that sent the ship on rocky reefs due to a hurricane, trying to recast the prospect of conviction as a tragedy of state, as Longfellow called for endurance and devotion on which Schoen choked–“sail on, O UNION, strong and great!”–as if the need to transcend the rioters’ violence demanded by the logic of the poem, in ways that could almost seem to sanction their own sense of urgency.
2. Longfellow was.a poet of “America First” long before the term had been coined as a slogan for the 2016 Presidential election. To be sure, as the collective composite enshrined the poet in a pantheon of the nation in a new Athens, Longfellow carefully fashioned his status as an American poet, promising in Hiawatha, a later epic that cobbled Ojibwe languages to fashion the pristine native world that he had imagined as the Acadian setting of Evangeline, a new Edda for the new nation, in a creole of Native American languages of his own creation in trochaic trimeter. As if to map the nation in verse, he perpetuated the myth of the extinction of indigenous culture that established him as a “White Poet”able to meld indigenous and Christian cultures in an American epic emulating indigenous cadences, and champions the Anglicization and conversion of indigenous culture at its close. The canonic role of Longfellow as a Poet of Whiteness recalled the white poetics in seeking guidance from words that predated the Civil War, and became part of a pantheon of White Poets of America, indeed, whose “faith” in an architect’s design seemed to play to Trump’s base as an argument, was probably provided to Schoen as a theatrical closing argument between a final appeal or proof.
There was an element of the perverse in invoking “the poet Longfellow” to defend a non-literate President, who found defense not in law but a pre-Civil War poetics. The lawyer’s poetic performance was perversely exaggerated as it appealed to emotions of his audience, in the very room where the insurrection had occurred, as if to turn back the tide of history by an appeal to patriotic principles that assumed the ship was stable and afloat. Schoen intimated suggested the video show that featured breaking of windows and light fixtures by those who marauded the Capitol they entered in military garb to destabilize the “ship of state” Greek philosophers assigned exclusively to philosopher kings was but an aberration, and that the trust in founding principles would outlast the perils of rocky shoals that were narrowly averted, but openly incited and provoked against the hall of state where he spoke.
As Longfellow extolled he collective faith in the Master builder’s plan, extolling the plan by which the ship of state was built from timbers from across the new continent, and the benefits the ship would bring to the globe–but a ore recognizably Anglo poetics of mastery of the ship’s course, Schoen broke up in closing argument, as if overcome with emotion in concluding his statement–designed to be rebroadcast in clips on the nightly news, if not inspire faith in the party of the impeached President, that the ship was a work of good that would endure. The verses he credited to “the poet Longfellow” of course elided the role of mercantile expansion in appropriating foreign goods, even if he broadcast his abolitionist convictions: the poem grew canonic as it was recited in public for theatrical audiences as an inspiration reverence to the collective project at stunning odds with the sort of separatism of a mob wanting its voice to “not be silenced,” who seemed incited to reject the illusory possibility that seemed to disappear that morning–but never existed–of staying the orderly transition of power.
Longfellow’s canonic poem was an elevation of nation in clear classical style, as the ship of state image of national perseverance before distress that became a canonic image of nation, perversely in Schoen’s closing argument, to dispatch all memory of the violent entry of the U.S. Capitol by the image of a “noble ship” of “goodly frame,” of select “cedar of Maine and Georgia pine,” wood from the banks of the Roanoke, to endure whirlwinds as it circumnavigates the globe to Madagascar and the Fortunate Isles. To place the nation with confidence on a global map, Longfellow shifted the mercantile aims of extracting wealth from overseas to global benefit of the ship–“the entire world “hanging on thy fate”–naturalizing freight ships’ role to to plunder global communities, ferrying “raw” materials to expropriate wealth, as a global benefit of uniting the world commercially in routes of mercantile exchange. If Schoen appealed to national transcendence, the assault on the Capitol was far from a disturbance, mistaken for the flapping of a sail or waves against the hull of the ship, but a real and present danger to the ship of state.
The intimation that intensified national divides might invite Senators to doubt that demanded reverence for the sacred form was less in keeping with Longfellow’s hope that “foul befall the traitor’s hand/That would loose one bolt, or break one band/Of this gallant ship or this goodly land,”lest accusations of incitation lead to a conviction that would assault the structure of government.
Trump’s lawyer did his best to channel the theatrical declamation of the map of the nation in Longfellow’s concluding lines to elevate sentiment to defend the President–its architect?–as if the trial would be an offense to the very work of state, raising the monument of poetry to the level of the monument of the capitol building, drafted in 1793 as a classical temple whose chambers were inviolate and sacred, rather than the mob who had inhabited the structure, and sought to wrest authority from its officials.
But the poem was a masquerade for the venality of inviting license of the protestors to attempt to overturn the electoral vote. Longfellow wrote the pome in 1849, with little sense of the endurance of the union, until he added in last-minute changes to the proof a distinctly different ending of the ship’s enduring fortune, that made the poem so canonical to America in its poetic claims. But the logic of its recitation had far less to do with Longfellow’s intent than political sloganeering–and the need for a mask of sovereign unity after the whirlwind of the Capitol riots that had occurred in the chambers Trump was bing tried. The attempt to invoke a historical prospect in closing the President’s defense against charges he incited the mob was almost perverse conclusion to how Trump summoned supporters on social media to interrupt the workings of government –the very sort of mob the Founders refused to see as endemic to democracy but recognized as perilous to the Republic. For the halting hat concluded a defense of Donald J. Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, choking at the prospect of a national shipwreck conviction might portend, obscured the very violence of the incitation to proceed the the house of government to overturn the franchise on January 6.
Perhaps Schoen sought to evoke the reading of the poem by Abraham Lincoln on the verge of Civil War, describing the accusation of inflaming the mob as the dire national consequences of pursuing impeachment for revenge–or perhaps a Trump ally had suggested the canonic poem of patriotism. Longfellow wrote with fear for the future of the Republic–an earlier version had closed with the far grimmer version of the ship “Wrecked upon some treacherous rock,/Rotting in some loathsome dock“–read against the mob that assaulted the seat government seemed to do violence to Longfellow’s use of the ancient image of the ship of state was violently readopted to present the trial as internecine squabbles among political parties, more than the survival of a government of laws. The “righting” of the ship by interrupting the due course of electoral certification was designed to replace one vision of the nation with another, under the misguided assertion that the voices of Trump supporters were indeed silenced or ignored. But in an era where the purple states seem disappeared, the crisis of the presentation of political or ideological unity was far less apparent than the apparent depth of fractures in the national vote, and the state senators were acting as representatives.
If the crowed that entered the U.S. Capitol acted like a lynching mob seeking apprehension and execution of legislators in an improvised court of popular law that echoed the separatist Klansmen, the myth of a white nationalism emerged in the specter of a lynching of public officials–perhaps lifted from neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce’s dystopian fictional overthrow of a government for being traitors to their race, in the The Turner Diaries, as a retributive measure against traitorous legislators. The prediction of a coming violent conflict of Civil War was long a given in alt right media that asked only “how, when, and why has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?” and predicted the nation was “nearing a point comparable to 1860, and perhaps past 1968,” the brimming tensions of which were enacted in the 2019 cartographic meme predicting victory in a coming civil war.
Trump had long predicted that politics were growing increasingly viscious by telling social media followers the “tough people” on his side would bode badly for violent leftists–“I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough–until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” The multiplication of scenarios of violent conflict of apocalyptic tenor seemed early modern, blown as it was to historical proportions of a battle of crusaders, or of historical conflicts of east and west, with the possibility of a race war, nuclear conflagration, that had magnified fears of disaster that gave a special prominence to migration: as the nation fought memory wars between the 1618 project pointing to the first arrival of slaves in North America as as foundational as 1776 Declaration of Independence, the director of the Claremont Institute warnedompared, given the similarity of the post-Civil War elections of 1864 to 2018–or 2020–as Democratic victories in Congress might continued to “prevent the President from building the wall and keep him tied up long enough for them to get their demographic transformation of America past the point of no return.” The result, he warned, “might well be game over for the regime of liberty,” the image of the neo-Nazi leader’s novel of a “Day of Rope” s designaated to mark the systematic execution of legislators who promoted programs of gun confiscations and a crackdown on racists lead to a campaign of terror, and its fetishization in alt right tropes, and fears that “firearms rights” might be removed.
3. Trump was long enamored of architectural symbols of authority, and had used his office to mandate all future federal buildings henceforth would hewed exclusively to neoclassical architectural precepts, all but abandoned by Trump Properties, until the Washington Post Office was converted to prime luxury hotel turf. But fear and shock were central to the storming of the Capitol after the conclusion of what was promoted as a time to culminate the collective energy generated of mass-identity at Trump mass rallies, the staged events of sanctioning violence against those demonized as outsiders tot he project to Make America Great Again, whose target could only be the neoclassical U.S. Capitol whose Palladian dome loomed over the event, an image of sovereignty that had been planned by an open call for designs of stateliness to create an authority worthy of the Republic, but In closing argument, the featuring of a plea for national unity was lawyerly recitation hope national transcendence of the incitation of violence by the outgoing President, hoping to stave off disgrace.
Is it a coincidence that the Trump Presidency had openly targeted ancient sites as targets of destruction, from the city of Palmyra to Iranian cultural monuments, but threatened deliberate violate international law by targeting cultural monuments as official policy? The numerological threat of aggressive bombing that President Trump issued would have targeted 54 cultural monuments in Iran–from Persepolis to Golestan Palace in Tehran to Yazd to historical sites of worship as the the Sheikh Loftollah Mosque in Isfahan or Pink Mosque in Shiraz–a destruction of monuments ostensibly to “avenge” each of the 54 American held in the American embassy-none of whom were killed-provoked international outcry that led DoD to backtrack by issuing a commitment to “follow the laws of armed conflict.” Trump’s bluster recalled nothing so much as Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, boasting that the German tourist guides of Karl Baedeker would provide, in a fillip intimating the interface of superior German cultural authority and the technical precision of aerial delivery of incendiary bombs by the German Luftwaffe, as they would hit “every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” in the Spring of 1942. Only a global outcry produced a de-escalation of a rhetoric of wonton monumental destruction.
.As Trump’s lawyer, Schoen sought to channel such theatrical traditions of public declamation, as if in place of offering any exculpatory proof, in an overtly staged gambit to elevate national sentiment to defend the President–its architect?–as if the trial would offend the work of state. Longfellow wrote in an age where epic and ode provided a national form of mapping, replete with toponymic content of national unity as Vergil, Pindar or Horace, but transferring the muse to American shores; he had edited his own compilation of poetry on places that included how Dante famously evoked the fate of his native Italy as a “home of woe/ship without pilot, in an ocean wild” in the translation Longfellow edited–as W.S. Merwin render “a ship with no pilot in the great tempest”–and seems to have placed the building of the ship as a prayer for reslience in the face of Civil War, in which he had sided with Free Soiler movement on restricting enslavement, and abolitionism–but now found his work a slogan of burying evidence of a crime, as it was recast as a monument–perhaps replacing the Capitol itself–of foundational status in the Republic as a faith in national mission akin to Trump’s own insistence on keeping strong in the face of danger on the Ellipse, as if it was as central to the national tradition as L’Enfant had placed the Capitol building at the heart of the nation’s Capitol–and might replace it.
But in the storming of the U.S. Capitol, all gloves seem to have been pulled off by the men and women in combat gear who scaled its walls on January 6, targeting the domed cultural center that L’Enfant placed at the center of his plan for the American capitol.
Perhaps the very architecture of the state Stephen Hallot had designed in 1793 seemed to these rioters a removed site for the foisting of results of an election that had lacked sufficient transparency, and even infringed on state jurisdictions’ sovereignty, no longer tied so closely to the very red states that had shown their dedication to patriotic identity.
For the online call to assemble on January 6 was the announced day that the unheard would materialize from the regions of Red States on the Capitol, to make themselves heard and to interrupt the counting of electors and the mechanics of sovereignty, as they replaced the once most mundane delegation of sovereignty by electoral delegates in the inner sanctum of democracy? The centrality of the overturning or everting of the seat of power is recognized in the urgency of using the domed building of the U.S. Capitol to call for monitoring domestic terrorist operations.
4. The mob formed in response to escalating fears of the mobs of the undocumented migrants that in caravans were prophesied to overwhelm the sovereign borders of the state, whose arrival was mapped as ineluctable catastrophe in memes as overwhelming the border by tide, river, or flow that plot the migration of 185 million undocumented entering ports of entry in 2016 dehumanized to an “immigrant flow” of arrows or water-based metaphors of an unstoppable movements of population northward–
For as President, Trump had dramatically escalated apprehensions at the border tas a sort of personal mission to make American “safe” had opened the U.S. Capitol to an invasion far more destabilizing to the rule of law that owuld destabilize national identity and security.
As we watched the mobs entering the Capitol grounds on television, the threat to sovereign identity and security that the mob of rioters posed seemed both more dangerously destabilizing and far more challenging to map as a sovereign threat. Had the invocation of the specter from across the border led law enforcement to take their eye off the ball? We were all disoriented by the spectacle. The sacred defense of the border cast the territory as the primary threat to national security, but the Capitol seemed left unguarded to the costumed and rampaging mobs holding improvised weapons, backpacks with explosives and munitions, as they entered the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, having been urged to “Fight like hell” if they wanted to have a country, and urged this march was a battle to defend the nation’s existence, not against foreign threats of a transnational character, but from inner threats that would destroy the nation that Trump had for years placed at its borders, not within the nation or in political discourse.
The Alexandrian poet Cavafy described the moment of crisis of the toga-wearing Senators without reason to mystify the public with eloquent speeches. Senators seemed to loose reason to stop the crowds that had assembled to protest the certification of electoral votes from entering the U.S. Capitol, and running rampant through its halls to interrupt the course of the ship of state as it moved in stately fashion from one Presidency to the next. These mobs were not technically barbarians sacking a city of laws, as Visigoths, overthrowing Rome, even if they were dressed the parts, but rejected business as usual and what they saw as the suspension of laws and were told abandoned the constitution: they were invited from across the nation, rather than streams migrating from beyond its borders, seeking to uphold its laws; they were holding American flags, in a chaotic jumble of iconography.
Cavafy, who was immersed in history and historical decline, evoked the drama of expecting the announced arrival of barbarians to overthrow government, leaving senators and lawgivers about to lay down their work as the “barbarians are coming today”–and the coming realization, as they fail to arrive, and as there are, in fact, no barbarians any more, a shocked realization that without the barbarians there is no useful solution sense of the rationale of government. Trump had claimed to the crowd that the replacement of his “America First” policy would fail to protect the nation in the future, and the audience, animated by fears of protecting the nation, moving across the perimeter of the Capitol was in ways the clear mirror image of the migrants who Trump had been able to keep out of the nation to “protect our Country” by enhanced border security. Trump had spurred their action, recalling the unspoken words of his repeated claims we must secure the nation’s borders, lest we cease to be a nation, by foregrounding the sacred border wall: the fears of the arrival of migrants who would compromise national sovereignty were viewed as moving almost ineluctably to the border, but mapped in metaphorical terms as a “tide” that transcended their actual routes of travel, but that posed a challenge to sovereignty and national purity in “migrant caravans” expanded the routes of undocumented immigrants.
If the early maps of the invading migrations of barbarians into the Roman Empire and city of Rome presaged the arrival of the inhabitants who lived on the edges of the known world in antiquity–Scythians, Dacians, Goths–the current crowd-sourced Yahoos had arrived from “silenced” red states, or witnessed the increasing presence of militia at Trump rallies in previous months, and felt that they were outside the world that was known and represented by the acting government in process of certifying the electors.
The dependence of the nation on secure borders served to sanction anti-immigrant violence in 2015-16, by raising the fears of undocumented migrants as a threat to the very notion of a nation as sanctioning violence against undocumented minorities: by sanctioning violence to prevent the fear of the loss of nation, his address was a bookend to Trump’s promises to “stop illegal immigration” and to fortify the border. To be sure, Trump claimed escalating “illegal” immigration were ravaging the nation, elevating need to “make America safe again” by demonizing the threat of immigration, increasing the policing of the southern border, and encouraging citizens’ arrests to help police and the Department of Homeland Security, which had indeed solicited applications to teach citizens the extent of their abilities to detain undocumented immigrants.
The Trump administration openly accorded legitimacy to archaic legal traditions of posse comitatus as a basis for exercising white privilege on the southern border and the white imagination in recent years–and the mob seemed to be enacting a similar desire to prevent the “breach of peace” lest the borders of the known world collapse in an image of migration all too often elided with globalism and globalization–breaking parameters by opening floodgates to outsiders–Huns, Scythians, Bactriians from the borders of the known world.
Trump had channeled such rhetoric when he lamented the threat to overturn the defenses on our boundaries, as he addressed the “amazing patriots” he saw as the protectors of liberty, affirming “we are the greatest and we are headed and were headed in the right direction,” as he assured them he would advance to the U.S. Capitol with them to defend the nation’s sacred principles, before he ducked into a waiting limousine. Trump boasted on July 4, 2020 that he had deployed law enforcement to protect monuments, arrest the rioters who defaced them, and pledged Mt. Rushmore would itself “never be desecrated and never be defamed,” but left the Capitol open to invasion on January 6, 2021. His pledge at Mt Rushmore was, truth be told, ironic as the “monument” he claimed as sacred to the nation was planned as a tourist attraction on land sacred to Lakota Sioux who had called the six granite pillars on the mountain the Six Grandfathers, was apparent; “Mt. Rushmore” was indeed only officially recognized as its name in 1930, six years after the carvings originally planned for The Needles were explored as a site for the monument. But the license of the crowd that approached the Capitol seemed the result of the baiting of the crowds that Trump had, as candidate, defined his unique relation to, and his power over; the relation of Trump to the crowds that assembled to at rallies like that at Mt. Rushmore gained a new height of violence as a mob, reaching an explosive discharge, in the terms of Elias Canetti, who sought argued the power of crowds have gained since the French Revolution and over the twentieth century.
This crowd crossed into the Capitol to prevent the future crossing of borders by greater threats to themselves as individuals, moving as a group with license to abandon. The barbarians that left the Ellipse responded to the fears of the collectivity of the nation being open once more to assault, not only to transnational cartels, but to the threat that the government might be dismantling border security apparatus in certifying a fraudulent election. The idea was maddening. These threats were magnified as the crowd was sourced in chat groups, promoted in multiple Facebook groups, where, in hours after the refusal to accept the results of the U.S. Presidential election had been called in several states, verb tenses became unhinged from reality in the waning hours of election night, as what would be the largest-growing Facebook groups ever in the history of the platform grew online, a virtual crowd, not able, as migrants, to be tracked by GPS or viewed as puncturing our borders, but rather aimed at puncturing sovereignty from within: the boundaries of states were less important know, despite threats of migrants overwhelming those fortified border check-points by rushing them en masse, already assembled before the sun rose to pierce the perimeter of the Capitol as they were given permission to do so, by streaming down the Mall, down Constitution Avenue, down Pennsylvania Avenue, urged “we’re going to have to fight much harder” to reverse how “traitors” in the U.S. Senate were betraying the constitution and adopt rigged electoral maps.
These barbarians advanced not on the edges of empire, on historical routes by which they traveled for over two thousand miles, drawn by economic circumstances and unsustainable wealth disparities–
–but to defend came to express their first amendment rights, and defend second amendment “freedoms” of gun ownership and possession, and to target the betrayals in the halls of Congress as they had come to flout protocols of social distancing and mask-wearing. Flouting normal behavior was the ethos of the final two-day Trump rally that promised the culmination of the liberties and license promised by Trump’s perpetual candidacy, in red MAGA caps and cowboy hats, carrying flags that declared their allegiance to an imagined America, anticipating the moment when Trump would himself assure the assembled crowd, “We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you–we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down . . . we’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” hypnotically energizing the crowd, “You have to show strength–you have to be strong.”
The mobs that assembled, sourced over social media, were not the barbarians of whom we had been repeatedly warned as arriving from without borders, to be sure. The real national emergency was not the national emergency that Trump had long described, as coming from the wall, but occurred as the walls of the government were themselves unprotected, dissuaded from amplifying security, perhaps by the very man who had been mapping the national security threat from beyond our borders in such sombre tones. They proceeded to attack institutions of representational government and march onto federal property, to prevent the certification of electoral votes take the Presidency from Donald Trump. The false sense of equality that Trump bestowed on these white Americans as both equal to him, and allowed by him to act out the sense of personal offense he felt at the certification of electoral votes did not need a rationale or require a logic: the role Canetti gave to the moment of discharge as that privileged moment when all social distances or loosened– “when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal”–and investing them as true patriots, who embodied his America. They were granted license to defend a nation betrayed by discredited representatives, haunted by fears of the dangers of enemies entering the nation.
The true national emergency was the fear of a sense of voting insecurity, and the lack of consensus in the electoral system. They came on busses from across its states, carrying not their belongings but the sense of resentment and anger nurtured on the apparently unjust maps of electoral votes, to stall consensus about the end of Donald Trump’s presidency–then were a crowd that had been energized and nurtured on social media, at Trump rallies, and in chat rooms that bewailed the fear of a loss of liberties. The crowd was assembled to realize the Constitutional Crisis that Trump supporters had insisted began on December 15, when the electors met to assign votes to Joe Biden, provoking the very crisis in government that Trump by asserting that the very legality of the current election was compromised, and no winner could indeed be decided who was not under a cloud of illegitimacy. The Disputed Presidency that would later be asserted by pro-Trump plaintiffs in coming weeks would be prevented by a putsch, an auto-golpe in which the base of Trump was invite, encouraged to participate in a ‘march’ to the Capitol that would contest the legitimacy of certifying the electoral vote–a day of wrath that would restore direct participation in democracy that had been so distorted.
Their routes were longer, and were not conducted on foot–but these barbarians were truly at the gate, if they didn’t come as vectors that wold pierce our borders. They were, rather, crowds that were sourced on social media, in reaction to the threats of regime change that would come by elections, by the creation of consensus.
Rather than arriving from outside our frontiers, as we had been warned, this invasion came from within, by those who ostensibly sought to set the Empire right, rather as an invasion in the sort of ur-maps of invasion and historical decline that were framed in the elegant color-coded historical maps of the post-Napoleonic July Monarchy, that looked back on the invasions that eroded political stability. They came to change a regime, however, that they saw as false, and channeled a mythological past of the defense of the constitution,–more than crossing from “barbarian” lands, to destroy a vision of empire that had promised civilization to the world, they arrived from the red states to the center of corruption in Washington, DC, hoping to stop the change of government, and change the course of history by moving across the inaugural scaffolding that had already been set up for the transition of power, tearing down fencing and barriers that had separated them from a citadel of governance.
5. The leader of the crowd who had come to love them called on the assembled crowd to defend him against the apparatus of power as they accepted Trump’s dissimulation as not a ringleader or a politician, or tactician, but rather the long-suffering subject of attack. Always intent to identify himself with his audience, the grievances Trump expressed with the electoral system, and the apparatus of voting machines or mail-in ballots as a personal compromise of his role as President, transformed the crowd’s motivation from adulation of the President to hostile attack. The timing of the moment of entrance onto federal property and into the halls of Congress were not happenstance, as has been noted, but coincided with Mike Pence’s refusal to realize the extent to which “they’ve rigged it like they’ve never rigged it before,” to “do the right thing, because Mike Pence can do the right thing,” “because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” but, as he tweeted after leaving the stage, “Mike Pence doesn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution,” as he had refused to interrupt the certification of electors. The permission to proceed to the Capitol, to absorb Trump’s own sense of offense, and to prevent the certification, existed as an unmasking Pence as a traitor, and in a moment of unmasking electrify the crowd, if by confirming his own insecurities about Pence, his long time ally, as if he has unmasked Pence’s venality.
The crowd, which continued to be urged on by provocateurs with megaphones atop cars, collectively searched for lawmakers, not legal recognition or asylum, and placed liberty at peril. The actual seizure of the U.S. Capitol was an inside job, utterly unlike the visions of invasions threatened during a series of National Emergencies in recent years–from the migrant caravans, enabled by the “humanitarian visas” given out by the Mexican government, that had made it so urgent to “fix” America’s immigration laws–a pedestrian pilgrimage on a sacred calendar that had necessitated the first $1 Billion to be transferred from the Department of Defense to remedy “critical readiness issues facing our military” as the caravans “thumbed their noses at our drug and immigration laws” as they advanced in four massive caravans “in an effort to enter the US” and threatened to breach borders. If individual psychology cannot explain the motivations of Trump supporters in 2016, the regressive quality of rallies tapped a sense of the collective interests and needs that transcended the individual needs, Freud had argued, based on infatuation with the leader who provoked the crowd: in Canetti’s attempt to “grab the twentieth century by the throat,” the moment of panic that released the crowd lay in the realization that it had no protection as a crowd, that the crowed may not be long for this world, as much as the leader, and faces a threat that even targets its bonds of solidarity: the irrational fear of the opening of borders, and threats that would be impossible to stand down alone–but that can only be resolved by taking power into their own hands, and losing themselves in the permission given to a collectivity to prevent their immobilization by moving suddenly to overturn how a mundane political practice was about to enshrine a vision of power asymmetry they could no longer tolerate.
The sense of greatness of the crowd was correspondingly magnified. For Trump gave the crowd the license to attack to restore the gravity of this offense, not through words, so much as the sense that Pence didn’t want to Make America Great Again. The slogan was of course never about making America great for everyone, but allowing an America of pure self-interest to exist: as Canetti argued that all language worked as a form of masking and baiting, his language was not clear, but a claim to recover greatness that the secessionist banners of the Lost Cause announced as a new crusade. They were given license to Make America Great Again, if “America” was never a discussion of all members of the nation, but a category that permitted itself to be filled by the preservation of self-interest, and indeed the exclusion of all–unemployed; undocumented; homeless; unfamiliar–who were foreign to it.
6. As the motley group of protestors and MAGA-heads headed the Mall toward the Capitol, they were empowered and emboldened by a sense of urgency and license, external dangers as migrants or the undocumented merged with internal dangers as the audience listened on the Ellipse, gaining coherence and purpose as it became where the greatest threat to the nation lay. They had been energized by the need to defend similarly abstract ideals–“our Country and our Constitution”–animated by being full of aggrievement at the prospect of electoral loss. Directing attention at the new scene of electoral loss–the U.S. Capitol–the order of government becomes the target of attention and the destination of the crowd, as it moves past the scaffolding for the Inaugural platforms and proceeded to the site where Mike Pence had failed to unseat electors, seeking to illustrate their patriotism, and to perpetuate the absolute power of Trump as President, allowing him to entertain the ability to transcend his office and the conventions of the transition of power, enabling to claim the honorific that he only part jokingly felt himself entitled of President for Life, half-way through his term, in 2018, at Mar-a-Lago telling Republican donors he would “maybe . . . have to give that a shot someday,” as if planting the seed to claim by April 2019 his base may well just “demand that I stay longer” as President or his term as President might be extended to “at least for ten to fourteen years.”
The audience assembled on the Ellipse became a crowd–and a violent mob–as it reached what Elias Canetti would call its “discharge” and explosion in his study of the inner movements of crowds, in magnum opus, Crowds and Power. President Trump had fired up the crowd’s energy and sense of patriotism, in ways that evoke how Canetti described the relation of authoritarian leaders to crowds, and the role of crowds since the French Revolution. He did so by baiting them, invoking dangers to the nation that a change in administration might bring, and the sense that all he had accomplished in his presidency might fade, and the marauding mobs of antifa that might endanger the cities of the future in the United States: Trump evoked specters of violence, oddly prefiguring what was about to unfold, in threats trans-border migration posed as an illegal presence he elided the illegality of canard of 2016–“if we allow this group of people to illegally take over our country because it’s illegal when the votes are illegal when the way they got there is illegal when the states that vote are given false and fraudulent information”–channeling the baseless fears stoked in 2016 of a rigged election due to illegal migrants, and the need for strong border security.
The crowds that had demonstrated their patriotism all summer long in the election that Trump had criss-crossed the country and aides assured the base that pollsters were making the same mistake of under-estimating rural votes, holding as many pre-election rallies as he could in Florida, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina, assuring audiences he would win. “Save America” rallies had since Election Day accelerated in an unending campaign, assembling crowds in need of direction, he took pleasure in incessantly insisting he had won the election, seeking “stay on presidential” before throngs of white supporters.