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Mobs and Jobs

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, in hopes to manufacture a preservation of Presidential power after a narrow election seemed determined by absentee ballots of long-undercounted minority voters.

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 leting 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.

Thomas P Costello/USA Today

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.

Tucker Carlson
AP/Rex/Shutterstock

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–

FOX Interactive Projected Electoral map/July 7, 2016

–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.

Nick Anderson, MAGA Mob/Tribune Agency

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.

Storming of the United States Capitol/Sam Corum/Getty Images

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.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency

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.

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Strongman on the Border

The border was closed and immigration authorities simply ‘at capacity,’ announced newspapers, after a Caravan of migrants from Central America arrived.  In rejecting the ability to process new arrivals who lacked necessary papers of transit, the papers parroted a an anti-immigrant line, revising the southwestern border from a line of passage, or space of transit, in what seemed a meme about the border as a threshold of legality-as if a line defines the legality of those who cross it. The image that suggested migrants atop the wall, or of others scaling a dilapidated section of slatted border fence near San Isidro–“through a dark, treacherous canyon, notorious for human trafficking and drug smuggling”–collapsed multiple tropes of border-crossing on the least likely of targets:  a peaceful procession through Mexico that began on Easter Sunday, crossing borders to call global attention to migrants’ rights.

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While the simple visualization of the course of the procession that wound through Mexico City from the southernmost border of Mexico cannot trace the mental geography on which the arrival of migrants was mapped in the United States, the progress of Central American migrants was viewed and mapped by Donald Trump and FOX in terms of the desire to see their arrival from behind the proposed $18 billion border wall that has become a contentious object of debate.  As the number of arrests along the border has grown above 50,000 for the third straight month in a row, and more children separated from parents in an attempt to broadcast cautionary warnings about the dangers of attempting to cross the border, or to appeal to existing immigration laws by asylum pleas, stories of migrants that the proposed wall would silence are increasingly difficult to silence or contain, and the human narratives of migrants are increasingly difficult to place behind the imaginary screen of an insurmountable border wall,–which of course does not exist, save as a mental construct–but is cherished as one and difficult for many to relinquish or deny.  Even though there is no structure corresponding to the height, thickness, and architectural design that Trump had treated audiences during his campaign, the Caravan threatened to remind us that the wall didn’t exist, despite the attention that has been lavished on its proposed construction at a cost of an estimated $18 billion, far below what actual costs might in fact be.

The specter of the arriving migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras–the triumvirate of “failing states” that Trump has demonized and sought to distance the nation–seemed cast as an oddly unstoppable “horde” that had defied Mexican immigration authorities who had not turned them back, and whose arrival was magnified as a threat to create a persuasive image that reminded the nation of the urgent need for the wall.  After months of dehumanizing migrants as faceless hordes, poised at the border, migrants seemed to have arrived at the border fencing, about to breach an inadequate barrier that is a relic dating from the era of the Vietnam War.  The news of the progression of the Caravan–and clouded interpretation of what their aims for crossing the United States’ southwestern border truly were–led them to become a poster child for the urgency with which Donald J. Trump has so stridently advocated the construction of a “real wall,” with an intransigence that almost embodies the physicality of an actual concrete wall, a month before the construction of the border wall began in San Diego and Calexico, CA, replacing some fourteen miles of improvised border fencing that was long ago made of scrap metal to “secure our border” as a way to “make America great again.”  The promotion of building the border wall was a way to ensure “public safety” followed repeated images of migrants attempting to scale or protest before existing improvised fencing–

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-whose inadequacy to deal with the border threat Trump had relentless ridiculed as useless during his Presidential campaign.  The danger of cross-border traffic that Trump had repeatedly magnified circulated back to prominence within the national media with the arrival of the migrant Caravan.  The hope for the migrants to gain asylum in the United States was immediately questioned as their true agenda was assumed to be one of evading the border controls before the Wall was built–and the immigration laws that would permit their entry changed.

If the announcement of the construction was a feign of a a show of strength, and promoted as a basis for national pride, it was an insult to migrants petitioning for asylum, as the promotion of the border wall as a sign of national security debased the notion of the nation as one of laws and civil society.  The promotion of the wall as a slogan of nationalism remapped the nation in relation to the border, after all, in the Newspeak of social media and twitter–“Strong Borders are Security”, “Immigrants are Criminals”; “Refugees are Terrorists”–the border wall protected national security and projected the idea that all migrants were illegal.  The spatial imaginary of the border wall echoed the longstanding claim, made without evidence, that the immigrants at the border were “the worst” of their society, and for allowing an untold number of undesirables to enter the the nation.  As well as protesting the treatment of the United States”the dumping ground of European Refuse” as an insult to the nation, the insult was accepted by the nation.  The blame rests on citizens who are accept the very immigrants Europe does not want.  The image, which appeared just before Bartholdi’s “Statue of Liberty” was erected in New York Harbor, raised objections to accepting those rejected by Europe’s crowned heads, of dubious value to the nation that echoed Trump’s position.

European Refuse.pngKendrick, “And We Open Our Arms to Them” Life Magazine (July 12, 1885), 

The very chaotic narrative of depositing “human refuse”–a group of former colonials identified as “not like us” but being advanced by an invisible broom–was repeated in the image of the approaching Caravan, as the legitimacy of their requests for asylum from Central American nations were questioned, and suggested to be fundamentally an illustration of disrespect for the law.  The “Caravan” of over 1,000 migrants seeking a better life was widely mapped as a threat to sovereignty and law, recasting a protest march that promoted migrants’ rights as an invasion of sovereign space–and a grounds to deny migrants’ rights.  The  tweets of President Trump directed the attention of the country to the border to query the status of the migrants who were headed to the nation, as he announced instructions  “not to let these large Caravans of people into our country”–magnifying the migrants as a national threat through a dichotomy between “them” and “us.”   The anxieties about immigration policies that Kenrick’s cartoon registered panic at the caricatured faces of the new arrivals.

In announcing an intent of illegal entry across the border, Trump once again conjured the need for a border wall, as if trying to co-opt the message of migrants to create an image of a cross-border threat.  The construction of border walls against an “existential threat to the nation”–as did the former commander of the southern border who was named Trump’s director of Homeland Security and now his Chief of Staff—creates an urgency for protection that corrodes the possibility of an open society.  Kelly’s disparagement of migrants as “people who would not easily assimilate into the United States,” “overwhelmingly rural,” from countries where “fourth, fifth, and sixth grade education are the norm,” described them with the same disdain as Kendrick’s cartoon from the early Life of the 1880s protested the insult by which ex-colonials were sent to the United States as to Australia or India, which had indeed become “dumping grounds” for convicts, remittance men, and socially unwanted cast-offs, as well as seeing them as barbarians who threatening the social fabric of the United States.  The disparagement of migrants who are seeking asylum as uneducated, of rural origins, or indeed, as Kelly’s remarks must have reminded his audience, criminals.

ICE 2014 arrests gangs--ms13?ICE Arrests of undocumented immigrants, 2014

The disproportionate warnings of a “border threat” or “trouble at the border”  telegraphed on Twitter was inserted in a narrative rooted in the plan to create a border barrier of cast concrete in August 2015, in the heat of the Presidential election–a mission that crystallized support behind Trump’s campaign.  Trump insisted that the border wall he advocated wasn’t rhetorical, symbolic, or virtual–a space defined by hi-tech monitoring–but an impervious barrier that would succeed where other poor-quality fencing had failed.

The build-up of the arrival of the migrant caravan ran against the disproportionate attention that Trump had drawn to the border.  As Trump pedaled the fiction that the wall had already been begun, newscasters on FOX mapped a showdown by the approach toward the border of “that scary migrant caravan” of Central Americans with American law enforcement as inevitable, placing the migrants in a narrative of unwieldly crisis of immigration management on the US-Mexico border.  In ways that intersect with a broad unease of increased immigration–often manifesting itself in extreme xenophobia, othering and racism–a vaguely masked anti-immigrant sentiment that has growth in the United States over the last four to five years which Trump has deftly exploited. For the ‘border wall’ was recognized code for a thinly disguised racism, captured in John Kelly’s characterization of the Caravan–and migrants–as “overwhelmingly rural people” not capable of assimilating, who “don’t have the [necessary] skills” to do so, and are “overwhelmingly rural people,” as if ignoring just how dependent U.S. farms are on immigrant labor.

The disproportionate attention the Trump and his planned border wall directed to the southwestern border made the region seem far more immediate to all Americans–and defined the Caravan’s approach as national news.  Although the formation of such “Caravans”–a name not coined by Americans, though it gained new spin in the mouth of President Donald J. Trump, who had grown frustrated with an uptick in U.S. Border Patrol metrics of illegal entry–the tactic that was long adopted by advocacy groups to foreground migration difficulties was used by the group Pueblos sin Fronteras, or Peoples without Borders, whose name was seen as revealing their opposition to the redefinition of the southwestern border of the United States, which has also been mapped onto the wall–creating a reflexive panic at the sight of large crowds of unidentified migrants marching toward the border.  The legal and physical obstacles that Trump promised to place on Mexicans or Central Americans seeking entry to the United States were always twinned, but the arrival of the migrant Caravan seemed to give it a new urgency, and to legitimize, as a suddenly mainstream demand of border management, the ability to control human cross-border flows.

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The march was described disdainfully as a “political stunt” in media, as the Attorney General and Director of Homeland Security demonized the “Caravan of migrants.”  Trump had promised the nation a border wall unlike the reclaimed corrugated metal fencing in Tijuana, but made of  “precast [concrete] plank,” a protective barrier far more powerful and robust than the inadequate fencing he treated as “a joke” and a disgrace to the nation, and which the multitude of migrants were seen as able to cross, but in need of immediate arrest and detention in a fantasy of border enforcement.  If Trump had promised to be a strongman at the border, the old border wall seemed indeed flimsy obstacles, unable to stop even the crowd from the Caravan who arrived to petition for asylum at San Ysidro, CA.

Migrants arrive at Tijuana

The peaceful protest of the Caravan de madres centroamericanas, to use their full name, was recast as a march of opposition to Trump’s border policy, while for Trump, as some three hundred odd members of the Caravan arrived at San Isidro, a recognized port of entry, in five busloads, and mounted on a fence made of repurposed scrap metal became for President Trump evidence of a crisis of sovereignty.  In response to a crisis he seemed to have created on Twitter, he ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “stop the caravan,” displaying his knack for sound bytes and slogans, and imagine that, searching for the right string of capital letters on his keyboard,  only “a strong, impenetrable WALL. . . will end this problem once and for all”–even if the problem lay with the places the migrants had fled.  The motion of “migrants,” now cast as “illegal aliens” in the right-wing press, even as they hoped for a miracle from god able to “touch the hearts of immigration agents,” was not able to be seen clearly by many, even if their course was carefully mapped over the previous month in increasingly colorful reportage.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, immigration, mapping the US-Mexican border, undocumented migrants