The quandary of our own abundant if not inexhaustible repertoire of mapping abilities and skills of visualization are tried by the spread of COVID-19. As dashboards, news agencies, and media offered new maps and staked new skills of mapping, maps of the pandemic’s spread–from the panicked first maps of ‘cases’ to the maps of mortality, hospitalization, or comorbidity that ensued as we tried to process the pandemic, rightly fed concerns about the viral spread we risked unable to control, and rightly so. Attention to tracking maps of infections–never predictive, and approximate–gave way to a skepticism to accept the government policies to contain the virus as its spread seemed unable to control. Opposition to public health policies of vaccination, masking, and limiting exposure to public places became cast as a power grab, an invasion of liberties and freedoms that are increasingly tied to the individual body, rather than a collective one.
But the spread of protests against vaccination escalated in Canada quite dramatically in the months after the mandate for vaccination to cross the US-Canada border, on January 15, 2022, as if the issue finally hit home, and the rage that many felt about the pandemic and its ongoing spread became suddenly concretized in the mandate to vaccinate before crossing the border.
And the inescapable introduction of politics to policies of masking created a dangerous undermining of the social contract, to be sure, as decisions and declarations of masks as sufficient protection–even if cloth!–or as impositions played out as decisions about civil society in deeply distorting ways. And the notion of a nation with mask-free rules, if not the secession of the unmasked, proved to rehabilitate a scary undercurrent granting validity to secessionism in the aftermath of January 6, 2021. But the protest that led drivers to turn the Transcanada Highway into a protest route obstructing travel to the commercial US was an odd reflexive assertion of “independence” in an era when COVID affirms our global interconnections. The protests that were cast as a resurgence of the “right to roam” on paved highways, by a group of disgruntled sector of truckers and anti-federalist agitators, clustered on the public spaces of the roads, as if cast as true spaces of open space, demanding to be protected and not policed for public health.
It may be the product of an era which has both feet firmly planted in an era of non-representational mapping, apparent both from disease maps, epidemiological maps, maps of viral lineages, and indeed from weather maps to maps of forest fires, combustability, and drought, that the non-representational nature of these maps led to a reflexive search for a new map of political embodiment of the resistance to vaccination and public health policies. It is partly exhaustion with the pandemic-inspired health measures or restrictions–from mask-wearing to congregating indoors–that has lead many to refuse social distancing, but to deep skepticism of mandated COVID vaccinations as government overreach. But it was also in the increasingly smooth surface of the globalized world that neoliberals long promoted, where capital’s free transit across borders benefitted all, that redrawing a cross-border map of “Diagalon” as a mythic New Green World grew in the guise of a revolt from below, free from government oversight. The failure of January 6 in the United States led to a resurgence of “patriotic” protests against measures of public health.
Was this a “republic,” in any way, or just a cry for help? Framed in terms of a direct democracy taking charge of the pandemic, the urgency of Diagalon seemed to concretize a broad salon des refusés, outside of and beyond politics as usual. The resistance was incarnated in a light green overlay designed to define a region without any common political or representative bodies by its collective refusal of a vaccine mandate, and refusal to accept either American or Canadian government oversight, a utopic collection of provinces and seceding states defending of liberties, in defiance of public health codes. The emergence of pseudo-republic of #Diagalon or #Diagolon as a suddenly trending as a meme on social media, an “accelerationist” extremist group, bent on destabilizing the state by overturning an order they sought to discredit as illegitimate.
The guileless simplicity self-made “map” of overlays was fictional, but an immediate redesign of sovereignty fro emotional ends. It was less a proposal than a polemic about the conventionality of all nations, supporting a free-trade North America able to be capacious of the Keystone XL Pipeline that the American government had put on hold, presenting secession as a resolution to the burning questions of economics and freedoms of conscience that cast the actual state as due for discrediting. Filled with a healthy dollop of Manichaeism, the assertion of an alternate republic–something akin to a breakaway republic in North America–benefitted from the unfair interlacing of public health policies with politics to secede from a status quo with an energy that was very gung ho, as it assumed the status of a combat flag for angrily rallying against the status quo. The map is the result or residue of the odd discursive realignment of ideology and pandemic preparedness in the United States. The self-styled “Freedom Convoys” animated a new sense of liberties “on the road,” taking liberties to stream across the highways and even urban roads, freely honking horns and sounding air horns, soliciting resistance to government oversight on health mandates, urgently representing themselves as a solution to the pandemic’s panic.
As if in response to the images of an unruly “Caravan” that approached the United States to destabilize security, the motorcades sought to convey the strength of secessionists on wheels. With some odd dissonance, the light green shade of the overlay suggested not a project of “greening” but a freeing of wealth against an allegedly hegemonic state. There was a deep sense of a need for collective embodiment and a restoration of a lost era of liberties that the map stimulated and seemed to incarnate, as an emblem of a fragmenting of public health policies in the guise of a populist revolt. But this was hardly a populist movement, if it sought the trappings of one. The rag-tag collection of extremist groups and secessionists began as a meme that sought to unite opposition to the government around resistance to the vaccine mandate, but cast themselves in stark oppositional terms of Manichaean origins, rehashed for an age of globalization against the heresy of government oversight.
For rather than really debating or even discussing the policies for confronting COVID-19, the protestors seem to have responded to the fetishization of masking as a sign of containing the pandemic–and indeed the unfortunate politicization of health regulation, that has filled in for serious debate about managing the virus. The unprecedented politicization of health regulation from the early days of the pandemic gained only greater steam with vaccination and a mandate for vaccinating or mask-wearing. If the serious reservations some felt about The embrace of strident opposition to either policy as a way to voice increased skepticism about government guidelines fostered an unexpected false populist outcry against both, confusing the pandemic with politics and intertwining ideology and public health policy in deeply unhelpful ways. The “Freedom Convoy” that seemed organic in how they appeared as if spontaneously on paved arteries to protest government overreach arrived in neighborhoods across the nation as carnivalesque uprisings.
But a somber seriousness was on the verge of comedy. The distinction was existential as much as of citizenship, defining themselves in a new lingo as Diagolonians, Diags or just Dags, who, in some reflection of their anti-globalist credo, opposing themselves to “Circulonians” –the lapdogs of globalism in the rest of North America. Vaccination mandates became a placeholder for communism, or other globalist agents, the new nativist map affected a Utopian identity in an overlay of green, using as their flag a banner of a harsh black and white diagonal stripe, a defense of liberties of deep transhistorical origins, with a dissident national anthem, roots in white supremacy revealed in their embrace of the old American confederacy, defined by a “diagonal unity” of Canadian provinces that linked Alaska to Florida, a new promised land of traditional Republican values bound by the motto, “Nations come and go, but Diagolon never dies“–an eternal longing for direct democracy of the vox populi.
The imperative of this new “territory” was not with its own DMZ, but suggested the fervent belief in a militarized imaginary rejecting COVID-19 vaccines on both sides of the border. The disturbing emergence of this imaginary territory was a purely virtual entity, but was disturbing all the more for the intensity of convictions released by the crude contrivance of a GIS overlay. A counter-map of sorts to a detailed data map or a helpful visualization of reported rates of infection or of vaccination rates, the polemic nature of the map lay in its bluntly drawn straight edges, themselves a rebuttal of the detailed map of viral infection and mortality rates that had dominated the news for the past two years. Any association of planimetric projection with rationality is challenged by the lack of logos in using a simple cartographic overlay promotes “Diagolon” as a call to arms and secession. The Trans-Canada Highway is really only the ‘only’ place that links the east and west of the country in some places, and the power of rewriting the map won the day as a trending proclamation of sovereignty.
The sharply defined contours of the green overlay suggests an uncompromising rigidity and militancy akin to ethno-nationalism: either you are for or against us. Facing a pervasive sense of disempowerment that resulted from the pandemic has opened the doors to the appeal of a clean-cut map of clear edges and belonging–an image of belonging that is at odds with the reality of a global pandemic. While drawing authority from open data of USGS as if to lend authority to this new fantasia of seceded land, a diagonal swatch across the continent whose imagined coherence seems far cruder than the idealized Masonic fetishization of geometric forms: a simple diagonal line, drawn from the Arctic Ocean or Beaufort Sea over Alberta runs down from the prairies into Idaho and Montana, drops to encompass an expanded Confederacy from Texas to Florida. After two years of the pandemic, and a deep sense of isolation, the call to end pandemic mandates not only energetically affirmed a collective commitment but an exuberant demonstration of joy.
In contrast to the disempowering maps tracking COVID’s spread, the single polygon of linked states and provinces rising in resistance to COVID health policies mandating vaccination seemed to incarnate the rise of a new form of politics and political expression of firm resistance to mandates. And the new polygon that was imposed on North America in this odd meme bragged of a rights to secede from national COVID vaccination mandates that suggested a polemic of sorts of an unprecedented level of entitlement of unprecedented nature, effectively appropriating national mapping agencies’ geodata to create a new imaginary state, or if not a state at least a space removed from government-sponsored health mandates and a state of mind.
To be sure, the polygon was not only an overlay, but evoked its own sense of spatial logic that was abundantly familiar above the 49th parallel that often separates the United States and Canada: bridging the border, the green overlay of “Diagalon” was a populist cartography, the GIS derived emblem of an extremist right-wing group of separatists. Drawing some reflexive accolades on Twitter, the apparent “peaceable kingdom” of green was a neofascist emblem of resistance to public health mandates, complete with its own “De-Militarized Zone” (DMZ) in the only hint of its militancy. To be sure, but also a faux populist cartography, rich with its own cartographic connotations as much as serving as a slap in the face for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose imposition of a mandated vaccine for cross-border travel it opposed. A new logic of secessionism, the northwestern provinces of Canada would bring their wealth of petroleum deposits, by this logic, to link themselves to “brethren” of the old Confederate South, now expanded to Idaho, Colorado, and Texas, but what may not seem much of a stretch of the imagination, to resist the latest demonization of “big government” disguising itself as pandemic response. Never mind that this is a global pandemic; the liberating logic of the “Diagalon” meme promised freedom from government oversight from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico.
The map was an unlikely icon of an attack on a strategic federal role for defining national health policies and health readiness seemed implicitly important as vaccination rates needed to be encouraged and preparedness for variants of the virus whose spread in new lineages threatened to grow, as the virus mutated in ways more rapid than influenza, and had spread worldwide. Even in a country of universal health insurance coverage, it suggests more than a dangerous distraction as funds dry out worldwide for “emergency” funding for testing, vaccination, and indeed COVID care. Mapping a non-nation affirmed like-minded resistance to COVID vaccination across borders, but also expanded the staging of a massive blockade of cross-border traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway; the revolt against the mandate of vaccination for all truckers carrying goods across the border. It sought to contrast the “reality” of those living by ferrying goods across the border who would be hampered by the government over-reach of a vaccine mandate; the open space of the highway was contrasted to alleged over-reach of a government seeking to oversee public health, transforming the Trans-Canada Highway and associated arteries of trade to a protest zone of global scale.
The truckers’ obstruction of the major routes for commercial vehicle traffic across the Ambassador Bridge leading to Detroit, the largest volume commercial crossing of 8,000 trucks daily, which was blockaded even after a court order urged them to disband and leave, was effectively a gun to the head of the government, fenders draped in the Maple Leaf banner, as if to recuperate the nation, shutting down the greatest single point of trade in the name of lifting COVID restrictions, casting COVID restrictions as a “fight” between truckers and government, where “truckers” flouted the criminal offense of blocking commercial traffic on the bridge, demanding “freedom” to cross the border without being vaccinated. The disruption of traffic between auto plants on both sides of the border ended upwards of a quarter of trade between Canada and the US, in a disruption seeking to trigger broader protests as it took aim at workers’ shifts, production lines, and paychecks, in an odd inversion of the image of a National Strike, winning support from FOX TV, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz, as if to incite a revolution from below to oppose the “mandate” for vaccination for cross-border traffic.
The crude icon of populist cartography was odd, indeed, coming in a nation distinguished by considerably greater cartographic literacy than the United States–geography is more universally taught in Canadian schools. But the polygon of Diagalon was a briskly drawn fantasy of a land free from health mandates. The connotation of the map of a region of resistance to government oversight blurred existing borders by championing of free market trade, free from government oversight or health mandates, recalled a recent great free market dreams of the century. For the republic of Diagalon recouped a diagonal cross-border petroleum pipelines only placed on hold recently, but still dear to those who had long imagined a unified North American petrostate.
The closely aligned and deeply interested memory of cross-border transit on which considerable local capital was staked was a free trade icon, not always mapped in positive terms by opponents–but similarly naturalized as a horizontal line bisecting the border, running from Tar Sands Development to the Gulf of Mexico, and providing an axis of wealth, economic promises, and autarky that seemed to lie at the basis for the fantasy of an independent Diagolon: the shipping of gas worldwide was indeed a negative vision of globalization, enriching the companies of Alberta and the northwest, that had, indeed, been resisted by what many argued was executive over-reach of the deepest sort, constraining what was imagined as a life-line of cross-border trade and the exploitation of claims to mineral wealth that provided mercantilist riches to boost the Canadian economy located in the Tar Sands that many argue are the right of Calgary-based integrated energy companies to exploit and extract.
The. vision of the “free market” is, of course, not only the engine of a Canadian economic boom on a global scale of mineral extraction, promoted as a “right” of Canadian companies to dominate the global marketplace for fossil fuels. It is, as well, a tacit and unspoken response to the rights of indigenous inhabitants of the same lands, whose title is effectively denied by the mercantilist logic of a fossil fuel market dominated by a handful of highly concentrated actors, generating revenues for some twenty-five owners–some based in America–from Exxon Mobil, BlackRock, the Royal Bank of Canada, T-D Bank, Royal Dutch Shell, FMR–a constellation of energy firms, investment Funds, Limited Liability Companies, and private trusts, as the Desmarais Family Trust.
Is it a coincidence that many of these stakeholders lie located in the green area of Diagalon, ready to furnish coffers for ongoing protests to assert their claims to import oil to a global marketplace for fossil feuls? The largest single stake-holder in the Tar Sands of ExxonMobil–some 6.57% from 2010-15–is not only foreign corporate, but the largest share of fossil-fuel revenues are foreign-owned. If anything, the claims for ownership are however staked against a sense of indigenous ownership, and has fanned the flames of cross-border white supremacist separatists whose attack on federal policies mirrors federal interests in adjudicating and recognizing indigenous “native” land claims–the prospect of mapping which this blogger has discussed in a previous post, claims that were first mapped online on a new platform, unsurprisingly, parallel to the staking of energy claims and extractive rights to articulate specific claims to ancestral lands. Indeed, the obliteration of ancestral land claims to usufruct or mineral wealth motivates the opening up of borders for an energy market far beyond North America, and hoping to reach a global marketplace: the most wealthy protagonists in economics of globalization of energy markets not only stand to profit but may be standing behind the false populism of Diagalon’s militant “separatist” claims.
The land claims that Native Lands has rendered in pastels as a vibrant palimpsest suggesting the scope of compromised territories that were made to fit into the provincial system surveyed in the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries were cleverly erased, of course, by the new collective, which concealed the density of mineral deposits located in the protected boreal forest in lands “ceded” by historical treaties of the past. What was not rendered opaque, the overlay affirmed an egenda to “go it alone” by evoking an energy independence rooted in the seizure of indigenous land claims but blinded to its own history, cartographically smoothing local land claims to reify avenues of trans-border shipment of extracted mineral wealth.
The rather ingenious cartographic sleight of hand able to recoup plans for a now-cancelled Keystone XL or Transcanada pipeline by encouraging a new “nativist” claim to the autonomy of the very region in which most underground mineral deposits are located, boosting a “nativist” declaration of rights to export energy in Diagalonian lands by unvaccinated truckers.
Did not the vision of the highway, or of the pipeline, condense the economic benefits imposition of government mandates would prevent? While Diagalon as a geographic conceit of Diagalon is perhaps best seen in rhetorical terms as an anti-federal fillip, the territory’s coherence, if it exists, seems to stem from the deep desire of Alberta and Calgary to rethink the border that the tar sands oil might be able to cross. The assertion of a commonality to which the federal government was blind asserted a deep gulf of distance between the liberal state and the people, as if health mandates only undermined the “true” interests of Canadians in the very manner that the shutting down of the Keystone pipeline that was planned to move petroleum deposits from the tar sands globally was shut down.
If one could push oneself to imagine economic integrity for the imaginary land, that arrives on social media rather complete with its own miniature Border Wall, running north of Vancouver, a precedent for such territorial unity would be longstanding antagonism to foiling the Keystone XL pipeline. The ostensibly populist movement of which Diagalon was both motivational meme and emblem was based in Calgary and Alberta if excluding metropolitan BC, was a mirror areas that the petroleum industry is strongest as a political lobby has championed free trade agreements, and as the largest provincial producer of oil, recently had uncoincidentally filed a trade challenge to recover the C$1.3 billion it had invested in the Keystone pipeline. The provincial amalgam the overlay embraced and unified as a block of alleged resistance to “government over-reach” was inhabited bythe ghost of the planned XL pipeline diagonally reaching into the United States.
The secessionist imaginary of Diagolon–often “Diagalon” on Twitter, but never “Diagonolia,” despite its poetic capaciousness–by which the Truckers’ Convoy became known staked a provincial collective whose inhabitants reached down to embrace the “red” state imaginary–skirting Michigan and northern states east of the Mississippi, incorporating the old Confederacy in white supremacist largesse–by affirming the logic of the free market and cross-border trade to the very states on the Gulf of Mexico where the tar sands pumped from Alberta would arrive. The coincidence of that overlay was not much noticed, perhaps as the political imaginary was so obvious: or because the overlay was aptly opaque. It was a masked the validity of native land claims, and suggested a reification of the claims of an energy industry to deny the validity of any historical claims of precedence or the past. One might imagine the shock of COVID-19 put debate on hold for title to send bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands and Saskatchewan straight through to the Gulf of Mexico, asserting claims to extracting oil for the deferred pipeline in the face of the government, as if demanding the restoration of oil flow to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The blind geography of Diagalon was not only a mask, but a reification, if not a “reified consciousness” making concrete claims to energy, flattening the past, exploiting the opacity of an overlay as a historical banner to rally against the state.
Yet, as this blogpost will suggest, it may well explain how readiness for large contributions to vaccine protests that flowed north via crowdfunding, or funneled north on GoFundMe, promoted to large online followings, by alt right figures from Glenn Beck to Mike Huckabee to Erik Trump to the tele-evangelist Franklin Graham? As much as sticking a finger in Joe Biden’s eye by nourishing antivaxx sentiment and dissensus, the ghost of the pipeline may lie behind Americans who declined boosters but boosted disruptive protests, “standing for FREEDOM” despite increasing convictions of those who provoked, participated in or actively encouraged the events of January 6. Indeed, the prayers that were said for the convoys that moved across America and from the overpasses of highways treated the consciousness as a representation of local interests, obscured in the bloated big government that had created a policy of vaccine mandates, turning funds over to testing, vaccination, and masking and entrusting authority to health policies that threatened to undermine economics as usual.
There was more at stake than a consolation prize here. The uniformity of the polygon, so unlike the point-based maps that have been used to track COVID-19 mortality and infections, was a map of small government. Unlike the big data of multispectral global or national maps that have haunted the spatial global imaginary for several years, it was a logic that seemed cut and dry. Rather than asking viewers to try to parse every thing from hot-spots, health vulnerability, hospital beds, and health care services in day glow colors, or peer into the x-rays of deep divisions in the nation’s health care system and health care readiness, the green continuous block that incarnates “Diagalon” on the North American continent is akin to dumbed-down geodata, of an almost fascist sort. Its clean geometric overlay charts and embodies an allegedly more organic resistance to technogovernance, in an illustration of the growing distance and lack of proximity of government to nation in the age of COVID-19.
And coming as it does almost at the very same time as we ready for a new COVID surges, it seems to start to disarm the state of all preparation for pandemic readiness. For the protests ostensibly animated by truckers on the Transcanada Highway disrupted public health policy, in a moment that was seeking to go global in its resistance to government mandates or public health policy governments in the US and Canada were seeking more funds and structural policies to enact. If not the Omicron variant or BA.2, which did not affect infections as in Hong Kong in all the countries it emerged, we are not only less prepared for the danger of a new surge in hospital admissions, but are left to wonder how weakened immunity after vaccination could affect the virulence of a future wave, as the advantage of immune defenses simply wanes. Even as former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden doesn’t doubt that the next COVID wave may be on its way, even if our levels of vaccination protect us against a rise in mortality rates so that so terribly escalated with little ability to contain its spread. With the virus multiplying in variants with considerable rapidity, the sanctioning of new vaccines was not simple or foolproof.
The reliance of funds for free rapid testing, vaccinations and COVID care are contingent on the emergency status of the pandemic, dependence on emergency status of health care funding imperils its continuity or clear guidelines for pandemic readiness. Fears of underfunding primary health care and public health that the pandemic exposed was countered by the emergency prioritizing of critical health defenses even as fears of a surge rise–and threaten to undermine emergency preparedness, some experts fear, largely as federal funding is increasingly debated in Washington, and the funds for testing, vaccination and treating the uninsured may be in danger of drying up. The very stadiums once sites of vaccination are readying to resume their normal functions as they reopen for entertainment and sporting events as states are scaling back and winding down programs for free testing and vaccination, even as new variants are emerging.
If sparked by the mandate for COVID vaccination of those driving cross-border shipments, the protests were a welling up of anti-government resentment over multiple years. Despite relative public health success of containing the virus in Canada, north of the border, the public health policies took a clear toll. While the vaccine was mandated by the US for cross-border travel as well, the resentment against the principle of a government-issued mandate drove some truckers to disrupt cross-border transit for all, by occupying the Ambassador Bridge against which a large share of commercial vehicles travel, constituting a quarter of goods, at a time when global supply chains are already threatened or slowed.
The false freedom of free trade was elevated by the Freedom Convoy as they congregated in the capitol of Ottawa challenged what it claimed was an unwanted government-sponsored health mandate, disrupting one stable link in the international supply chain as if this was the consequence of the imposition of a mandate presented as government public health policy. The closure of the border to commercial traffic interrupted a major trade artery, recalling how the same government had needlessly failed to prioritize free trade in issuing obstructions to the Keystone pipeline, and in introducing obstructions that led Ford, General Motors, and Toyota to slow lines of production, in hopes to forge a link between the vaccination mandate and an end of free trade.
The memes of the secession of sectors of the United States and Canada from public health mandates will make the prioritization of health defenses all the more difficult. And in a sea of virus, the disruptive declaration of resistance to the vaccination, as if health care were an assault on freedom, creates a false opposition between seeing freedom as a government hands-off in its relations to the public as can be and public health. The lateral organization of the Convoy’s cells gave the appearance of an organic uprising, without clear leaders, but an expression of popular will; organizers were not clearly identified by name, but populist flags of sovereignty, as on January 6, held high–as well as, at times, the Diagalon flag.
So entangled has have public health funding public health directives with attacks on government overreach that the infrastructure to respond to COVID-19 risks being endangered–even as the government may have also worried about the unnecessary disruption of US-Canada trade ties.
And while the frustration at masking or vaccination may be considerable as we approach Spring, the precedents, if marginal, of seceding from public health policies or indeed by rejecting the mandates that tried to increased vaccination and the health emergency that has secured funds for health care threaten a coherent response. Before expanding to British Columbia, Diagalon constellation was a sandwiching of Canada’s northwest provinces between the right-wing affinity groups of neofascist inclination from Alaska to Texas, if rooted in the dreams from a NAFTA-sized Confederacy, that seemed dedicated to resisting any coherent national health policy. But it amassed an anti-federalist resentment of extremism, with the distinct aura of January 6–and the latest of stress-tests, albeit of a bizarre and caricatured nature, that liberal democracy and government faces after the events of 1/6/21.
Canadian truckers became a link in a global anti-government protest in what seemed the waning days of COVID-19 pandemic. If globalization links the local to the world, the small concentrations of groups of truckers who drove down the TransCanada Highway–their number far below the 227,000 truckers operating in Canada, where trucking is an even more common occupation of Canadian men–was rather strikingly able to globalize from a protest at the mandated vaccine for crossing the US-Canada border to assorted grievances able to garner global media attention. (If roughly a third of Canadian truckers are recent immigrants, immigrant origins were conspicuously absent from the protest; those present hewed to the stereotype set by Truckers for Trump, perhaps sharing the conceit a mogul represented the interests of the working class–an ever growing share of America’s trucking industry also relies on immigrant labor.)
As if in polemic response to the difficulty of processing our deluge of data visualizations of coronavirus infections, the simple slash of the self-made map affirmed an area of resistance to the vaccination mandates imposed by liberal governments in North America: a bottom-up refusal to accept the infringements the state imposed, allegedly for public benefit, the flag advanced a refusal to admit federal policies and science. We had heard about “fake facts” as a casualty of toxic political discourse. But the current migration of “fake news” and “fake facts” to levels of contagion questions the very techno-politics of healthcare rooted in vaccination and pandemic techno-governance, by conjuring the common sense false populism of the figure of a “trucker” in the crystal clear volleys of air horns that both contest and protest current health mandates–and even contest the technopolitics of health care as a masking of free expression and individual liberties.
Can we believe anything from the office of Governor Ron DeSantis? It was the height of irresponsibility, but one that should make Jack Dorsey breathe a sigh of relief that at last he is no longer responsible for Twitter: the Florida Secretary of State used bad data about the rates of COVID infection around the nation to trumpet the peninsula as a vacation land as a safe space in the pandemic, using an utter absence of ethics to promote disinformation about viral spread in the peninsula that almost echoed the denialism Governor DeSantis long promoted in bashing vaccines, masking, or market constraints as a way of combatting viral spread, even if his assertion ran against established ideas of contagious disease and viral transmission. Florida is facing numerous existential threats, from sea-level rise to saltwater flooding of coastal areas, but promotion of the state as a site of safety from the global pandemic was the height of duplicity.
Exercising the prerogative DeSantis long claimed to guard the health practices of Florida, apart from the nation, his office and press secretary must have been thrilled at the latest pre-Thanksgiving COVID data vis that the issued by the CDC, that showed Florida as lying apart form the nation in a bucolic preserve of blue of low coronavirus transmission rates. The announcement by Florida’s Dept. of Public Health on June 8, 2020 of the first twelve deaths due to COVID-19 in the state of Florida 0, when just over 63,000 were testing positive in the state, led the DoH to promise to “provide more comprehensive data,” releasing daily reports on COVID-19 cases in Florida on the DOH COVID-19 dashboard is also providing updates once per day for every Florida county, “available here,” of new positive cases, that state residents and the nation watched rise. If folks had become habituated to dashboards as a way of accessing up-to-date data on viral transmission and public health, the tweeting out of a map that integrated outdated data on infections in Florida with shifting national picture as even as the arrival in the United States of an Omicron variant put a chill on national travel over the Thanksgiving weekend, but year-end travel was predicted to see a rise in air-travel that would approach pre-pandemic days.
The Age of COVID has encouraged an amplification of graphic story-telling about the hot spots and safe spots of viral transmission or local virulence. And the infographic appearing to label Florida, the nation’s storied vacationland, as featuring far lower community transmission seemed ripe for a retweet. Caroline Pushaw, Florida Governor’s social media savvy press secretary, seems to have issued it as an invitation to the state’s winter beaches, as if Florida policies had, despite anti-vaccination campaigns and few masking mandates, gone beyond other states in reversing the high rates of COVID-19 mortality that once afflicted the state per public dashboards of years past.
Gov. DeSantis was a huge denier of the infectious nature of the virus, even resisting Trump’s own calls for Americans to stay at home when possible to contain virtual spread, arguing that imposing any “lockdown” and “shutting down the country” was an excessive response. DeSantis’ prominent place in Trump’s inner circle of response to the pandemic increased his profile in the COVID response, and inflated his own sense of national responsibility, as well as causing his pro-business policies to shift in March 2020 by closing Florida schools in the end.
The national map of community transmission rates attempted to bolster Gov. DeSantis’ national credibility. The arrival of the Omicron variant, boasting over three times as many mutations as the delta variant, became an opportunity to boost perceptions of Gov. DeSantis’ public health creds. Despite the Governor’s vaccine denialism and diminishment of public health risks–and utter lack of interest in vaccine equity–low rates of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity to promote the governor on the national news, from FOX to OANN, as if to suggest that “as winter approaches,” Florida was doing something right–as if in an invitation to the nation to make travel plans to consider visiting the sunshine state.
It must have been clear quite immediately to DeSantis’ press secretary, who tweeted it to her 22,000 Twitter followers as evidence of an ethically dubious ethical invitation to the Sunshine State for future travelers–per what seemed currently reported transmission levels. Strikingly, low levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, although not the bulk of the nation, colored red for high levels of transmission that merited masking in the all counties colored red for high levels for which the CDC recommended masking in public to contain potentially very dangerous COVID-19 transmission in the form of new variants.
But the map “lacked” a legend and was in many ways cherry-picked–or based on cherry-picked data, as the statistics for infections in Florida were decisively from an earlier date than the rest of the country, artificially rendering its community transmission rates low. It seemed as if the apparently real-time picture was evidence of a stark change of events that talking heads debated as if it were proof and evidence of DeSantis’ underestimated smarts in pushing back against national health policy. Yet the story is far more complicated–and far more Machiavellian–as the pristine blue image of the state–a blue aquamarine that handily recalled those beaches and sun’n’fun for which Florida was long celebrated in the national imaginary-was based on counts from a different time than the dates of cases in all other states, conveying the appearance of salubrity when that was not the case.
Did the state’s office really fudge the public data on its case rates, which it had long ceased releasing daily, using outdated numbers to showcase an apparent contrast sharply evident on state lines? The meaningful legend that might be juxtaposed with the “snapshot” that the delayed reporting of statistics of coronavirus transmission in Florida shaped might be the way that the state had in fact earlier been rocked by successive waves of coronavirus infections, a roller coaster of infections of which the state Governor, who had only recently unveiled a new image for the separate task force of the state that showcased its unique health policies, seemed oblivious, but whose bursts of new cases of infection seemed the bête noir against which DeSantis was forced to tilt in the public eye.
For in taking the emblem of an alligator fiercely guarding its territory, must have loved the data visualization that “mapped”–if deceptively–the improbable case his unique health policies not only separated Florida from national guidelines, as a paradise free from mask-wearing and vaccine mandates. It was a perfect case of how maps lie, which removed him–or his press secretary–from any liabilities, as the map gained a robust afterlife on social media, free from the constraints of real public health data or true comparison of COVID case counts.
Modeled after the Gadsden flag, the image radiated a stubborn sense of obstinacy as the omicron variant lead to renewed fears of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, worry that found an odd counterpoint in the map the press secretary took comfort in tweeting out. Yet by Christmas, the gift of the CDC data vis seemed not the gift that keeps on giving at all, as Omicron infections had hit the Sunshine state, proving that its barriers were hardly fixed frontiers.
Although most all Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break. As the omicron variant leading to rising fear of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, DeSantis’s press secretary took comfort in an opportune recently issued CDC map to suggest that, low and behold, things had changed, and current COVID visualizations showed “low transmission rates distinguished the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something right all along.
The crisp borders of low community transmission that seemed to define Florida seemed to be a tip-off, even if the image that was tweeted out was picked up on FOX-TV and other “sources” of right wing or alt right news. The image of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, as a sign of local resilience before fears of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags.
The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis ventriloquized for the state, showcasing his mastery of boosting public health with the bona fides of a newly minted pro-business eecutive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain,” with little care for vaccine mandates: In Florida, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.”
When Christmas did come, it didn’t seem that the state of Florida was particularly bad off in relation to the rest of the nation–but the rising death rates related to COVID-19 dramatically grew across the peninsula in truly terrifying ways, drenching the peninsula pink, and belying those low transmission rates about which Gov. DeSantis’ office was so eager to tweet out.
The level of disinformation is rather without precedent, but speaks in many ways to the hyper-reality of maps of COVID-19 infection that were based on rather dubious and incomplete data providing a rudder in an age of uncertainty. DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out the CDC map to bate the anti-vaccine commentariat. Arriving pre-Thanksgiving, it seemingly celebrated the arrival of a new state of salubrity: the boundary lines of Florida popped bright blue of unearthly nature not because of what Florida was doing right, but was based on data of community transmission rates at days behind the rest of the nation: state data days out of synch with the national norm created the impression of statistically low transmission rates in the state, and south of the Mason-Dixon line, affirming how things were always better in Dixie.
DeSantis had been comparing the low rates of per capita COVID mortality in Florida, despite its large share of elderly, from March, 2021, claiming higher mortality rates for seniors in forty other states had offered evidence that his policies were indeed far more effective than those states that mandated lockdowns and suspended schools, insisting on the benefits of helping businesses and keeping local commerce flow. As FOX news commentators spun the CDC map of community transmission rates as evidence of nothing wrong with fighting masking mandates, or vaccinations.
Yet by mid-December, 2021, reality had reared its ugly head. Skyrocketing rates of infection from the Omicron variant proved the folly of asserting any containment of the coronavirus that any policy of one state might so easily fix, as the high rates of infection shifted the panorama of the pandemic, with the fifty millionth case of COVID-19 recorded, and deaths due to the virus across the country topping 800,000–far more than the deaths of the US Civil War, by recent estimates, and more than the current population of Seattle. And if Florida was increasingly as red as the nation, the rise of COVID death rates by the month’s end had effectively eroded all of DeSantis’ suggestion of the benefits of adhering to alternative models of public health care.
If the arrival of the Delta variant had led to the growth of mortality by another 100,000 in two and a half months, the advance of the more transmittable Omicron would stain the whole map red, bridging boundaries and state divides, as thirty three states hosted large infections, with little clear relation to their health policies–save perhaps low population rates and density. By Christmas 2021, national dashboards of infection rates made it clear that Omicron infections advanced not only through the northeast but along the sandy beaches of the Sunshine state.
Yet that single CDC map in the header to this post suggested low COVID transmission rates in Florida was suspiciously more than opportune. For it suggested, lo and behold, starkly lower transmission rates across the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something very right all along, as DeSantis continued to fence with Joseph Biden’s attempts to devise mandates of mask-wearing and vaccines, all but defining himself as a sort of shadow-government in opposition to the White House, in the manner, say, that now-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo and California’s own Gavin Newsom played to Donald Trump, as if voices of stability in the time of need. DeSantis had provided an alter-reality of risk-free no masking or vaccines, freedoms at work and at school, refusing to limit the social interaction and tourism that Florida needs–even accepting cruise lines and offering to provide shipping ports–arguing that reopening was indeed in everyone’s interest, variants be damned: could it be that the CDC was offering a map validating that his policies were working well after all?
Florida boasted low transmission rates, putting the past history of the pandemic in the past, and effectively inaugurating a new news cycle that made this the map to count on and trust–the one dated that very day!–and putting lack of COVID vaccination out of folks’ minds as they booked their family travel plans for late 2021-2. Florida regained its storied status as a site for healthiness and well-being, unlike, it looked at that moment, like the rest of the nation, leading FOX commentators to spin new stories about the long-term success of DeSantis’ absence of clear public health plans.
For although Gov. DeSantis had pulled the plug in June, 2021 on a public-facing COVID-19 dashboard tracking daily updates on cases, deaths, and open hospital beds across the state, inviting those glued to their computers to take two giant steps back from the spate of emergency preparedness that seized the nation from March 2020, the CDC data vis plotted handily outdated data, skewed from rising rates of Omicron that were spooking the nation. As there was no public source of infection rates in the state that was available anymore, the disturbing orange dots that crowded the Florida beaches on the COVID dashboard of the past seemed like it was dispensed with, and the seas calm and skies rosy in a bright blue of low transmission levels–despite DeSantis’ longstanding opposition to vaccine mandates or even public masking across the state.
Instead, the spokeswoman of the DeSantis regime tossed to right-wing news sources a rosy picture of the calm waters of Florida–he must have loved the blue azure that the state was tinted to proclaim low community transmission rates over the Thanksgiving weekend, as if it was a sea of tranquility in a nation that was revving up as word of Omicron spread. (“I hope you make it through Omicron,” the man behind me in Whole Foods said as if a neighborhood sage, finger of the pulse of the rising national pandemic anxiety that had recently seemed safely in the rear-view mirror.)
The CDC image of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity for DeSantis’ media savvy press secretary, who tweeted it out to her almost 22,000 Twitter followers as a dubious ethical claim of the health that the Sunshine State held for all future travelers, according to the current community transmission levels. Indeed, as this detail of the data vis shows, the lower than substantial levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, that the CDC had advised for all counties colored red for high level of transmission.
The striking if deceptive visualization that Ron DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out on Thanksgiving morning had the benefit of depicting the desired “low community transmission” rates that seemed to confirm DeSantis’ attempts to bolster confidence in his public health policies, even if his longtime war on vaccination was not the success story that the map showing the state as an island of relative salubrity was based on an outdated tally of infection rates in the state whose public health policies seemed a concerted effort to sew fears of vaccine safety. DeSantis’ press secretary, who has cultivated a broad presence on twitter since gaining the job, aimed to promote public perceptions of the success of the Governor’s bellicose strategy of vaccine denialism and scoffing diminishment of public health risks.
The data vis was important to tweet out at 6:30 am to hit the national news outlets, because it helped begin or frame a narrative that Christina Pushaw, who had long questioned the value of a “piece of cloth” and long defended the Governors’ criticism of mask mandates. The low transmission rates that cast the peninsula as an island of salubrity amidst national rising fears distinguished Florida as a rare area in which the CDC was not returning to recommend mask-wearing even among those vaccinated–at least per appearances, or a superficial reading, endorsing the exemplary nature of its public health protocol. Unlike most all counties in the nation, prominently colored high-risk red to indicate the return of high transmission rates, Florida (a “red” state) was bright blue as a safety of haven as it had, conservative media argued, weathered out the storm of masking hysteria. All of Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break.
But the data was off, way off. In fact, the data vis used cherry picked numbers of a previous days that concealed the hight rates of transmission that existed for southern Georgia and all of Florida–as an updated vis of community transmission for the very next day revealed. The shifting image of transmission rates suggested the lag in data that the state was providing the CDC, as well as the greater risk for variants the nation now faces as a whole. But the data vis, entered into the media cycle of the nation, threw many off ground, in its apparent objectivity. Perhaps that was the job of a press secretary: to distribute any image that provided cover for the Governor who had faced criticism for his handling of COVID-19 by fashioning a new media cycle.
So intertwined is travel with the identity and economy of the state, that it was no surprise that the Florida beaches already made it grounds for public health concerns, and the measures during Spring Break, 2021, gave rise to a spike of COVID cases from new variants. In Spring, 2020, infections in Florida had just begun as its beaches filled, and rose again in the summer; but this Spring seemed the textbook case of exactly “what a lot of public health folks have been afraid of.” Increased partying brought rates of infection of a magnitude six times greater, with up to five variants, in the second spike of infections in the state.
The Governor came under fire for his resistance to mask-wearing, social distancing, and toleration of partly open restaurants and beaches, as the coronavirus literally ate into his popularity, and he became something of a “mini-Trump” as Trump’s popularity slid, and many questioned if his positions reflected political expediency and short-term gain, rather than Florida’s interest. But by May he was proclaiming “landmark legislation” banning “vaccine passports” in the state, boasting that the state had, unlike others “avoided protracted lockdowns and school closures in Florida because I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown Governors,” boasting that the legislation forbade the danger of arbitrary school closures or shutterings, and that “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected.” A year after school closures rocked the nation, calling for a rededication of state funds to pay parents for home schooling on FOX, the economic nightmare of state over-reach replaced fears of infection.
DeSantis’ sense of himself as a savior grew in public statements and edicts denying any government overreach, his national ambitions were evident. Arguing that while many other states were just beginning to re-open, Florida was responsibly opening up. He cast the new COVID surge as but a summertime blip, as he embraced “freedom” as a choice of parents by keeping schools open, refusing policies of masking in public, and questioning the wisdom of masking or vaccines, even threatening to not pay county officials who enforce mask mandates, trusting the survival of FLorida’s tourism industry would consolidate his status. Governor DeSantis stood his ground as an ardent supporter of his anti-masking policies and a Trump legacy. He attracted admiration and interest of the communications professional, Christina Pushaw, whose admiration of how DeSantis stood up to “persuasive . . . false narratives” begun in the public press. Pushaw all but publicly identified herself as a new press secretary for the beleaguered governor, whose admiration of his public heath policies, landed her a job but helped to transform the press secretary to an alternative news source, to remap the risk of COVID-19 by a new public health narrative–a narrative that, until recently, had only lacked the right data maps to treat her office’s social media as a new news source.
The rise of infections in Florida echoed the first opening up Florida to tourism in early May, 2020 that continued through June. The recent promotion on social media of the low transmission rates in the state suggest difficulties in balancing a parallel calendar of tourism on which Florida has long relied to the accurate tally of community transmission–a tension that may go back, for Governor Ron DeSantis, to his office’s extended tussles with the GIS analyst at the Florida Dept. of Health who first constructed the dashboard of daily and cumulative infections in the state.
While the Governor had claimed that he would “follow the data” in his opening plans, there were deep concerns that the data was not transparent. When Pushaw wrote a set of attack pieces on the GIS analyst who felt that figures of infection rates were being manipulated, massaged or suppressed infection rates, DeSantis’ Lieutenant Governor promoted it as evidence of “one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.” DeSantis soon gained a new press secretary, who had essentially applied for the job by praising the skill with which the Florida governor had resisted public masking and vaccines, working to combat the “devastation caused by socialism . . . happening in our country,” and assailed the “big lie” about corruption that a GIS analyst had charged the state. The woman who had worked as an attache in Georgia for Mikheil Saakashvili, now working in Ukraine, might not be a common itinerary to Florida’s Governor’s office, but Pushaw wrote, “If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring.” Having assailed the GIS architect of the Dept. of Health COVID dashboard, she offered her services to Florida’s embattled governor to shift attention from COVID-19 infection rates.
After taking the post, Pushaw cultivated a broad social media presence by tweeting some 3,800 times in her first month on the job,–including one arguing watching one’s weight was more protection against COVID-19 than “a piece of cloth” or mask, and promoting the state’s organization for Florida residents of free “antibody infusion treatments” across the state.
While the map of “state-run treatment sites” seemed to counter the data visualizations of local infection, it tried to set a counter-map to images of level infection or mortality. The notoriety of COVID-19 cases in Florida must have encouraged De Santis’ press secretary to retweet a CDC map dated November 25 that appeared to document low transmission rates in almost all state counties–offering evidence of the healthiness for Christmas visitors. Notwithstanding its Governor’s longstanding resistance to masking and infrequent masking in public spacearding one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.”. The map retweeted early morning on Thanksgiving Day a shout-out for shifting public perception of the state, as it paints the state as the being sole site of “low” community transmission in the nation, and followed the calls for more praise for DeSantis’ brave strategy of handling the pandemic, since Pushaw became press secretary, both from the Wall Street Journal (Media Ignore Florida COVID Recovery,” October 31, 2021) and Fox News, on which DeSantis echoed Pushaw’s points as he claimed poor media coverage in relation to COVID-19 “deadly” in mid-November, after a rough summer in which 60,000 deaths related to COVID-19 afflicted the state. In early November, One America News Network promoted a special report from this summer (“America’s Governor and Florida’s Grit”) about DeSantis’ guaranteeing of increasing access across Florida of “a life-saving COVID-19 drug” that reduced severe illness.
It was hardly surprising with such lead-up of an alternative narrative on Conservative news that Pushaw seemed to seek to boost the narratives that were launched in conservative media when she retweeted a new data map of COVID community transmission news on 6:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning as if to target Christmas travel plans to be discussed at the harvest feast that rather highlighted the far lower transmission of COVID-19 relative to the rest of the country as fears of COVID variants multiplied nationwide. The map with national imprimatur showed a drop of community transmission levels in Florida alone, and seemed to offer some back-of-the-envelope evidence that the spikes of previous years in the southern states and in Florida had created local resistance to the coronavirus and its new variants.
The bifurcated image of the nation that showed Florida as, essentially, the sole site of low COVID transmission, would be sure to attract attention and conversation, political ethics be damned. Flying in the face of the longstanding resistance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to curtail out-of-state tourism that encouraged him to keep the state open to travel, DeSantis’ new press secretary used the map to show Florida open for tourism, after having weathered three waves of spiking coronavirus infections. Perhaps the state’s poor planning for public health in the past by lifting guidances ofr mask mandates might, DeSantis ventured, create safety in the beaches of the Sunshine State in a winter of variants, as the ‘conservative’ media–Wall Street Journal and FOX–had hinted might be the case.
DeSantis’ groundless claims of safety found somewhat predictable support from FOX commentators in sustaining “natural resistance” to COVID-19 from past exposure, a “natural” immunity better than vaccination, was a data-based strategy, although what sort of data they were using is unclear. (The CDC finds those who had recovered from COVID-19 but were not vaccinated were five times more likely to contract it again than the fully vaccinated.) The conflicts DeSantis’ office seemed to manage between a state economy dependent on tourism and the calendar of increased community transmission suggests a lack of transparency, but also a duplicity based on improvised off-the-cuff diagnoses of a dangerous disease.
The lack of COVID-19 transparency that had been a continuing issue in the state since 2020 had reared its ugly head again, and just in time for post-Thanksgiving Christmas planning. Indeed, the absence of transparency was particularly troubling as we increasingly depend on dashboards, tracing, and positivity rates in grappling with the virus and its ongoing mutations. As the self-declared attack dog of the GOP, Governor Ron DeSantis was by 2021 boosting the dubious concept of “natural immunity against COVID-19” as the forefront of a fight against mandating vaccines for large businesses, exempting from vaccination all recovered from Covid; with full vaccination rates in Florida about 60%, around the national average, Florida ranked twenty-first among states providing at least a single shot to residents. Those already vaccinated in Florida were mostly elderly–a demographic on which DeSantis had dutifully concentrated to provide the vaccine. But many residents in the state, liberated from mask-mandates, were partying, barhopping, hitting the beaches, as masking was unenforced at schools, kept open five days a week, or on cruises–DeSantis promised cruise ship companies that in Florida, they wouldn’t need “vaccine passports.” Bahamas Paradise Princess Cruise Company promised that “safety, fun, and vaccines” were all priorities as it docked in Palm Beach on June 25, having suspended per CDC regulations on March 14, 202, and the fireworks festivies cancelled the previous July 4 due to COVID restrictions were planned again, now with a Cuban reggaeton as a featured guest for the festivities, voluntary masking, as Florida as a state checked out from updating its COVID-19 dashboard, tracking updated cases and deaths across the state.
Governor DeSantis, amidst COVID spikes, emerged as a Trumpian cheerleader standing steadfast in against a “biomedical security state” as COVID infections spiked yet again: “Florida, we’re a free state–people are going to be free to chose to make their own decisions.”
At the same time, a DeSantis spokesperson and press secretary retweeted a rather striking map with CDC imprimatur made rounds on Twitter: the striking data visualization suggested that rates of community transmission plummeted in comparison to the lower forty-eight. While the image depended on the outdated data Florida provided the CDC, a symbolically powerful image as rising alarm about rising rates of transmission injected fear in holiday plans.
DeSantis’ energetic and telegenic press secretary, Christina Pushaw, whose Twitter profile shows her pushing her hair over her head with a smile as if seeking to embody Florida cool, seemed all but to channel a vacation advertisement in her retweet. In promoting the alleged decline in COVID-19 cases from it appeared that Florida had been granted a reprieve as folks were finalizing winter vacation plans in the face of worries about increased infection rates. Pushaw’s tweets had been flagged for vacuuming up right-wing media–a constituency to which she had belong–and had already been suspended once from Twitter in the past. But she retweeted a CDC data vis to promote the apparent decline in rates as evidence that the state provided the secure vacation spot to soak in sunshine this winter after a stressful year.
The bright blue expansed that so conspicuously appeared to isolate the peninsula in a sea of high rates of community transmission of COVID cases appeared to promise Florida offered some sense of shelter from the storm. Yet in spite of all its apparent objectivity, the CDC data vis Pushaw tweeted out on social media didn’t really prove the assertion of Keesman Koury of the Florida Department of Health that low cases of community transmission the data vis registered reflected the “result of our innovative and strategic COVID-19 response that focuses on prevention and treatment,” as if that included no mask mandates or social distancing. As if providing evidence of how much the global pandemic was fed by local bad messaging and toxicity, Pushaw boasted of its safety as if promoting a healthy vacation site in the tradition of the State Tourist Board: “Florida still has the lowest case rate per 100,000 in the entire country and this continues to decrease,” as if the data vis provided cutting edge news, sufficient to rethink the state’s ham-handed response to preventing the virus’ spread.
The tweet amounted to outright disinformation–and showed sense of the media savvy of a National Interest journalist turned DeSantis spokesperson known for offensive and off-topic tweets of scurrilous content. Few out-of-staters may have known that she had been accused of stalking the Florida Dept. of Health geographer and data analyst Rebekah Jones, the geographer responsible for having publishing and curating data of COVID-19 infections daily tracking infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to infection across the state–having built the COVID-19 dashboard to track cases and deaths. Jones had been terminated by Florida’s Department of Health for “extensive, unauthorized, communication” about the dashboard–where she was in charge of answering public questions–and unceremoniously fired May 18, 2020, after raising questions about changes in the publication of data and functionality from May 5, including the combination of tallies of total negative COVID tests and positives, perhaps to lower the calculation of COVID positivity on the dashboard she designed, and the re-tallying of deaths certified as due to coronavirus infections.
As the beaches of South Florida were readying to re-open, Jones, fearing the state fudged public health data irresponsibly, unethically adding negative tests in a false aggregate–even if conducted for the same person–to diminish the ranking of positivity, even as DeSantis proclaimed he was “following the data” in re-opening. Months earlier, Jones had created the dashboard and apologized for the lowering of mortality rates announced per Florida’s Dept. of Health, in the course of reclassifying many coronavirus-related deaths, as the Dept. and adding fewer deaths despite rising mortality rates in Florida to deaths verified as related to COVID-19. The state argued it would “continue to provide the most up-to-date information to arm Floridians with the tools and knowledge necessary to flatten the curve,” but seems to have shifted the nature of its total counts of deaths or indeed of positive cases of infection. But, unlike the state dashboard, Jones showed the density of confirmed COVID infections and the few Florida counties which, by her count, ready to reopen.
1. The data aggregated on Jones’ alternative dashboard suggested that rather than the curve flattened, only two of sixty-seven counties in Florida met the state’s established criteria for re-opening. She complained Florida’s Dept. of Health had wanted her to delete the report card of infections per county, as it showed “that no counties, pretty much, were ready for reopening;” FDOH didn’t want that visible on the dashboard in ways that would “draw attention” to an inconvenient truth, she said in mid-June. (At the same time, the state had witheld data on deaths certifiably related to COVID-19 at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, unlike other states, to keep figures low.)
As the data guru in charge of publishing the data, Jones would be expected to be central to any public health work that was based on the data. But she alleged her refusal to lower the state’s positivity rating to allow it to meet its target for reopening led her to be dismissed: as the state became an epicenter for infection in March 2020, the state faced increasing pressure to meet goals to be “ready to open” for the summer.
Despite noting the “dramatic changes” on the data portal of concern back in May, 2020, Jones, whose dashboard had long been trusted as a source, seemed to feel it had swung beyond her control: she would only say in early May, “I helped them get it back running a few times but I have no knowledge about their plans, what data they are now restricting, what data will be added and when, or any of that.”
The long familiar site which Florida residents had used to orient themselves to daily updates of county-by-county breakdowns of new and total positive cases of COVID infections, virulence, hospitalizations, and deaths had shifted,–about a month before infections would peak–
–and infections in the state broke previous records, adding nearly 9,000 new cases in a new daily record by June 22, 2020, before the arrival of the Delta variant.
The numbers of positive cases for state residents grew, as hospitalizations, during that very summer, when they ballooned, and multiple counties in the state grew deep blue.
As if in response to what she contended was an unmerited ouster from Florida’s Dept. of Health for failing to fix datasets, Jones quickly founded her own alternative “rogue” informative COVID-19 dashboard, Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard.
2. While DeSantis had outlined, under the approving eyes of then President Trump, plans to re-open the state by placing “public health-driven data at the forefront” along fixed “benchmarks,” his data guru insisted her refusal to be part of promoting “misleading and politically driven narrative that ignored the data;” she constructed an alternative dashboard showing only one of the sixty-seven counties in the state revealed sufficiently low positivity to warrant reopening or easing restrictions on social distancing. The exclusion of positive antibody tests on the Dept. Health website was clarified on the new site, which aimed to be far updated daily and far more user-friendly when it appeared in June, 2020, and tracked the rise of positive cases that summer, adding increasing features of legibility and of tracking change over time.
The new site foregrounded total “COVID Positive People” detected in both PCR and Antigen tests in running tallies, listing new positives from the previous day, running counts of recoveries, and available hospital beds beside a county-by-county breakdown, the dashboard offered a far more synthetic fine-grained map of the COVID-19 ground-game of public health to grow public trust. The rival dashboard that debuted in mid-June aimed to show accurate geodata of “what’s going on in a straightforward, nonpolitical way,” FloridaCOVIDAction.com synthesized publicly available open data, mined from state reports but not reported straightforwardly on state-run websites.
As it became clear that the data for which Jones and a group of epidemiologists had been never incorporated in DeSantis’ vaunted plans to rely on the data in plans for re-opening the state; reopening brought a five-fold surge in COVID infections by mid-July. The expansion surpassed the rate and number of Covid-19 infections than any other state in the pandemic, breaking records for the highest number reported in a single day–15,300–or in New York in early April, during the worst outbreak in the city. The wave, which might well have been prevented, strained hospital and treatment by antivirals. It called into question the logic of DeSantis’ reopening plans, or how much he had relied as promised on health-driven data, but a blind adherence to the sense of “best practices” that could allow the economy to be open, beaches and restaurants stay open with adequate distancing, and schools not be closed–meeting short term demands and needs for the summer economy, but sewing skepticism.
The state in fact seemed to lack even sufficient testing to measure the scale of the outbreak, even as he reopened the state at a far faster clip than New York or California, re-opening all gyms, bars, indoor dining at restaurants, schools, pools and salons and ending stay-at-home orders but a month after they went into effect, to welcome tourists to the state from Memorial Day, increasing the risks to the state’s older residents greatly, before closing the bars in late June. By November, after an other rise in COVID cases ran through the state, Jones’ public message to the Florida Dept. of Public Health to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead” as the dashboard stood at 17,460 COVID-related deaths in the state, law enforcement served a search warrant at Jones’ home, guns drawn, seize the laptops from which the former GIS manager of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection ran the alt dashboard–“all my hardware and tech”–seven months after her firing from the Dept. of Public Health.
The dashboard of rising COVID infections released on an ArcGIS platforms was a bombshell that placed her in the public eye–and was regularly updated. The alternative website seems to have led to her attack as a discontent “rogue” rather than a whistleblower in the national news. Its release lead to subsequent national media slamming of Jones in conservative media as a serial social media abuser, as outlets tagged the former public health official as a “super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation,” to defuse her own charges of community transmission. Jones was charged of being guilty of having openly invented lies “about Ron DeSantis’ Press Secretary” using social media to pedal pandemic falsehoods. @GeoRebekah temporarily de-platformed on Twitter, Pushaw crowed that her suspension revealed Jones’ untrustworthiness and abuse of the medium, calling it “long overdue.” No doubt infuriated and flustered by DeSantis’ own consistently relax and dangerously reckless policies on keeping schools open and removing COVID protection policies, Pushaw must have been not only frustrated, but a target of DeSantis’ ire.
Pushaw went further by attacking the GIS systems manager as nothing less than “the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation,” echoing the bombast of the DeSantis regime. DeSantis and his office dutifully applauded Jones’ temporary suspension as evidence for her duplicity, as guilty of “defamatory” statements and a “COVID super-spreader,” happy to see her public profile reduced. Comparing the systems manager to an Irish-born cook whose asymptomatic infection spread to her employers what was known as Salmonella oddly served to demonize her as an immigrant carrier of disease, echoing Trump’s obsession with “foreign” origins of COVID-19; it shifted attention from dangerous mortality levels in the state, and gestured to an era when the pathogenic transmission of salmonella was not understood, more than inadequate responses of the Governor’s office to three waves of COVID-19 in the state. A leader who had and would repeatedly cultivate “strongman tactics” in a dangerous time, as Ruth Ben Ghiat recently noted as this blog was first written, DeSantis performed a version and vision of leadership that seemed to establish himself as an autocratic leader of Florida, with a proposed a new Florida State Guard to assist the National Guard in public emergencies, that he would oversee as a state militia, that could act “not encumbered by the federal government” or federal regulations, from federal masking policy to vaccination mandates, and banned vaccine mandates or masking in public as unsafe and unscientific.
DeSantis chose another official to be an attack dog to step up vaccine disinformation. The campaign of disinformation continued DeSantis had appointed a surrogate “State Surgeon General” who stood beside vaccine skeptics who encouraged misinformation from claiming the vaccine altered your genetic RNA to a lack of scientific consensus in its value. Surgeon General Ladopo spread dangerous COVID denialism, instructing the public “to stick with their intuition and their sensibilities,” demeaning the public health value of the vaccine a misguided “religion” and emphasizing the monoclonal antibodies treatments DeSantis has vigorously promoted in the place of vaccines–and indeed as an alternative public health policy. In so doing, he mimicking the public health maps like Alabama’s “COVID-19 Dashboard Map” that foregrounded Monoclonal Antibody Therapy (mAb) therapy as a counterpart to Vaccine Distribution in an ESRI Story Map; Alabama’s Dept. of Health boasted a 60-70% success rate at “preventing high-risk patients” from being hospitalized–a strategy of off-loading any public health care policy or plan.
If we are approaching a time in the history of COVID-19 when our fears of catching the disease may soon be replaced by an acceptance that we may become infected, and will manage that infection, the hope to navigate infections that would be more severe among the unvaccinated populations suggest a tinderbox that will require an armed guard of the sort DeSantis has imagined as running when he announced in Pensacola his plans for a military unit with uniforms tagged “FLORIDA” rather than “U.S. ARMY” from a podium bearing the sign “Let Us Alone” that echoed the “Don’t Tread on Florida” sign displayed at a special October session of the state legislature to counter federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The curious unveiling of a “civilian volunteer force that will have the ability to assist the national guard in state-specific emergencies” seemed design either in case of another surge, or to support DeSantis’ distinctive public health policies. The banner “Let US Alone” first displayed in the 1841 inauguration of Florida’s first Governor, William Moseley, was a cause for celebrating the independent health policies in the state, which had by then reached the third-highest number of infections in the nation–3,730,395.–and the third-highest number of deaths, 52,647.
The image shard of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, Florida’s own Gadsden flag was unveiled at a press conference speaking out against vaccine as the new logo of the state: the alligator with gaping jaws, ready to attack or defend its ground, was tweeted out on October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis as a sign of resilience and power in the face of the fear of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags. The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis showcased the pro-business benefits of his health politics with the confidence of a newly minted executive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain.” In Florida, unlike Biden’s America, DeSantis proclaimed as a rallying call, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.”
The Gadsden Flag, beloved by separatists–and displayed at the door of a neighbor of mine in Berkeley with the slightly menacing words “Don’t know what it is? Look it up!”–has of course become a treasured emblem of the right, and Patriot groups, as well as militias, and was flown on the U.S. Capitol briefly on the morning of January 6, 2021.
3. Pushaw and Jones had a long history of entanglement. The ways that their fraught relations determined the battles over the local messaging on the pandemic remind us of how its global spread was brewed in the toxic channels of local miscommunications about public health. Governor DeSantis had only hired Pushaw as a press secretary, per WaPo, after realizing public messaging on COVID-19 crucial to his public image. The Florida Governor seems to have been especially keen on Pushaw’s exposé of Jones’ “big lie” about DeSantis’ reticence in releasing total counts of positives, long before he restricted state dashboards to weekly updates of limited information by June, 2021, as total cases of infection surpassed 1,7783,720, creating a crisis in calm as the state faced a second spike. By then, Florida ceased reporting deaths or infections daily to the CDC, making them hard to tally with regularity, and shifted the format to weekly tallies of vaccination and infections, as the “surveillance dashboard” radioed staying away from the beaches around Daytona Beach or from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach, even as new cases seemed to decline, and hospitalizations grew, as the daily tabulations of resident deaths and COVID positive suddenly ceased.
The articles Pushaw had written attacking Jones’s whistleblower status may have encouraged a long-running conflict that led her to be charged with “computer crimes”; Jones’ charged the press secretary with having stalked the GSI analyst obsessively and aggressively, slurring her reputation after she was fired, allegedly for insubordination for refusing to undercount infections and magnify the number of people tested. The vindictive attacks on the data analyst obscured the problems of reduced clarity of replacing the daily updates on which viewers had relied with weekly tallies.
The Surveillance Dashboard offered a comprehensive running count and cumulative tally that Jones was charged with having crashed before her dismissal from the Dept. of Health, six months before the police entered her house in December, 2020, weapons drawn, to seize her computers as the novel coronavirus was spreading widely across the state.
Despite the value of allowing state residents to orient themselves to the spread of COVID-19, Jones disturbingly suggested the state was playing fast and loose by manipulating data of infection rates by slimming counts of positives by omitting almost 10,000 antibody tests from its tally. Yet by June 22, 2020, twice broke records for single-day infections in a week: the state dashboard of daily data announced a new record of nearly 8,000 infections and 13.5% positivity rate–a critical number just over the early baseline for re-opening of 10% positivity–even if the WHO baseline for reopening was set in May, 2020, in preparation for summer, at 5% or lower for two weeks. Playing fast and loose with time-stamped data in troubling ways, DeSantis assured the public in mid-June as positivity grew that journalists should realize the past was more important than the present in his allegedly data-driven response, rather than the policies he had adopted: “the main thing is just for folks to look, in May, if you remember end of April, May all the way through, you know coronavirus was relatively quiet in Florida. You had manageable cases. Our positivity rate was 4 or 5 percent consistently.”
Only in late June, 2020, was a Public Health Advisory issued that back-tracked on Governor DeSantis’ longstanding objections to preventive measures like public mask-wearing, social distancing, and caution. In fact, some 20 million cloth masks distributed statewide that “all individuals in Florida should wear . . . in any setting where social distancing is not possible” and social interactions limited for all over age sixty-five. The cautionary tone was not alarmist, keeping bars and restaurants open in the sixty-four counties it defined as in “Phase 2,” and allowing all retail businesses and gyms to operate at full capacity, entrusting their clientele to practice social distancing from one another, as part of a “plan on public recovery.
Yet the Governor, in his wisdom and care for his pubic perception , issued an Executive Order Affirming Freedom to Choose emulating the then-President, by June 2021, after school boards considered adopting mask-wearing mandates for their students, as a part of schools being “open for instruction” since the summer of 2020, noting how “masking may lead to negative health” and the CDC “guidance . . . lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.”
By August, as the weekly counts of new infections surpassed 110,000, according to CDC data the most in any state of the country, Floridians missed getting daily updates on the counts of infections per county. The old regularly updated dashboard has became a focus of public attention in what seemed a laboratory case of an unfolding public health disaster–DeSantis had phased out county-by-county daily breakdowns as he issue weekly tallies, having argued that the state had rounded the bend, and removed the regular daily updating of dashboards on which Floridians had long relied on to orient themselves. Age breakdowns and a geographic distribution by county–features of the old dashboard–were no longer available, even as schools were reopening, parents deciding on vaccination and masking, and public trust frayed.
Since the escalating records of early summer cases in 2020, the state dashboard had provided a familiar breakdown of infections, offering real time information based on age in a county-by-county breakdown that all of a sudden wasn’t there as a guidepost for local decision at a critical time, once it had been removed.
More crucially to this post, the constraints over how much information of COVID transmission was publicized–and how accurately it was compiled–suggested that DeSantis’ office commitment to ensuring the calendar on which the state’s economy for tourism depended had displaced the monitoring of a calendar for community transmission. By June, 2020, the Florida Dept. of Health substituted weekly COVID tallies in place of the daily breakdown and count that Jones had worked, explaining that the state wanted to streamline information and reported daily case data to the CDC. The new weekly dashboard failed to orient users to a geographic distribution of COVID-19 or what counties infections had occurred, so prominent in the old dashboard; it provided little data that could be drilled down into, by abandoning a county-by-county distribution and dropping the stark visualization of state counties as a “third wave” of COIVID-19 infections hit in 2021, and DeSantis mused that the county-by-county breakdown might be useful to some.
DeSantis proclaimed the state had turned the bend. But as Florida led the country in newly confirmed cases in early August, 2021, folks wondered why the daily dashboard of old was no longer readily available as a tool of visualization, worrying that the daily updates were pulled by the Governor’s office prematurely in June, as the pandemic led to more hospitalizations in the state than ever before, but the Governor’s office, rather than offering public health data to state residents, asked for patience “in returning to normalcy”–even after twenty-four days with over 1,000 new cases discovered daily. And in tweeting a map of low transmission rates in the post-Thanksgiving days, claiming COVID cases had begun to “bottom out in Florida,” while they started to peak nationwide, Pushaw seemed to seek to clean up Florida’s public image, by directing attention on social media to an alternative reality that may have benefitted a map that rendered rates of community transmission taken, albeit a map that had benefitted from the new timeline at which Florida was releasing data to the CDC. Indeed, the release of figures of community transmission at different times from the country seemed to offer evidence of how clear-headed policies had kept local transmission rates low, even if the data ws comparing apples and oranges.
The tweet seemed to seek to erase memory of those dashboards of the recent past, that might well have kept tourists away from Florida, due to high positivity rates. The apparently credible picture showing low risks of viral transmission statewide was a retrospective reprieve of sorts for the inexcusably poor public health policies of the past. Although the CDC had updated data on community transmission for the nation, the state received a rather convenient break: for local data had ceased to be updated with much regularity for Florida, compared to the rest of the union, rendering its counties an almost continuous bright blue. Pushaw’s early a.m. tweet was the perfect graphic for her smiling Twitter profile, which recalled the vacation ads of old that promoted the salubrity of the state’s sunny beaches.
The imaginary fault-line that seemed to isolate the panhandle and peninsula as a sight of purity and safety was itself a creation of the lag in the reporting of state data, rather than reflecting a break in community virulence or the “bottoming out” of COVID cases. But the implication that Florida had suddenly become an area of low community transmission reflected cherry-picked data crafting a false comparison between apples and oranges, so to speak, since the state’s data had stopped updating as the rest of the country suffered from rising rates of COVID-19. Was the absence of inclusion of available data on the national COVID data tracker a mistake, or a convenient untruth of deeply unethical nature?
The maps of cases, infection levels, and fatalities, had been if only six states have mask-wearing mandates for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, whereas in 2020, forty-three states had adopted them, the low levels of transmission seemed to promote an image of azure seas across the peninsula that was oddly akin to the images promoting the Vacation Land U.S.A state from the mid-1950s, presided by a beneficent smiling sun, whose rays boded health for all–where the sun was able to be drunk to good health daily in the state’s unofficial elixir, fresh orange juice. Concerns about the continued popularity of winter beach destinations during the rise of the new Omicron variant may have been leading many to rethink their vacations, but the data vis was dropped at a strategic time to plug the beaches’ open space as a space for rejuvenation, a ready get-away for those seeking escape from COVID stress.
The couple romping through the surf promised escape in a “lovely peninsula, with its 30,000 lakes and 1,400 miles of mainland coastlines, which is continuously cooled by refreshing [ocean] breezes” is removed from the fears of coastal erosion that recently reared its heads in the collapse of the Seaside FL towers. But the coast beckoned as a site of sociability, for many who had been spooked by the rise of COVID-19, the beach offered an image of health in ways that rehabilitated the classic cinematic myth of the sunshine state of ocean fun.
The past imaginary was one of all carefree abandon, promising a year-round vacationland, outside of the normal flow of time or the seasonal change–as the 1954 advertisement put it, “WARM in Winter–COOL in Summer!“–that would produce “a fabulous state of well-being.”
The “extra special” nature of Florida as “one of the world’s greatest concentrations of fun facilities” was tied to its beaches, but stretched “border to border,” mapping a vacationland free from worry. Was Republicans’ not readiness of to nix the federal budget over mask mandates, and resist previous mandates on vaccination that would buck the federal advisory that folks “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in areas of high or significant transmission risks, mandates for the unvaccinated only existed in reliably “blue” states–California, Connecticut, and New York–where they did not face legislative pushback, and the mask mandate for all only applied to those island territories with uncertain public health infrastructure–Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands–where an outbreak could be devastating, and where Democrats acknowledged the public costs as critical, from Hawaii to New Mexico to Nevada to Illinois, where the COVID scare remained fresh in memory.
Florida was long an outlier of mask-wearing, especially on its beaches, per this classic Mapbox data visualization of the likelihood of meeting masked friends in public from mid-July 2021, that reflected the split sort of realities with which the nation had been confronting COVIDThe rarity of spotting mask-wearing in midsummer 2021 was super spotty in the Sunshine State, especially on its beaches, in a state seemingly torn by parallel realities.
The stark local divisions of adopting masks in public space won world-wide attention early in the pandemic. No masking regulations on beachfronts were a sort of albatross for the state governor DeSantis, famous for issuing a forceful Executive Order later in the month, resisting school boards trumpeted the absence of “well-grounded scientific justification” that mask-wearing reduced transmission and finding an absence of sufficient evidence masking could reduce community transmission in the state schools, had openly run against national opinion and allowed “all all parents have the right to make health care decisions for their minor children” affirmed patients’ “rights under Florida law” and vowed to protect all Floridians’ constitutional freedoms. By the time that the new CDC visualization dropped, anxiety was growing the rebound of COVID-19 both in Delta and omicron variants would kill the tourism industry for Christmas Vacation 2021, and DeSantis’ spokesperson must have been primed.
The flimsily persuasive nature of the cherry-picked data of the data vis can be handily spot checked on the CDC website itself, by stepping back just one day for a better view of the risk levels of putting caution aside and heading to the beach. For the lag of a few days of renewing data reminds us of how important the daily release of accurate data is, and how easily it can skew a national image of community transmission that seems to provide a “snapshot” of national levels. Florida’s rates of infection didn’t remain an island from the nation, so much as a lag in reporting failed to show comparable rates of infection to the rest of the nation. The differences were not so pronounced: indeed, the previous day–November 24–mapped the state as being a site of moderate and substantial transmission that could not have suddenly shifted in but one day, so much as the new visualization fit the “narrative” about DeSantis and COVID-19, more than the situation that Floridians experienced on the ground.
And flipping back just a few days previous, the stark divides of low rates of transmission and the substantial to high rates in other states offered little grounds for off the cuff collective diagnoses of the greater hardiness that exposure to COVID due no mask mandates offered a benefit to the state’s population, or might in fact be considered a viable public health policy: a month earlier, transmission seems roughly equivalent on the Florida or Texas coast, and relied on uniform assessment and tallies–but we may have reason to suspect Florida of undercounting to keep its numbers low.
The lay of the land was basically not at all that clear-cut. One can only hope that few made travel plans after seeing that bright blue peninsula on social media: a better bet, it seems, would be Puerto Rico, if the mask-wearing mandate could be tolerated by visitors. In fact, the very areas that visitors might be hoping to travel–from Daytona Beach to Cocoa Beach, or the area around Miami and South Beach, down near the peninsula’s tip–suggested areas of substantial and even high risk, save for the area lying in the Everglades.
Indeed, a Moderate Risk seemed the fate of much of the state, if the tracker were looked at with regularly updated data sets. And this is relying on the numbers that the Department of Health provided–numbers that might be well scrutinized, given the complaints their former data guru had raised. All said and done, the “narrative” was not one of the power of a Governor to imagine his ability to purge COVID infections from the state, so much as a burst of virulence that demanded to be mapped and tracked in better detail.
The haunting GIF in the header to this post tracks the rapid return of the Taliban to power as a drawdown of the Forever War. It echoes a sense of inevitable loss–a dramatic ceding of territory, echoing the “loss” of Korea, China, or Vietnam–an un-imagined conclusion to the War on Terror. The terrifying denouement of a collapse of provinces across this virtual Afghanistan seems to suggest a logic deflating bravura of the Forever Wars, in which arms and military materiel were funneled at unprecedented rate to Afghanistan–at a rate that would only be later superseded by the rush of arms into Ukraine. This was hardly, the GIF suggests, the conclusion Americans would have expected from Donald Trump’s promise to “ending the era of endless wars,” but was the end of an era of pretenses to American empire, that sent hundreds of billions of military spending to Afghanistan, inflating the budget for the Department of Defense in unsustainable fashion, and, intentionally suggests an ominous terms a haunting pivot to an unknown future without imperial plans. This is a future where the return of military forces from Afghanistan will upset a global military playing field, where war will no longer be fought in terms of a map of Afghanistan or a level field.
But if the glass can be called half-empty or half-full, its apparently overpowering logic of loss also obscures, by flattening to a few months the long history of post-9/11 period, how wars waged since 2001 has left the United States without any control over the ground game. For by failing to find allies in the ground we’ve been pummeling , unsuccessfully seeking to construct alliances on the ground, the arrival of arms and military technologies have re-written the situation of Afghanistan, or the conflict there in which we were long immersed, in ways few Americans have any memory, and surely won’t be aided in the dramatic GIF that suggests the collapse of the house of cards on which we created a power vacuum filled with only intensified high-powered arms, in what was virtually a powder keg of massive American forces across the Middle East, in an extended military apparatus designed to keep a geo-political map afloat that had no endgame or even game.
It is hard to come to terms with the 9/11 wars without tracking the flow of military technology and tools overseas. Over 9,000 Americans have died, or the hundreds of thousands who returned from the wars, injured in body or psyche, the roughly 6,200 U.S. military personnel, contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. government invaded are left off the map, but the legacy may be greatest for the huge amounts of military materiel shipped into the Middle East–arms that helped in some way to “modernize” the current Taliban, who may have received training from Pakistan intel–as well as the huge losses of population and infrastructure in Afghanistan, where about 71,000 Pakistani and Afghan civilians are estimated to have been killed–a staggeringly disproportionate number in crossfire, bombing raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings in Kabul and other bases, IED’s and night-time raids by NATO or American troops.
The GiF that purports to document the effects of American withdrawal renders the battlefield of Afghanistan as the rapid falling of provinces as if they were a gameboard, or a mock battlefield, creating a sense of causation due to American withdrawl by the proverbial falling of a set of dominoes. But the limited long-term strategy of these wars is handily elided in what seems the result of an immediate retreat of military presence. The retreat was, however, only the last act of a tragedy on a massive scale, the result of funneling arms rather than promoting national infrastructure in a nation that has limited infrastructure–and which even American forces were compelled to cast and indeed to consider as a tribal society that had no social structures that could be trusted or built upon. The increased lack of trust that dominated relations on the ground were more revealed by the map–as well as the lack of effort to foster a functioning government. Donald Trump may have escalated the arms trade into the Middle East to levels far beyond his predecessor, but the frustration of his successor Joe Biden was perhaps more clear-eyed than is given credit, if intentionally so: “We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools.”
But were tools of war ever enough? Biden’s remarks revealed a combination of deep dissatisfaction at returning to government after four years, and finding the same boondoggle on the table from the Bush years, and apparent exasperation. If he was trying to justify his rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as a pivot in prioritizing strategy he had long seen as of limited benefit or without exit strategy, it betrays a deep sense of what might have been different in Afghanistan, or how the map of civil government could have been different–if the arms sent to Afghanistan in military aid was not seen as a sufficient basis to forge a civil society. The vague circumlocution “all the tools” may well come back to haunt both Biden and the world. For in the course of training and equipping a military force of 300,000 provided the basis for delivering much military support, America created spiraling costs of a global arms industry, even if the range of arms offered was not as well-suited to Afghani terrain or as protective as equipment offered NATO troops. (Oryxblog notes the poor protection these vehicles offer against feared improvised explosive devices (IEDs) compared to the MRAPs available to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and offered to police departments across the United States, but not offered to Afghan special forces.)
While the messy exit from Afghanistan appeared an uncoordinated relinquishment of control, the reliance on firepower and bombing raids as the sole veneer of stability in earlier maps of the region is revealed by the map, far more than the crumbling of a once united front of control. The GIF dramatically collapses the past four years as they unravelled over the months from May to April 13 to August 16, 2021; if it is only one of the several theaters of war, it seems to offer a compelling, if distorting story of a fall of provincial provinces in the state that the United States and the failure of rebuilding an infrastructure to which NATO committed from 2008, a loss that seems to ratchet up one’s sense of a lost opportunity. The failure of being able to control Bagram Airfield thirty miles north of Kabul–its control ceded to an Afghan army able to provide cover for fleeing Americans–was a final tragic episode in sustained lack of commitment in the ground game over more than two decades of ignoring the level of local trust that might have better created the nation’s infrastructure.
Indeed, the fraught planning of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, too easily blamed on a failure of “listening to those on the ground” who grasped the critical strategically critical nature of operations of drawing down the war rests is imbued with a sense of loss the mock up maps released by outfits as Long War Journal communicated to the viewers that reveal incomplete tactical awareness of a long-term ground game, but cunningly erased the costs of a war that inflicted such sustained damage on the country–and introduced escalating levels of violence and anti-government opposition–that little trust or loyalty remained after intense military efforts over all those years.
The costs of the pursuing of war and of bombarding much of the nation are never referenced in the maps of the advance of Taliban forces across the nation that suggest a strategic meltdown of ground-game. The “loss” of territory in the flip-book like sets of images recorded a real-time reaction to the transmission of power from American military camps, a transfer of power that was so poorly coordinated to not even allow the departing United States troops to secure Bagram Airfield, miles outside of Kabul, and the Hamid Karzai Airport to coordinate departures.
The narrative of Taliban advance is however mapped as an optic of loss. But the loss is almost hidden from visibility in the very same maps. The failure to compel Afghanistan to present Osama bin Laden and Taliban officers or training camps created the false sense of security of a show of power. It was based on and predicated the false concept of a submission of Afghanistan as best achieved by bloody bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military incursions. For the loss of what we imagine territory held by our troops seems almost to cleanse the bloodiness of that past history. The advance of the Taliban into areas that were allegedly once in “government control”–or are labeled as such–reveal the spread of an ominous wash of deep crimson across the country as the tragic end of the War on Terror, something of a blood bath in the making, a spurt of pink and deep crimson red–as if the bloodshed was not cast by an American show of power.
Yet it erases the effects of a sustained numbers of deaths, violence and loss of blood, and the deaths of civilians that might have been prevented, already destabilized what was left of the civil government. The absences of governmental structures or webs of local allegiance allowed the superficial sense of stability that the provinces had retained, as American air power left them , and as stockpiling of arms and munitions in many former American bases provided the materiel for Taliban forces to advance even more quickly across space than they had ever expected. The insufficient supervision of arms that arrived at American bases suggested a landscape long permeated by naivite about the agency of Afghan people, and the utter the absence of training of local forces, that anticipated local governmental failure across the Forever Wars.
The readiness to point blame at a new President for not listening to the on-the-ground sources is concealed in the maps that suggest an abandonment of areas “under government control” as a betrayal–rather than a culmination of the long-term costs of a failure of effective governance of a land that long lacked centralized governance of the sort that is signified–but not demonstrated–by a map. The very national borders of what was shown to be a “nation” created a sense of false security, belied by the appearance of relatively few areas of insurgent activity across the terrain since 2018, and with little sense of the infrastructure destroyed by sustained bombing campaigns.
But the arrival of bloodshed to Afghanistan was something that the United States, of course, brought there on a scale no one had ever before imagined, flooding the nation with arms of a level of modernity as if they would defeat the society we had once called ‘tribal’ and incapable of tactical maneuvering or high-tech weaponry. As the United States assures we are As the area under “Government Control” contracts to an isolated the limited area, leaving us asking how the United States mapped it so badly. As the Government four Presidents promoted military ties contracts to a dot, but the dream of such an independent state now apparently eclipsed and recast into what may now seem more of an inter-regnum between two rulers–Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani–in a Taliban regime. Rather than being cast as a restoration of power, the map illustrated to Americans the fall of an American dream, and an eclipse of the idea of nation-building as a primarily military prospect, that the US Army took over from NATO.
The hope to recreate firm borders of Afghanistan at untold expense fell like a house of cards. The Taliban’s strategic operations for controlling the very roads on which they once attacked American and NATO forces had destroyed the structures long before the troops retreated, as they had paralyzed the country’s movement and flexibility of its soldiers or national infrastructure. The fiction that was long nourished of an Afghan state that America had been able to try to fortify by the importing armaments–the “tools of war”–over more than twenty years. While the map is a visualization that derives from the work of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and poses as a vision charting the erosion or loss of the coherence of a liberal state in the borders of Afghanistan, it both isolates the nation from its broader context in the Middle East and War on Terror–from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, from the allies of Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere, or the exit of many Afghan forces as refugees, or the seizure of weapons, humvees, and armored vehicles abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who left them behind as they fled north across the border or abandoned their posts. A map of the arrival of firearms and materiel–the procurement of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Assistance (IMET) programs that American Presidents are authorized, and with Donald Trump escalated and Barack Obama had previously–would be as helpful, as it would track a vision of a significant increase of security assistance for geopolitical dominance.
The investment in drone escalation as a tactical relation to “space” redefined territorial dominance to replace one of community building, often confusing targets with the territory. Drone strikes not only served to “take out terrorist commanders”–but as if this did not destroy the stability of the fabric of a nation America was allegedly trying to rebuild since 2008–defined a view far from the ground. Over 13,000 drone strikes on Afghanistan alone–a minimum of 13,072 strikes killed in Afghanistan alone over 10,000–conducted by the United States Reconnaissance created a landscape being invaded by foreign powers. The dynamic of incessant drone strikes–conducted by a tool not owned by the U.S. military before the Forever Wars, and now showcased in targeted strikes is an invaluable prism to understand the mapping of the land that appears a hope for peace and end to the Forever Wars, as much as a lack of training, strategy, or American assistance. In ways that make drone strike fatalities pale, the recent estimate of 46,310 Afghan civilians–if below half of the estimated 95,000 dead Syrian civilian casualties of the War on Terror–suggests the way that the United States has benefited form the low presence of reporters on the ground.
The war in Afghanistan was located predominantly in the countryside, and across the many provinces that “fell” to a Taliban newly fortified by the windfall of armaments they accumulated as provincial cities, abandoned by the AFSN, fell. The logic that we had supplied the ANSF with sufficient arms to defend the territory reveals a confusion between the territory and the map–and the theater of combat and the situation on the ground. When Joe Biden marveled at how American-trained Afghan security forces Americans out-numbered Taliban fighters fourfold, and possessed better arms, the 298,000 armed ANSF were thinly spread and at low morale; if trained and armed by Americans, perhaps amounting to but 96,000, they lacked decisive advantage against Taliban force of 60-80,000 whose leaders effectively exploited internal weaknesses off the battlefield.
The real map–or the inside story of the progress of the Taliban across the nation–lay the perhaps not control over districts’ capitols, but the many well-stocked bases, airfields, and army depots long cultivated by American troops. The long-running bases across the country–sites with often mythic and storied names, like Kandahar and Bagram airfield, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers had been stationed from 2001–had posed a site of immense military materiel that the . The Bagram Airfield was a site for drones, of course, but also for storing cutting edge Blackhawk helicopters that the United States committed to Afghan forces, even if they were not well-trained in using or maintaining them, munitions, and firearms, even if the larger American aircraft and drones were withdrawn. As American forces withdrew, the rifles, ammunition, and tactical vehicles–as well as cars–were left at bases that the Taliban had long attacked–as Bagram—and had their eyes and were particularly keen. American commanders, as if intending to disrupt the withdrawal’s smoothness, disrupted the smooth transition by not even telling Afghans before they arrived at the Kabul airport–allowing the looting of laptops from Bagram, as a sort of bonanza, by local residents, before the arrival of Taliban forces.
Over three million items were abandoned by the U.S. Army in Bagram, from food to small weapons, ammunition, and vehicles–presuming that the “tribal” Taliban did not know how to use them–before they down-powered the entire base. Did the generals doubt that the Taliban could ever operate them, or just trust they were secure with Afghan forces? The weapons were poorly monitored. As ammunition for weapons not being left for the AFSN was destroyed, the abandonment of materiel, planes, helicopters and ground vehicles followed departure from ten other bases before Biden took office, often over NATO objections–that bestowed a huge symbolic victory of sorts to the Taliban of having driven foreigners from the land as they long promised, if not one of military materiel as wall. If American military argued “They can look at them, they can walk around — but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” the ludic inversion of Taliban displaying armaments of Americans was profound theater of deep symbolic capital.
If the hundreds of bases that Americans sent soldiers had long declined to dozens, the withdrawal of American forces without clear coordination with Afghans left a vast reserve of symbolic military material ready for the taking. How much was left at the bases closed in Helmand province, Laghman province, or Kunduz, as well as the bases in Nangahar, Balkh, Faryab and Zabul? Did these sites, and the reduction of American presence in Jalalabad Air Field, Kandahar Air Field, and Bagram not provide targets on which the Taliban long had eyes? The seizure of Kandahar provided an occasion for a triumphal procession of sorts, showcasing armored vehicles, as Blackhawk helicopters flying the Taliban flag flew in the skies overhead. In a poor country, the large prizes of American bases stood out like centers of wealth inequality, stocked with energy drinks, full meals, medical care and other amenities, and stockades were impossible to fully empty as the American bases closed from 2020.
Few gave credence to Taliban boasts 1,533 ANSF joined the Taliban by May, or that June saw another 1,300 surrender, but the numbers of deserters only grew, expanding “contested” areas where Government forces lost ground without a fight. All of this crucial information is absent from the map, but we still believe, despite all we might have learned from Tolstoy, that generals and strategists determine the state of play on a battlefield, without knowing how the war was waged, or that the war was never seen as geopolitical–as it was waged–but across borders and rooted much more locally on the ground, as Taliban entered sites of former bases, and amassed arms caches in a drive of increasing momentum to Kabul–one of the only areas that wasn’t bombed so intensively, hoping it would be a reprieve from the violent bombed out landscapes on the ground.
For a war that was long pursued remotely, the image of territorial “loss” obscured the failure of engineering a transition to democracy. We have already begun debating the extent to which an executive decision-making shouldered full responsibility for the folding of the government of Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of United States soldiers. –and air cover. We like to imagine that an American President has continued to steer global dialogue about the Afghanistan War, the remainder and reduced proxy of the War on Terror. Perhaps it is that we have a hard time to imagine a sense of an ending, and loose the ability to imagine one, and have lost any sense of a conclusion to the War on Terror that was long cast as a “just war,” against evil, and in terms of a dichotomy between good and bad, as if to disguise its protracted disaster. If we could never “see” the results of a an end to the War on Terror, Orwellianly, we were told it was not endless–Americans must have patience, said President George W. Bush as he promised us he had, to pursue a simple, conclusive, and final end to terrorism, assuring us the war would not, appearances to the contrary, grow open-ended, with a “mission creep” even greater than the Vietnam War. Barack Obama, after he presided over the military surge, hoped to “turn the page” on it in 2016. But any “exit” receded, and may not even be able to be dated 2021–as we imagine–but more protracted and indefinite than resolute–as Barack Obama, who presided over the military “surge”–hoped to “turn the page” and wind down by 2016. The logic of the war grew, as if deriving from Bush’s refusal to negotiate as was requested after the eight day of the bombing campaign, or move Osama bin Laden to a third country, but employ military might to force destruction of the camps of the Taliban, and delivery of all Taliban, fixating on the Taliban escalated the war far as an American struggle, far beyond attention to the situation on the ground.
The nightmarish reversion of Afghan territories was seen as the culmination of the withdrawal of American troops at large levels, almost achieved by President Obama in 2016, after the heights of the first “Surge” in 20011, but which was delayed by President Trump. The war that refused to end or conclude was never seen as a protracted struggle–or presented as one–but it was, and perhaps because of this never had any end in sight. “This is not another Vietnam” was announced by the father of that President, President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Americans changed the organizational structure and leadership of Afghan troops with each U.S. President, making it hard to conclude or manage, shifting how Afghans were trained, that must have encouraged a sense of clientelism and corruption of which the Afghan government became increasingly accused–and perhaps introducing a lingering suspicion of corruption and clientelism, more than bringing anything like a modern fighting army or New Model Army. There was never a sense of refusing to leave for fear that the failure that the maps depicted of the collapse of all districts of the new “Afghanistan” depended on continued American investment and support to endure.
Although the rapid reversion of districts to Taliban is far more likely to remain perceived by Republicans as a fiasco in leadership, the poor state of the country and ineffectiveness to work with the increased military materiel it was provided as if the army members did not have to be motivated and organized. The impossibility of mapping the geopolitical interests America felt onto the Security Forces–Lt. General William Caldwell IV reflected Defense Dept. opinion in the military when he assured the world Afghanistan National Security Forces were effective and trained, in fact “probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan,” by June 2011, after a decade of military training, and only able to get better, even if American Generals were clear they would tolerate a degree of chaos, and didn’t want Afghans to be defining priorities, but only to instill a “particular kind of stability“: by 2016, National Security officials openly worried about the lack of any metrics–levels of violence, control over territory, or Taliban attacks that presented or projected confidence. The distrust, missed assessment and mutual mis-communications between American Generals who promoted and mistrusted Afghan troops whose efficiency they promoted created a disconnect between Americans as they downplayed the military ability of the Taliban, regarded as lacking sufficient air capacity or military prowess to command the nation or pose a threat to the Afghan Security Forces who folded before the Taliban’s military and threats of reprisals.
Is it possible to trace a transfer of military technologies and armaments in the twenty years since the crashing of airplanes into the Twin Towers by jihadist militants and the appropriation of sophisticated arms, night-goggles and humvees of members of the same Taliban who now occupy Baghdad? At the same time as American purchasers of handguns and firearms grew, the transfers of weapons and military firearms to the Afghan areas–UAE; Saudi Arabia; and especially Qatar–in a massive transfer of military technology that paralleled the emergence of the very groups cast as primitive rebels who had commandeered aircrafts to strike the Twin Towers into an efficient user of enhanced military tools and technologies, rather than the primitives who occupied the outer peripheries, but were both trained and prepared to occupy a nation’s center in disarmingly modern ways. Although the image of the plans flying into the Twin Towers presented an image of modernity versus premodernity, a lens through which the protracted war was pursued, as we cast the Taliban as “tribal,” and drove the Taliban into the opium production business, selling “modern” weapons and military tools into Afghanistan, the dichotomy of modern and primitive failed to present anything like a proper lens to pursue the war, although it was one American military had adopted on cue from an American President who had promised a “crusade” in no uncertain terms.
Perhaps the story of the War on Terror, in both its Afghanistan chapter and in other ways, demands to be written, when it is, as a massive transformation from the perspective of a shift of military engagement on the ground, and the military experience of the soldier, or what John Keegan called “the face of battle,” rather than the grand narratives of a conflict of civilizations in which it was framed. If the experience and strategic outlook Keegan emphasized might well be expanded, following increased awareness, to the long-term psychological and physical costs to those who were fighting, the erosion and fraying of the sense of nation and national motivation for combat must be included in the history as well, but the shift in war experience of the soldier must have shifted far more dramatically for how the “sharp end of war” appeared for the generation of the Taliban who matured in a terrain where American weapons had increasingly arrived in abundance to become part of the landscape of the state, and might be understood in terms of the shifting eras of military engagement from being attacked by bombers, targeted by drones–none of which were owned by the U.S. Army before the war, a telling index of engagement that reflects the way the war was in fact pursued at its sharp face. While in America disdain candidate Obama showed for how his opponent thought the military operated by measuring might by its navy or air force–“we have these things called aircraft carriers . . .,” suggesting one might use cavalry or bayonets as metrics in the Presidential debates in condescending tones–the shifting theater of military engagement of the Taliban, from placement of IED devices to the mastery of roadways and local influence–greater than the American soldiers on the ground.
From IED placement to suicide bombers, to rifles, kalashnikov, helicopters, and humvees, Taliban developed a new mastery of terrain, control of road networks for shipping materiel, to a n increasingly sophisticated tactical and performative use of arms and modern fighting tools that altered its experience and skill at the “sharp face of war” that we ignore, or attribute to outside assistance from Pakistani military, preferring to see the Taliban as primitive fighters without access to the technology America possesses and our provision of military “aid” as destined for “Security Forces” alone, rather than for a theater of war.
1. The current appeal of the clear mapping of the “fall” of Afghan districts to Taliban omits any senses of the line of battle. This is perhaps convenient for the military observers, who digest the war as it is pursued by American interests alone, even the NATO presence was increasingly defined in terms of the development of Afghan forces and democracy, although the “military alliance” shared by America and its Afghan ally is most often understood only in American terms. In mapping the “fall” of districts as if they were of purely strategic outposts in a geopolitical game, the map not only ignores the face of battle, but emblematizes the mis-mapping of American geopolitical interests onto Afghan interests. Despite the continued perhaps overzealous promotion of the skills of Afghan Security and the continued presence of American and NATO military failed to transition to Afghan Security Forces, even if we have continued to equip them with robust “tools of war,” without having trained them fully to fight our wars or to imagine their territorial mastery as anything like a strategic advantage for themselves.
Although the first elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a friendly figure for Americans, trained in international relations and fond of Islamic philosophy, the promise invested in him as a “transitional figure” uniting “all Afghans” was better received by the British Queen and American President, Americans have been more concerned to map Afghan strategy as if it aligned with American interests, and a global war on terror, which Afghan Security Forces were deputized to adopt. We had long mapped the Taliban Resistance or “neo-Taliban” after the Taliban had been crushed as confined in the mountians, rather than in terms of its engagement with the “sharp face” of battle and its toll on both soldiers and the civilians who lived it. We saw the Taliban as an “insurgency” confined to the mountains as if these were the margins of the nation, and located them in Tribal grounds that were opposed to the vision of a central state–or as the inhabitants of a “Triangle of Terror” they had created.
In the images of Afghanistan’s “fall,” the “face of battle” is conveniently absent. In the visualizations of “district control” that were produced in the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and reproduced across Western media, serving lambasted President Biden for some sort of dereliction of duty in concluding a forty-year old poorly thought out war? Democracy becomes something that the United States defends in these maps–or deputized Afghans to learn to defend–but the American President is suddenly seen as asleep at the wheel and not vigilant, the reverse of the image of a powerful Commander-in-Chief we desire, or the necessary and needed military “genius” who can strategically protect the national interests these visualizations reveal to have been tragically imperiled. And so we watch the “fall” of districts that had never gained independent unity, as if they failed to protect themselves from a theocratic opposition. We pretended that the failure was not the entry of increased materiel to the nation, but the global dismay at the levels of arms that are left in Afghanistan–more than are possessed by some NATO countries, and an unknown remainder of the $83 billion of materiel shipped to that nation–and the failure of Afghans to learn to use them against the Taliban, as if they were the exponents shaped by a Triangle of Terror, not affected by the shifting face of battle and “sharp edge” of war.
Increasingly, the promotion of the image of success in containing the Taliban that the U.S. Government promoted was doubted in the press, and seen as not an accurate reflection of the dominant role that the Taliban already had gained and controlled in Afghanistan, but which United States military assessments had rather dishonestly diminished, a scneario in which the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provided a needed reality check as the true crowd-sourced story of the limited amount of control that the Afghan Government controlled. The extent to which the misleading military map by which the US government was seen as exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan was US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan reflected the more bracing judgements of the right-wing Long War Journal, which valued its ability to present a clear-eyed view of America’s strategic interests in an unvarnished or not sugar-coated geopolitical assessment that America needed in the Trump era, when the confidence in our own government declined.
We did not ever map the “sharp edge” of war, preferring to view the nation from above, either against a “Triangle of Terror” we sought to bomb and domesticize, or parsed into tribal affiliations that became the preferred means of translating Afghanistan to an American audience, which almost acknowledge the failed imperial fantasy to project Afghanistan as a nation with clear sovereign borders, or to define an objective for Afghan independence that is not backward-looking, and rooted in the cartographic attempts of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, translated into the crucial “buffer” function that might contain Pakistan, and stabilize Central Asia in a geopolitical struggle defined by the War on Terror, and not the situation on the ground, or how Americans altered that situation by their increasing military presence and profile. As the Taliban slowly gained ground over the years, and in which the logic of waging war as a protracted struggle had ceased to be worth the $6.4 trillion American taxpayers have invested in post-9/11 wars through FY2020, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–and the escalating future costs that the war would mean. As we have lost sight of the logic of continuing the “forever wars” into the Biden Presidency, and the vision of a “just war” has become clouded and polluted in the Trump yeas, we have lost site of any ability to imagine the ground plan for the resolution of the continuation of a War on Terror or imagine at what scale such a conclusion might ever occur.
To be sure, the advance of Taliban was not how we wanted to imagine it as a restoration of “normalcy” or a status quo, and a rejection of a theocratic government for a secular liberal ideal. But perhaps the image of Afghanistan as a liberal state was indeed a failed project, and it only existed in maps that had outlived their usefulness or reflection of the area on the ground. The “fall” of Afghanistan reflects the inability to contain the Taliban from the nation, and the weird blindness that America–and the American military and perhaps military intelligence–have to the effects of war on Afghanistan on the ground, wanting to believe in a clear chain of command, recognizable in other militaries, in the AFSN. The GIF seems to raise as many questions as it resolves of the fall of Afghanistan’s provinces to imagine what that ending looks like. As much as the number of districts that speedily negotiated a resolution of hostilities with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan and painful and deadly withdrawal from Kabul has been cast as the final cataclysmic episode of the War on Terror, as if President Joseph R. Biden–and Donald Trump before him–had already decided on a military withdrawal from the region was both long planned, and was indeed a means of cutting losses and leaving a region to re-dimension or re-scale the War on Terror that had been fought.
The mapping of the collapse of Afghan districts to the Taliban, cast as sudden and without any sense of occurrence, seem to justify the continuation of that war, but track the erosion of a territorial war, long morphed into a struggle whose aims are unclear. Maps that suggest a “country” of Afghanistan as land that was lost help us imagine that the authority of US forces might have trumped geography. And so we are retrospectively questioning the reporting of intelligence on the ground, trying to read the records of intelligence, or debate the false confidence projected by U.S. military through the final years of the campaign, as if this were an American decision, and a reflection of American global authority, as a microcosm of the image of the United States in the world theater, and seem to present the reassuring picture of a scenario of global politics in which wars are still fought on the ground, and which the loss of the War on Terror was not a failure of the American military, but the ceding of land by Afghans themselves who lacked ability or conviction to fight the war against theocracy that was largely scripted by American Presidents and military–who were unwilling to share their sense of their mission in Afghanistan with Afghan leaders, certain, as last as 2016, that Afghan “priorities are different from ours”–perhaps making it impossible for Afghans to take charge, as leadership of the nation was less of a gridded battlefield that became the dominant graphic that filtered, processed and mediated the withdrawal of American forces across the mainstream media.
In viewing a nation as a battlefield, we are not looking at the right map, or perhaps not looking at the right maps at all–or at the role that the arrival of military weapons played in the rendering “Afghanistan” all the more difficult to map. Perhaps the exportation of arms to the Middle East and to Afghanistan in the years since the nation’s invasion provides a better legend, and indeed a necessary legend, to map how control slipped out of the increasingly corrupt Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established in 2004 after the United States as it assumed control of most of the country, which has been ceded–and destroyed–by the advance of the Taliban. The drawdown of troops in the country from the heights of the first surge under President Obama of 10,000 men and women has in fact been declining for years, but we have not noticed, or even looked closely at it. Yet the compelling nature of visualizations of “control” over individual districts by 2020 seemed a sudden loss of the nation, a progression of a fall of provinces culminating in the Taliban taking control over almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and entering Kabul, perhaps as Afghanistan seems a fitting theater or field for the master-trope of America’s imperial decline. Indeed, the attention in media maps to the delusion at an apparent absence of groundplan for American extrication or withdrawal.
These graphic visualizations are hardly accurate maps, but conveniently omit all information about the “sharp end” of battle, falling back on the geostrategic place of “control” over provinces–is this by the flags flying in their capitals? what is control in a war-torn area?–that can be understood as an element of a “Global War on Terror,” rather than the ways that the war was fought. As uncomfortable as such images might be, we prefer the “objective” GPS image “mapping” control, not pausing to ask what they miss or distort, or process the war in an episode on the War on Terror, or a lost field of battle for Afghan independence which it has long ceased to be.
The time-lapse visualization in the header to this post, of Afghan provinces shifting from “Government Control” or “Contested” to “Taliban Control” offers an image of dramatic impact, as if it were real-time, compelling as a tragic narrative, but erases the deep roots of the “lightning drive” of Taliban forces, fueled in large part both by absence of administrative unity and a massive uncoordinated influx and abandonment of arms–both left to Afghan Security forces or in caches. So strong was the flow of arms to Afghanistan and Qatar from the United States that the Biden administration only suspended arms contractors from delivering pending arms sales. Caches of arms left abandoned by Afghan Security Forces and, presumably, American military who had left them to be used by Government forces, not only destabilized the landscape of local government, but amplified a landscape by men with guns long fed by the over $40 billion contracts for firearms and ammunition flowing to the Middle East since 9/11. But if Biden assessed the Afghan Security Forces as being “as well-equipped as any army in the world” in contrast to the Taliban–and greatly outnumbering Taliban fighters–the long-term distrust of Afghan priorities and concerns left them with little sense of a common grounds for defense. As Americans were making similar assurances, Afghans were already fleeing in July to Tajikistan, where over a thousand Security Forces had already fled.
The arrival of the Taliban did not embody the victory of a theocratic to a secular regime that Americans have cast the War on Terror. The arrival of the Taliban as an armed infantry group, with its own modern military power, is an unwritten history, but was fueled by the arrival of an increased number of weapon that arrived in the region, and the transmission of military technologies across borders in ways that American governments could not perhaps imagine. Whether they were not exposed to the arrival of high tech arms of US manufacture in previous years or not, the idea that the arms that allowed Taliban members to arrive with speed in Kabul and negotiate a ready capitulation of districts, perhaps with Pakistani assistance, the seizure of of an unaccounted number of weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul, in ways that not registered adequately in daunting images of the shift in districts to Taliban control. Such visualizations map a checkerboard of district that seem to track the government “control” of districts that image the erosion of a secular vision of Afghanistan. The division of Afghan lands into “districts” is almost a shorthand for the localism of Afghan politics, an admission of the difficulty of knitting together a secular state from into a centralized state, was never resolved by occupying forces or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. More than confirm the alienation of ethnic groups from the vision of an allegedly secular government, inter-ethnic divisions have dramatically grown in the place of a coherent strategy for forging a multi-ethnic state, emblematized by an unknown CIA analysts’ map of circa 2017, that continued to map a nation bound by the red line of Afghanistan’s historical border–the “Durand” line, negotiated in the last decade of the nineteenth century–a conceit bisecting a region of Pashtun dominance and mountainous terrain that poses questions of Afghanistan’s ‘borders’ as much as it answers them. Was the retention of this imperial cartographic imaginary not suited for the sense that Afghanistan, as Samuel Moyn argued, offered a chance for the “last gaps if imperial nostalgia” in the post-Trump years, that was, improbably, able to play across the political spectrum?
Is it possible that the among of weapons funneled into Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia that have disguised the cost of the War on Terror to some degree have created a huge concentration of arms in Afghanistan.
If a rationale for the increased ability of Taliban members both to manipulate negotiations may lie in their attention to negotiations at Doha, their use military weapons may lie in the increased arrival of arms in the region. The escalation of imports and sales of arms to Afghanistan–many not registered or under the radar–escalated in the course of the Afghanistan War, and reflect a growing geopolitical significance that the nation was given to the United States, rather frighteningly similar to Vietnam, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been most focussed on as the greatest similarity between these two long wars, both fought at considerable hemispheric remove, only conceivable as they were logistically mapped by GPS. In both cases, wars were pursued across a complex and often oversimplified logistic chain, pursuing an elusive vision of global dominance or geopolitical strategy, whose obstacle appeared a lack of geopolitical “vision”: but was the presumption of a possibility of “global military dominance” that mismapped both military projects from a purely American point of view. The flattening of the effects of waging war only seems to have increased, paradoxically, as the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan overwhelmed the well-being of its residents, blotting it out, as the country modernized by force as it became a focus of the arms trade.
2. The investment of American taxpayers’ monies in the region was astounding, and hardly democratic, so much as a tantamount to a massive dereliction of national vision amidst the faulty reprioritization of mission creep that may be attributed as much to the military-industrial complex as to leadership or governance. Over half of all American foreign military financing arrived in Afghanistan directly by 2008, but aid had long flowed to Mujahideen and other insurgents through Pakistan, yet in later years billions of substantial materiel flowed via Qatar, location of the $1 billion CENTCOM headquarters where Americans coordinated all air operations in Afghanistan–a small nation that became the tenth largest importer of arms in the world, after South Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, from 2015-19, largely from the United States, with contributions from France and Germany, jumping by 631% from 2010-14–becoming the eighth-largest market share in arms imports for 2016-2020 behind South Korea.
The absence of attention to the situation in the ground is nowhere more apparent than in the GIF that is the header to this post, which reveals the “fall” of Afghan districts to the Taliban from April, 2021. We map the hasty conclusion of the long war in GIF’s of districts, as in the header of this post, the flattening of a country that has been divided for over forty years, a form provided by the Long War Blog. The division of inhabitants of the land, or the effects of previous combat on the nation’s infrastructure and sense of security, is hardly rendered in the shape-files that flip from one hue to the other, suggesting a “lightning” advance of a militarized Taliban, evoking a sudden loss of a territorial advantage for which Americans long fought, and for which Aghans are to blame. Yet as much as the linked maps of “district control” suggest a traumatic collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the ally of the past five American Presidents, the maps collapse or elide the deep disturbances the war and importation of arms has brought to the territory that lies beneath the map, or oversimplified visualization of regional control.
The quandary of designating Afghan regions by questions of “control” presumed a sense of stability and allegiance more akin to an idealized military map than to the situation on the ground. The checkerboard image of areas of “government” and areas of “Taliban” control became thinly veiled covers for a Global War on Terror in which the United States defined itself on the side of the good, that was current in a variety of maps long after the First Surge. In the context of the broad drawdown of American troops after the First Surge, as US troops level fell below 10,000 and Afghan Security Forces were celebrated for their effectiveness, the Taliban made steady gains on the ground. But the maps that suggested “stability” in government-held areas created a cocoon from which to affirm stability of a regime that never had broad institutional support as if the dangers it faced were from an “insurgency” 2002-6, and promoted an image of government control within the outlines of a national map, arriving from outside of a nation that still had retained its integrity and clear bounds as if they were able to be preserved.
Even as Taliban presence was more clearly established than we liked to map, the image of the Taliban as outsiders in Tribal lands created a sense of justifying a “civilizing mission” that was understood as more pacific than military, underpinned by a myth or conceit that the disciplined bodies of American warriors would beat the undisciplined bodies of the Taliban. This myth was confusing the goals of the military occupation, but creating an increasingly real edge for Afghans who experienced much more fully “the sharp edge of war” both forged increased bonds between the members of the military and the fighters and the landscape among the generations of Taliban fighters, and their logic of responding to a military strategy American generals mismapped on a geostrategic checkerboard–the very checkerboard that Foundation for the Defense of Democracies encouraged us to understand the success, progress, or challenges of combat, and indeed control their fears and responses to technologies of combat imported to the region by the United States.
The deep concern of a lack of “strategic vision” was not the best way to understand military engagement of Taliban forces, or to cast the compact shift of district loyalty after the American withdrawal.
But these terms provided the terms to condemn and bewail the broad geopolitical military failure read into the maps of Taliban advance in August, 2021, apparently confirming that the AFSN had built up as our surrogate was unable to “face” the Taliban militia we continue to cast as “rebels” or “insurgents.” But the negotiated settlement allowed te rapid fall of a number of districts, as while it required the Taliban cease hostilities with NATO and American troops who had negotiated the settlement, the terms allowed Taliban forces to concentrate on negotiating settlements with local regions, exploiting divisions and existing corruption of Ghani’s Afghan government, boosted by the concessions to release 5,000 prisoners in the past, and the opening of jails in districts whose centers they captured or negotiated a solution.
Donald Trump may have escalated the arms trade into the Middle East to levels far beyond his predecessor, but the frustration of his successor has perhaps provided a far more clear-eyed assessment, perhaps more than he is given credit. “We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools,” U.S. President Joseph R. Biden sternly told the nation, in a combination of evident dissatisfaction and apparent exasperation, in justifying his rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The vague circumlocution “all the tools” may well come back to haunt both Biden and the world. For in the course of training and equipping a military force of 300,000 provided the basis for delivering much military support, America created spiraling costs of a global arms industry, even if the range of arms offered was not as well-suited to Afghani terrain or as protective as equipment offered NATO troops. (Oryxblog notes the poor protection these vehicles offer against feared improvised explosive devices (IEDs) compared to the MRAPs available to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and offered to police departments across the United States, but not offered to Afghan special forces.)
It is hard to tally or come to terms with the human cost of post-9/11 wars. Over 9,000 Americans have died, or the hundreds of thousands who returned from the wars, injured in body or psyche, the roughly 6,200 U.S. military personnel, contractors, humanitarian workers and journalists killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. government invaded are left off the map, but the legacy may be greatest for the huge amounts of military materiel shipped into the Middle East–arms that helped in some way to “modernize” the current Taliban, who may have received training from Pakistan intel–as well as the huge losses of population and infrastructure in Afghanistan, where about 71,000 Pakistani and Afghan civilians are estimated to have been killed–a staggeringly disproportionate number in crossfire, bombing raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings in Kabul and other bases, IED’s and night-time raids by NATO or American troops.
Although we imagined that the barbarians crossing government barricades would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges from where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years, imagining the crossing of caravans from south of the border with near anticipation, these barbarians arrived from all over the nation, from outside of the gridlock of Washington, DC, but to the Capitol building, to reclaim it for the people. While we focussed on the crowd assembled at the Rally to Save America as an event announced as an event that “will be wild,” on December 19, as if to make plans before Christmas to attend a final rally in Washington, DC, a final event to “swing victory to Trump” on the eve of the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden. Trump approached the crowd of admirers less as a farewell speech than one energized by being surrounded by MAGA gear, a confirmation of the fact it was “statistically impossible” to have lost the 2020 Presidential election, but rather than a denial of his loss, setting the stage for January 6 as a reversal of the election’s results–and led so many of the MAGA crowd to bring election garb and flags to the event organized to stave off a peaceful succession.
While the January 6 Committee found Trump consciously energizing an armed crowd of supporters to charge the U.S. Capitol–a script that echoed Hitler’s instrumental use of lies to undermine the workings of government by appealing to a love of country and nation to the Nazi party, by casting the incoming President as a criminal, and demanding the saving of country by an overthrow of the government–and perhaps even hoping that if the march on the Capitol was as much of a fiasco as Hitler’s 1926 Munich Putsch, it may have allowed, as David Gumpert excitedly argued, a means to mobilize a politics of grievance. He cast January 6 as an event of retaking the nation, the Save America Rally morphing into an occasion for personal redemption, in ways Trump, even after the insurrection or failed coup, which he recast as not an armed insurrection but one of those “things that happen when a sacred landslide victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long” in a rambling social media tweet.
Trump had staged an attempted coup–or a half-hearted attempt to improvise one–inviting admiring acolytes to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” as a body to halt the joint session of Congress tabulating electoral votes–in an invitation to enter the halls of government with violence to overturn the election on that day, or create a good story of preserving the nation–and capital-“C” Country. The term “Country” invoked over forty times in speech transcripts are not capitalized, but he ad-libbed an invitation supporters to move toward the Capitol, framing the march as an attempt to prevent what “will be a sad day for our country,” urging them to “stand strong for our country, our country [as] our country has been under siege for some time,” invoking opponents eager to “hurt our country,” reminding them, eighteen minutes in, “you’ll never take back our country with weakness.” Trump, impresario of the insinuating ellipsis, mastered the genre at the Ellipse, as if elevated by a sea of MAGA signage more dense than seen since the campaign, reminded the crowd they would not support all senators or congressmen, but only those standing by his claims of election fraud.
Republican Kevin McCarthy squarely blamed Trump for the riots that night, but two years to the date responded to the former President who demanded thanks as “I did the Country a big favor“–using the capital C–to secure votes for McCarthy from election deniers, an act of obeisance McCarthy fulfilled, appeasing Trump’s ego by noting “I don’t think anybody should doubt his influence” in Statuary Hall–where men in MAGA regalia, two years earlier, gleefully carried the Speaker’s podium. McCarthy–the key witness other than Trump who refused to testify to the January 6 Committee–calling it illegitimate and refusing to allow any of the Republican party to participate in what he called “an abuse of power.”
January 6 MAGA Protestor in Statuary Hall/Win McNamee/Getty Images
Telling the rump of constituents that had congregated at the Ellipse they were “protecting the country,” the master of extended ellipses crafted a speech at the Ellipse rich in innuendo and and suggestion of danger to the nation–and mentions of “Country” that the transcripts of the speech cannot fully capitalize. The identity of the crowd that Trump created was planned over the long term–not crafted in twenty days between the call to assemble in Washington DC on December 19 and January 6. We might well map the arrival of energized participants in the culmination of Stop the Steal rallies across the country, a rally that promised to Save America as if to echo the end of times, by flared arrows, as they migrated down Pennsylvania and to the Capitol, as if on the street directions issued by the outgoing President.
Trump was verbally mapping an image of a wrong country, whose barbarians were standing at the gates, not at the Ellipse. Channeling the rhetoric of hell-fire preachers promising redemption and national will, as if to go back in time to undo the election as Inauguration Day approached, the question of whether the crowd gained its unity as the President spoke, urged on by militant groups on the way to the Capitol may be debated. The master of the ellipsis found his stride at the Ellipse, basking in the display of signage and flags, perhaps, to stray from his Teleprompter to improvise an ad-libbed call to advance to the capitol, directing his followers to advance to the Capitol building as if to sanction their unity as a violent group,
The almost entirely all-white crowd of men–and very few women–carried signs of starkly ideological bent that seemed to overflow on television screens, as if designed to throw civil society off balance rather than allow the election to conclude. They mapped their own progress in the name of the multitude of flags they bore, dominated by the flags of the election that they refused to admit they had lost, as if to elevate the claims of election fraud Trump promoted as a crusade for the country. The crowd he assembled so provocatively, heard how a “system absolutely, totally rigged” had led to a stolen election was not only marked by “massive, widespread, total fraud,” as he had insisted since November, but had found the moment to “fight to expose this voter fraud and demand transparency and election integrity” by advancing to the Capitol. The call to erase any gap between political representation and voters was a call to arms masquerading as a call for transparency, mobilizing a crowd as truth-tellers who might invade the Capitol while fully armed as one body. When Elias Canetti pondered the force acquired by a crowd as an entity, and the consolidation of a crowd in terms of an elemental power, he addressed fascism, but also raised questions of the responsibility by which a crowd could be invested that seem to remain on the table after the hearings of the January 6 Committee have ended,.
If the January 6 Committee after exhaustively interviewing the Trump White House staff and campaign associates found Trump consciously assembled and riled up a crowd to enter the Capitol to prevent the ceremonial transfer of power, creating a crowd as the crucial backdrop of consensus to flaunt the election’s results and to rewrite history. The staged coup was a way of marking a final attempt to retain the Presidency, it may have echoed the prominence that Hitler would assign the Bavarian Beer Hall Putsch in his prison memoirs, the forward to Mein Kampf, a book Trump once kept on his bedside, and that echoed the disgust with which Trump queried the loyalty of the American military while in office–“You f—ing generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?”–as if to model the subservience of the American military he imagined German generals had for Adolf Hitler, shortly after his election, in 2017. Hitler had commemorated the 16 party members killed by state police as he tried to kidnap government leaders by gunpoint became the propaganda victory for the Nazis, calling them martyrs in the preface to Mein Kampf, and burying them in “temples of honor” in downtown Munich where he staged party rallies to their remembrance on the anniversary of the putsch even after he was elected chancellor, celebrating their devotion to Germany. Trump had not only adopted increasingly violent language by the summer of 2020, but was immersed in these speeches: presidential historian Michael Beschloss set off a social media flurry over Trump’s relation to Mein Kampf or a volume of collected speeches My New Order, a sequel of Nazi propaganda repeatedly cited the Putsch as critical point of the Kampfzeit and sacred history of the Nazi Party– Heilsgeschichte–whose martyrs were commemorated in national parades in the German Reich, its “martyrs” buried in sacred temples.
Did Trump aim at creating a similar moment of national commemoration, akin to the bizarre National Garden of American Heroes he had imagined on July 3, 2020, while attacking the “angry mobs . . . trying to tear down statues of our Founders [and] deface our most sacred memorials”? The announced park would featuring “the greatest Americans ever to live” included Davey Crockett, Billy Graham, Henry Clay, and Antonin Scalia raised eyebrows as currying a cult as provocative as confrontational, if cast in an Executive Order as “opponent of National Socialism or International Socialism.” The calls for a statuary garden of almost exclusively white men seemed to mark an entry into the late era of strong man delusions, increasingly rambling in his speeches imagining visions of grandeur that was slipping away. If Hitler’s account of National Socialist martyrs was known to Trump, the armed confrontation to save the nation was eerily echoed in the Save America rally featured a repeated evocation of Country in ways that similarly concealed his grab for power. It would not have been known to the crowd he assembled, but the script did not matter. The ‘story’ that he told was less important than the need for saving the nation, long honed against the spiking of the word “insurgent” in New York Times articles from around 2000. By 2020, the concept of an “insurrection” that had suddenly come home to roost, or been staged for national television, as the term that had not often used in peacetime loomed large in people’s minds. The nativist tenor of the March on Washington seemed reflective of a weird, old crazy America, reborn to prevent a stolen election, and the dire consequences that from such theft–as if it were akin to a new Original Sin, might ensue. The advance of barbarians were invented by the founders of democracy, the Greeks, Mary Beard argued, animated by the fears that their conquest, either imaginary or real, would be destined to triumph–from Persia or, later, from tribes living in German lands–but the fears were born from the awareness that the true barbarians lay within their midst, even if the fears were projected beyond the borders of the democratic nation or the boundaries of the city-state.
Barbarians Who Attacked and Destroyed the Roman Empire
Barbarian Invaders Filling the Vacuum of the Disappearance of Late Roman Empire, c. 480 AD
The fears of the barbarians had been conjured by Donald John Trump from outside our borders, as in a film like Touch of Evil, that recreated the fears of the danger of gangs and drugs on US-Mexican border in the 1950s, by a film-maker who Trump has described his deep affection for and steadfast devotion to, but the barbarians who sought to defend the Trump Presidency, and the call to Keep America Great, or even Save America, were born within America’s borders, indeed from across America, born by the busloads of flag-waving Trump supporters–they carried their own flags and self-styled garb–to reenact a call from on high summoning “patriots” given the license to “be wild” and to exercise their own rights of insurrection.
Joedson Alves/Anadolu Agency
As if in an appeal to force the representatives they had elected to perform the task for which they had elected them, they sought to clog the machinery of government and stop Congress to achieve by force what the election and their own representatives had not accomplished. In a screenplay and scene evoked in 2022 as supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro mobbed Brazil’s Congress and Presidential office, as Bolsonaro’s claims of another rigged election were amplified on social media by calls for a massive show of crowd force to overwhelm a constitutional frame. In summoning crowds urged on social media to “take their country back” by mobbing capitol buildings, and post social media footage of their entry into government buildings as if to restore the Putsch as a repertoire of politics. One might go farther: if the assembled crowd wearing MAGA garb and clothed in American flags mirrored Trump’s anger, as they were deputized as agents of his rage, pro-Bolsonaro protestors who arrived at the modernist center of Brasilia’s complex of structures wore Brazilian flags that mirrored the self-described crowd of the January 6 riots who advertised their patriotism, as they arrived at the palatial complex to deface its monumental plate glass. They imitated January 6’ers in goal to take back the country, Putsch-style, imitating or reflecting the MAGA election deniers: lauded by former aids of Trump on social media, as “patriots” or “Freedom fighters,” alt right media of election denial had fed calls to retake government from the Capitol Riots, as if they were claiming transparency and a return to values.
If the movie set was quite different, rioters bussed into Brasilia adopted emblems of patriotism to deface the facade of Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist buildings of the Planalto Palace and Supreme Court were akin to a scene from Blade Runner. Trucker blockades had led many Bolsonaristi to stage blockades of the national infrastructure, akin to Canadian truckers’ blockades, waving national flags, the day after the national election that their leader lost, who was supported largely in the smaller villages rather than the large cities of Brazil, as if in an attempt to close national roads to stir up economic chaos by disrupting the winter corn crop in the moments before Bolsonaro conceded, demanding a military coup. Bolsonaro had since fled the nation, but his refusal to recognize his successor as his successor precipitated the emulation of the MAGA crowd as crowds of Bolsonaristi entered the open Niemeyer structure that was a symbol of the nation’s democracy, as if bent on exploding the political process.
Brasilia, January 8, 2023
Issuing heroic calls to action that they tried to perpetuate in social media, the Capitol Riots had in two years morphed from an anomaly to a model sanctioning extra-constitutional political violence to take a country back. The calls to patriotism that echoed on the internet assembled an onrush of a new version of the mob, or, perhaps, an older image of crowd rule, manipulated by a Leviathan or a new nature of a commonwealth, promising to resolve the brute nature of what Hobbes called “the condition of Civill warre”–or that cast a state of civil division as its bogeyman, promising that sovereignty would descend not by a constitutional or hereditary Right of Succession but by social media calls for assembly at emptied halls of governance, filled with new images of the nation that had so successfully appealed as a source of strength. Weirdly akin to the January 6’ers in their lack of any strategy or goal, save defacing buildings to spark a greater revolution or a memory of a struggle for the nation, they incarnated an oppositional politics verging on a return to a Hobbesian State of Nature in the destruction of symbols of political authority. To be sure, the riots of Bolsonaristi recall the largely rural political unrest during the pandemic in 2020, by motorcades demanding an end to the quarantine governors had imposed in the pandemic– the central government had offered no recommendations for health policies–as pot-banging protests intensified outside cities as a form of political dissent for the absence of a national policy. (Were these not akin to the George Floyd riots as a form of national politicization?(
The rural Brazilians who had entered Brasilia on busses were deeply analogous to the rioters who arrived on March for Trump busses sponsored by My Pillow executive Mike Lindell. Yet the protest was similarly a new relation between center and periphery, designed to circumvent voting procedures.
How was the contestation of politics as normal, or constitutional political process, begun in Washington, DC, but as a call to identify themselves with the multiple visions of the nation that Donald Trump had been so successful in binding? We fail in mapping the crowd moving from the Ellipse advancing along streets, itineraries or fixed spatial vector lines, heading due East to the Capitol. A simple route cannot track the coalescing of the crowd congregated at the Washington Monument with a greater density and unity as a crowd, what Elias Canetti asked us to interrogate as called the moment of discharge, investing an energy that did not earlier exist, but constituted the crowd assembled by the former President who had summoned them there as he energized their numbers and empowered them as a crowd to act outside constitutional framework, and to assume a status beyond political parties by a call to defend a country.
The on-line call to action triggered the arrival of men with heterogeneous rsymbolic emblems–of minutemen, of pro-police thin blue line flags, even flags of crusaders–dominated by MAGA signage and outdated election flags of a candidate who had lost. It was far less ununited or disunified than it may seem; it incarnated a broad based following that stood in opposition of refusal to accept authority of the tabulated election results, incarnating anger that Trump had invested in them at the Ellipse, and channeling his anger. It was not only a product of social media, but reflected the anger of that moment in a liminal space now in Washington, DC–as Trump supporters were, as he tweeted January 5, in real time “pouring into D. C,” who “won’t stand for a landslide victory to be stolen.” It was the behavior of an unruly crowd with its own logic, a “Trump Team” engineered by personal ties to his feed, energized to preserve a country they mapped by clearly ordered boundaries and one social order.
January 5, 20221
The crowd’s members had assumed a newly energized unruliness and new coherence of surplus rage, as they approached the Capitol building, and stormed its barricades, dismantling fencing, breaking down doors, and entering the halls of government they sought to disrupt and to cleanse or purify–apparently, if necessary, by their own blood, in the ultimate sacrifice as Christian soldiers, to take back the capitol as a site of government. “We will not take the name off the Washington monument,” he told the crowd ten minutes into the speech, and neither “take down ” or “get rid of the Jefferson Memorial, either take it down or just put someone else in there,” calling for a restoration of order, and rejection of fraudulence, giving a direction to the crowd by reminding its members they had gathered “for the very, very basic and simple reason, to take back our democracy,”
The new unity of the crowd, the moment of “discharge” or release of surplus energy that it gained, may be mapped in the increased coherence of the vectors by which they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, as the outgoing President had instructed, down the National Mall, as if a negative image of the crowds that were present at his own inauguration. But the heterogeneous signage that they were bearing in banners, the surplus energy of the flags, secessionist symbols, or historical imaginaries and imaginaries of historical reenactment held up for television or live-streamed, transcended the drama of inauguration. It created a surplus signification of demands for a government that was white, male, Christian and powerful, that denied plurality and diversity, in way that the visualization below cannot represent.
They gained energy as they approached, forming new bonds of social cohesion that were hoped to fill the Capitol building with a new air of direct democracy as they advanced. They grew more energized as the possibilities for discharge grew to cross the boundaries of police barriers, locked doors, and the border of the Capitol with a heady combination of the sense of preserving freedom and instinctive desire for submission, entering a multitude of diverse constituencies beneath the identity of Trump, and Trump’s new claim to Keep America Great and Save America Again.
The invaders of the U.S. Capitol defined themselves by their tie to the outgoing President, but as an army not levied by the commander in chief in words, but responding to an invisible call and response that had anointed them the MAGA Army. This new identity was not as a crowd of disparate individuals, but a contingent or a battalion of Special Ops troops, activated by Psy Ops tools, subsuming personal identities not only as “Trump supporters,” from across the nation, but as “Trump’s MAGA Army.” A rag tag group of militants seeking to find the authority of the dead leader restored, they charged across inauguration stands, fighting off the near-inevitability of the future, as they readied to defend an imagined nation on January 6, 2020 that led reach catharsis as they entered the U.S. Capitol grounds to seek clarity on representational democracy. The heavily armed crowds arrived at the Capitol in an tactical gear and climbing gear as a sea of placards that echoed campaign signs who had arrived from across the nation, but had now found meaning in Washington DC, where they wanted to make the US Congress hear what they felt deep down, in their guts, and what Trump felt in his gut too.
The crowd that masqueraded as the electorate, and the common voters, had arrived in full force as a river, channeling energy off the internet and podcasts washed up not only the detritus of the 2020 election. They filled the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue with alternate signs, an array of declarative statements of national identity substituting for the Constitution, marking a return of the repressed in telescoping the darkness of American history to short slogans of defiance–the Tree of Liberty; the lynching post; the Confederate States of America; QANON; 3%ers; Betsy Ross flags and 1776 paraphernalia; the AK47. The white identity of this truly “white space” was striking, but even more was the weird, almost child-like absence of “whitespace” in their sea of signage, clotted with abstruse symbols of resolute posturing, refusing to leave empty almost every inch of their placards and the signs held to call the nation to arms by urgent calls for government reform, imagining themselves to be victorious, amidst calls for lost causes, unable in that moment to stop speaking, shouting, and affirming the ideological battles they hope would not die. By resurrecting images from a rich historical imaginaries, as if to declare they were not dead. Not yet.
They subsumed all individual identity, beneath victorious ravings, brandishing flags trumpeting multiple allegiances of identitarian origin seemed a nervous breakdown of the nation, as well as a telescoping of American and world history, refracted through on-line merch bearing the imprint of PSYOP origin and design. Ranging from Second Amendment Flags of gun owners to libertarian Gadsden Flags to Confederate flags to Knights Templars, to the twentieth century perversion of the old Lacedomonian cry, “μολὼν λαβέ,” taken by Texan revolutionaries to stake intentions to keep a bronze swivel canon that arrived to defy Mexican sovereignty, and since 1831 to defend a church remade as a garrison at the Alamo. Reborn, it was not only confined to Texas, but a cry to refuse to surrender weapons embossed on handguns and personal arms before the Trump era.
Trump was central to the staging of this new heterogeneous identity that was forged perhaps in the 2016 Presidential campaign, or in the months of ongoing rallies of the Trump Presidency, which seemed is own form of never-ending tour. By revving up the crowd by threateningly noting that if they did not act, “weak Republicans would turn a blind eye to Democrats as they “threw open our borders and put America last,” and he would be replaced by a President who had only just the other day promised to “get rid of the America first policy” after committing “the most brazen and and outrageous election theft , . . in American history.” He urged the crowd to fight for the future of America, and a vision of American history, and the creation of a wall between Mexico and America to protect American jobs from being lost by those not defending the nation.
The implicit charge was to fight for the nation, and subsume themselves to Trump’s desires, as the crowd gained newfound identity. As they some two hundred crowd members were already advancing on the Capitol by 12:33, before Trump had finished his speech, they were drawn to cross its protective barriers. The first rioters had left for the U.S. Capitol two minutes before Trump began to speak–at 10:58–but after the crowd had been warmed up by his lawyer and others; telling news reporters that “We’re taking our country back,” they moved past inauguration stands, police blockades, and officers who were not outfitted with shields, setting momentum for a crowd that would gain new coherence before the Capitol building as they arrived to fill its halls. Was it any surprise they shouted with near exultation,“Hey! We’re breaking the wall!”? The crowd cohered as it entered into the Capitol: the rioting crowd of armed protestors waving banners and bedecked by separatist insignia broke barricades and overwhelmed the police by 12:53, less than an hour after Trump had asked them to march to the Capitol, down Pennsylvania Avenue, along the Mall, to shift to a second rallying site planned before the Supreme Court that was being asked to overturn the vote, rioters skirmished with police around the Capitol, entering the building’s chambers soon after 2:12, having overwhelmed Capitol police forces who were ill-equipped to contain the human wave, bearing TRUMP flags they hoped to see flying from the top of the Capitol Building.
The members of the crowd might be said to have been both were at the Capitol and not there. They were subsumed into a mass listening to President Trump empower them and the talismans they bore proudly to an alternate source of sovereignty. Yet they moved to flood the U.S. Capitol in ways that the knew were to be streamed across the nation, and world, both on social media and alt right news, as well as global airwaves. They would dominate the airwaves with the long repressed heterogeneous icons of “rights” and false precedents, not sufficiently represented on global new media.
In doing so, they were emulating the “increasing reliance on sophisticated, near-real time media dissemination methods” advocated in PSYOPS manuals that insist that the most powerful medium of audiovisual communication is the face-to-face, not following a script, to get the build rapport and create response in the targeted audience. The planned storming of state, local, and federal government courthouses by armed protests over the coming week and Inauguration Day had been planned to culminate on Inauguration Day, per FBI reports, a sequence of civil riots and armed uprisings across all fifty state capitols “if Congress attempts to remove POTUS via the 25th Amendment,” law enforcement had learned. Despite the strict laws against using PYSOP techniques against American citizens,”information operations” at Camp Eggers in Kabul had targeted American senators and congressmen, using tools “to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” from 2009, –Flyn was director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command from June 2004-June 2007, shaping counter-terrorism before he began the Flynn Intel Group on retiring from the military, offering “Target Audience Analysis” techniques honed in the military on display the day of January 6, 2021 by insinuating the objectives and line of persuasion.
Did not Flynn, and later speakers on January 6, not insinuate a need to intervene themselves within the institutions of democratic government that were at risk of departing from their own influence, speaking by defining centers of gravity, using “key communicators” by which to achieve the greatest impact to which the audience were especially susceptible? Flynn warmed up the audience the previous night by urging ralliers to realize that the very future of the “constitutional republic” was at stake if they accepted the announced election results, impressing on them the need to fortify themselves to “fight back against this fraudulent election” and never to take their fresh air of liberty for granted. Flynn touched patriotic nerves, telescoping the nation’s history: more dead voted in the 2020 Presidential election than had died at the Battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, or Normandy, telling the audience to develop the moral fiber to fight for patriotism and truth on the Mall the very next day, impressing upon them the consequences of a change in government over which they would have little or no control if they did not act the following day to actualize their needs, by calling into question fundamental PSYOP appeals for legitimacy before danger of inevitability and the need to preserve their own deep self-interest by creating a sense of historical continuity. In PSYOPS, facts are reduced to either good or evil, even if simplifying complex problem, and by fostering increased suspicions of individuals and groups through insinuations and suggestion to lead the audience to draw their own conclusions.
After the long evocation of the dangers that migrant posed to the state and nation, the danger to the nation was defined as in the Capitol building, and by the recognition of electoral votes that were falsely determined, and needed to be called into question, as Josh Hawley and had already promised to “highlight the failure of some states . . . to follow their own election laws,” joining Rep. Mo Brooks in demanding that the U.S. Congress investigate voter fraud before proceeding with the certification of electoral votes for the Presidential election and create a vote to affirm the electoral college on which protestors might, by invading the Capitol, apply needed pressure that Donald Trump still desired–and a decisive moment of determining who was a friend or enemy. This would be a decisive moment of sovereignty, and of political order, forcing a new political order along lines of friend v. enemy. The march may not have been designted to go to the Captiol, but the target of the Capitol was defiend by “Stop the Steal,” a group with designs to march on the Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying electoral votes, whose non-permitted march to the Capitol would piggyback the rally on the Ellipse of Women for America First. “Stop the Steal” had advertised the final chance to “fight back against this fraudulent election” to continue the Presidency of Trump as a patriotic act, needed to ensure continued safety of the country as a decisive moment as national borders.
The sinister iconographic telescoping of history in the flags, insignia, and placards at the Ellipse motivated the crowd of “soldiers” to fight for the outgoing American President. The crowd realized it was moving both at the Capitol, and providing, in its heterogenous range of militant emblems, a polyvocal script that might radiate to new audiences across the nation to signal that all hell had broken loose. The principles and allegiances to demand the U.S. Congress to reject the election results that were in the act of preparing to certify. Dressed for the event as the “vox populi” of the people prepared to call representatives to account, they had huddled together for warmth since early morning, arriving from across the country to find needed reassurance that Trump was still President, and his Presidency would be preserved, and the threats to democracy that had infiltrated the election, as they had threatened to cross the border, would be repulsed, once the symbolic center of the US Capitol was secured.
They were, as well, performing both before the Capitol and in a global conflict. Believing that this was a decisive moment of action, they crossed three layers of barriers around the Capitol and breached its chambers, releasing tear gas into the Rotunda as they entered congressional chambers with urgency, working methodically as if invested with power to resolve the latest and most urgent national emergency, the greatest ever, as larger crowds moved toward the Capitol, chanting, calling for the vote to be overturned at the top of their lungs, surrounding all entrances to the Capitol, and menacingly confronting Capitol police with their weapons. And when President Trump praised their patriotism, at the end of the afternoon, before electoral certification, affirming the fraudulence of the election and continuing to perpetuate a destabilization of the election in a range of online forums, podcasts, and rallying speeches. The recommendations for procedures of using direct address to stir up crowds by face-to-face communication, but enforced through online disinformation, leaflets, and placards.
The crowds assembled form across the nation consolidated into a mass, individuals recently arrived in caravans from across the country had arrived to become part of the final drama of the Trump Presidency, newly energized to defend national sovereignty as if without Trump in office, the center could not hold. They marched as America needed to be saved, mobilized more by honed methods of psychological operations of destabilization than the U.S. Constitution, fighting as if to protect republican government at that very moment lest it be abandoned in the Capitol building.
The emergence of a broad threat of social media posting, automated bots, and systemic spreading of false and fabricated misinformation via social media and online by non-state actors had come home to the United States. If such strategies had long preceded the internet, the seedbed that routers, chatrooms, and podcasts provided suggest a far more data-rich, fast-moving, and difficult to attribute, as well as fast-paced as it proliferated online.as a form of psyops on steroids pinned to persuasive hashtags and conspiracy theories: the very psychological tools used to demonize migrants as national threats were turned against the opposition party, deeply damaging democratic debate.
The urgency of this army grew. For the center could not hold, without the charismatic center that threatened to disappear, this time for real, in this very moment, due to a massive act of fraudulence, and that the crowd would be able to cast its ballot for the final time for Trump and check the box beside his name. In a cathartic moment of response to the call and response calls of an outgoing President, who was calling his supporters from across the land to “be there and be wild,” as “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” If they ostensibly arrived to protest election integrity and transparency peaceably, they were armed to the hilt and prepped to advance down Pennsylvania Avenue in consent.
The energized crowd surged over barriers to cross the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol lest forces of globalization from entering the nation to undermine its sovereignty, but entered the capitol only to venting their rage and vandalizing the government building. The barbarians entered the gates of government to prevent the erosion of the nation and follow the call to Make American Great Again–national integrity was in danger of being undermined, insisted online misinformation, detailing how nefarious foreign forces had shifted the result of the 2020 vote, as the software of electronic voting threatened to disenfranchise Republicans and end democracy. The danger of the subversion of the vote would require complete auditing of votes, lest ballot counting systems be allowed to maliciously delete over 2.7 million votes by voting systems in twenty-eight states, from Pennsylvania to Michigan to Georgia–
The image of a usurping of the popular will had gained new traction in 2020 in online news media. While votes had been increasingly audited to ensure that votes were regularly tabulated-and audits were expected and required in twenty-four states after the 2020 election, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, and “Risk-Limiting Audits” in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The fears of foreign interference in vulnerable electronic voting technologies gave nagging credibility to the destabilization of democracy and the popular will that suggested the national emergency of destabilizing a status quo. The use of hand-marked ballots only in light and dark green regions broached fears of a deceptive undoing Republican institutions created to a crisis endangering the state’s charismatic center.
The crisis of representational democracy was imagined to be the result of a fatally flawed tallying system without transparency. The fears of widespread use of paperless voting machines run by independent companies gained new currency in the claims of Trump’s lawyer at the Ellipse on January 6, just before Trump spoke as a theory of election fraud on a scale that necessitated the invasion of the Capitol building. As the latest attack on the nation’s sovereignty by Dominion Voting Systems that while baseless had been nourished in alternative news sources, linked to global boards of management for voting machines, to Venezuela, antifa, and Asia, and to restore their transparency.
To preserve that transparency, they entered the halls of government to fill an apparent fracturing of the republican project. If Trump claimed the deletion of 2.6 million votes in the fall, alt right social media promoted the “transfer’ of 8.1 million “excess” votes by August 3, 2022, across seven states, as a retired Army intelligence captain who vaunted his expertise in elections data released a “USA Election Fraud Map” of unclear statistical methods, alleging little vote tampering in the “heartland” states but “rampant” fraud in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, Atlanta, and North Carolina, as well as California and the Atlantic northeast due to “insecure” electronic voting machines.
The recent spate of “America First Audits” alleging “sloppy record-keeping” or intentional fraud, as charges of “Russian hacking” morphed into manipulation of votes by machines with “foreign DNA” able to change votes electronically led to charges of widespread irregularities in the manipulation of ballots resulting from electronic voting machines lead votes not to be counted, undermining the popular vote by their software’s vulnerabilities.
The map of red and blue states was warped by the canard of electronic voting machines and and election systems software that was blamed to have undermined the will of the people. Concerns over “election integrity” morphed from a rallying cry of the GOP to query how shifting demographic patterns no longer left Republican candidates dominants: self-declared cybersecurity experts, often former military, amplified rumors of inconsistencies of electronic ballots Trump repeatedly identified on the Ellipse as having “cheated” and “defrauded” his supporters in a rigged election whose vast “criminal enterprise,” Trump’s lawyer insisted, led local election officials perpetrating fraud on electronic machines by using software programs to adjust final vote tallies to push Trump’s opponent Joe Biden to victory after the polls closed.
The fear that digital “ballot marking devices” would undermine representational democracy and republican government, the audience on the Ellipse was told, was a real fear of the information age. The danger of distorting the practice of direct democracy had been rehearsed and repeated on podcasts, cable news, and radio in a misinformation campaign that was rooted in a desire for psychological destabilization. At the rally Trump cast his loss in the election as in fact a crisis of political representation that only confirmed a rigged economy. in which globalist and leftist computer programs shifted votes to undermine the republic, a result of the destabilization of direct democracy that was akin to a global invasion of offshore ballot-counting that had actually subverted representational institutions, shifting the tally of the votes in a new way of stripping Trump’s own constituents–the American people–of a voice.
But the alleged alteration of the vote totals by malicious software to ensure Donald Trump’s defeat painted a picture of extraterritorial servers and transnational corporate malfeasance with the knowledge and participation of local state election officials who broke state laws. This was the invasion of the imagined sanctity of the American republican tradition that had long ben conjured as lurking outside our borders, in a globalist fantasy of the erosion of the integrity of the nation.
We had all 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. but these barbarians came not from Mexico. For those ready to accept a wall between the United States and Mexico as a function of good government, it made sense to breach the Capitol, lest that border wall not be built . The fear that the charismatic leader who had been elected against the mainstream media’s prediction, and the interests of political elites, was about to be removed from office, and the borders of the United States in danger of opening to immigrants, gangs, and drugs, in the imagery of Trump supporters who feared the rising tide of globalism that Trump had staunched about to overwhelm the nation. This national emergency was the threat of a sudden loss of a charismatic center. With YouTube channels live-streaming fake projections as maps of election results as polls closed to hundreds of thousands, framing the narrative of the electionas a theft of the nation, as self-made maps proliferated and confused all clear consensus and interpretation of electoral results, it made sense to enter the halls of government to force the issue of Presidential succession in a decisive manner.
The poster and invitation didn’t specify a time or location at first, when issued online, but the meme generated energy from across the nation, with an energy that evoked not only the fear of the end of a Trump Era, but the fears of an end to the collapse of a vision of globalization, maintained by that charismatic center, a wall built around the nation against immigrants more than against Mexico, a defense of unfettered wealth, and white privilege, a call-and-response rally able to generate a massive dynamo of popular wildness and will to secure America’s red, white, and blue whose philosophy was all there in black and white set the terms for the license of January 6.
This would be an event of truly direct democracy, staged by the government that had, in mid-December, considered the impounding of all voting machines from across those states where the President needed to “find the votes” to overturn the election results, “to seize evidence in the interest of national security for the 2020 elections,” as a group of militant self-proclaimed defenders of the Trump Presidency, among them Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Lt Gen. Michael Flynn, who as military intelligence veterans trained in psychological operations to undermine public opinions and objective reasoning–“PSYOPS”–had manned the front lines to challenge the legitimacy of America’s Presidential election.
Veterans of Afghan and Iraqi wars, veteran intel experts as Col. Phil Waldron and Gen. Flynn with expertise in clandestine operations to undermine adversaries by targeting “their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately, the behavior of . . . individuals” turned their sites to the national election. The rag tag PSYOPS folks were second cousins of reality television, and the fit was clear: they helped erode Americans’ trust in democratic legitimacy and institutions, alleging election fraud, auditing votes, and working to destabilize public trust by evoking primal fears of the illegitimacy of an election. The claim that voting machines were being undermined by offshore Venezuelan interests, big tech, or Chinese hackers of voting machines rumors were claimed to destabilize the election; more, to be “rigged to elect only those who care nothing for the people,” often even with the complicity of election officials.
The fears of a rigged election echoed those Trump had already stoked in 2016 in threatening not to abide by the announced results of the election. Trump never openly undermined the legitimacy of the 2016 election, but had refused to respect its results. His victory reflected a very narrow shift among 37 million individual voters from the very states–Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania–but was converted or transmuted into a landslide; the legitimacy of votes in many of the same states he now questioned, alleging the subversion and erosion of democratic principles he had already evoked, when telling supporters in rallies that the 2016 election was “rigged” against him, and querying the decentralized tabulation run by individual states he called into question for a second time in 2020. This time, he also seeded fears of overseas interests–not Russia, but Iran, Cuba, Lebanese Hezbollah militants, servers in Frankfurt, Germany, or Italians in the Via Veneto Rome embassy, by using software to shift votes to Joe Biden for global interests outside our borders, that suggested a betrayal of national integrity and “the people” to global interests endangering American institutions.
Trump’s refusal to honor results of the 2016 election had prepared supporters to contest future electoral results. After promising to “keep [television viewers] in suspense” in 2016, he went on to claim a “massive landslide victory” and “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” without grounds, concealing his opponent’s greater votes, reframing the election as a massive defeat for the Democratic party; by fetishizing the dominance of red in a county-by-county map as confirmation of the scale of his victory as if a margin of victory, he defining his own reporting of votes as more consequent than its official tabulation.
If the election hinged on painting pure red several states divided around the sharp edges of national population density–Florida; Michigan; Nevada; Pennsylvania among them–his claim to “Make America Great Again” affirmed hopes to secure the unstable status of many who congregated at the Capitol, many from the redder counties on the map, ready to contest the terrifying fear that the charismatic leader they had elected who had wrestled the specter of globalism, immigration, and pluralistic diversity might be absent from national scene.
The fear of the loss of that charismatic center had brought them to Washington, DC to challenge the insecurity of democratic institutions. The attempt to breach the wall of government in the moments before Trump’s successor would be formally recognized by the tabulation of electors, weeks after the election had itself occurred, votes tabulated, and the states had ratified their votes, per constitutional practice, as an act of separatism and an act of restoration of a republic. Those attending had been personally invited to restore the imagined of Donald Trump, which they proclaimed by flags of the former President’s former candidacy for the office he no longer held; this wall would be breached, as the walls around the U.S. Capital would be scaled by men in MAGA hats, demanding that they not be disenfranchised and disrespected.
President Trump had personally invited them to Washington and incited them to enter the U.S. Capitol and climbed the inaugural stands that surrounded it, crossing a boundary of the U.S. Government with a rapidity that the Border Wall had never been breached. In the hours after Trump evoked the imminent crossing of the U.S. border by migrants, a danger of which the nation was long warned as imminent, the walls were scaled by the excluded, in an attempt to affirm democracy, that they deemed righteous. For those who scaled the wall were trying to affirm tyranny.Breaking down barriers, planting American flags atop it, lest U.S. Senators abandoned their oaths and certify the Presidential vote.
If we were stunned by later pictures of the Capitol flooded with a cloud of tear gas and bemused rioters pausing in its galleries that transformed the staid neoclassical architecture to sites of raucous violence–
—we have yet to fully map the routes by which eight points of breaching of the U.S. Capitol building were achieved, or the heightened passions that led to the august chambers being demeaned, and, as if in a charivari of an upside-down world of early modernity, or the arrival of farmers into Versailles, the building itself attacked as if it was a representation of the lack of attention of government to local needs–bread prices; the fear of the border’s vulnerability; low wages–and the growth of a widening wealth gap that most Americans experience as greater than ever before.
Temperatures among the rioters had risen before calls of trial by combat, as the crowd took new coherence as it followed the map Donald Trump had verbally announced to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” “going to the Capitol,” as if this were the final moment to disrupt the civil process by a range of crowbars, arms, and an escalation of violence. The ecstasy of violence at this wall was democracy on show, direct democracy against the members of the U.S. Congress as they were attacked by the police, entering the Capitol and smoking weed, wanting to chill in the chambers of government and find the allies they knew must be on their side. Indeed, the allies were soon found: many members of the Capitol Police who guarded the legislators as they readied to vote seem to have been eager to have selfies taken with the rioters. Even though the police were tipped that the crowd forming on January 6 had made it clear in preparations that “[the U.S.] Congress was itself the target,” even before the spectre of crowd violence, police officers were requested to refrain from deterring the crowd by stun grenades or aggressive means, even if they were warned that the event of January 6 would be sure to “attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.”
The men who arrived were akin to the vigilante groups that patrol the United States border, in search of migrants they might apprehend, although here they were taking justice into their own hands to prevent the transition to a new President from formally or even smoothly occurring, in a last gasp of authoritarian reveries. And without any weapons to push back or deter the rioters, the terrifying scene of an invasion of the Capitol was able to unfold on national television and be streamed live, all of a sudden shifting attention from the pro forma tabulation of electors in the U.S. Capitol to the raging mob that was assembled outside. Without riot shields, without stun guns, and virtually unarmed, the Capitol Siege was able to occur with cameras rolling, live-streamed by participants, in an event that would disturb the national media ecology more than anything else that Donald Trump had ever done. It was a swansong, or a fantasy game, or an ecstatic transferral of the energy of a Trump rally to the organs of government themselves. But it was also a call to action, broadcast across the country as it was live-streamed to ensure the transition of power would not be forgotten, or that the time for a true reckoning about American government was at hand, more real than any border disturbance at the southwestern border, but a needed occasion of national purification. It may have been theater, but the rioters were warned: “Bring guns. It’s now or never;” “Overwhelming armed numbers is our only chance.”
Vigilantes had patrolled the border for years, animated by an ethos of defense of national borders, and mobilizing within the Customs and Border Patrol to find meaning in the slogan to defend deportations of migrants that “we need strong borders,” and “we have no country if we have no border,” as if he were defending American families, and the “blood” of those families, and celebrating his defense of borders and accusing his opponents of open borders. But the border of the U.S. Capitol was rendered open on the morning of January 6, 2020, as the Congress was about to confirm the electoral votes as barbarians entered, as if invited, into the Capitol, to make their voices heard.
After a long, hot summer of mass arrests of “violent mobs” who charged with intent to “desecrate” hallowed federal property, mob tactics were adopted to enter the U.S. Capitol. Despite the escalation of invocation of “national security” as the basis for building the border wall, the border between the Capitol and the approaching protestors who sought to turn back the electoral tally seemed as if it lay wide open. The President had urged his audience to “walk Pennsylvania Avenue,” as if knowing that they would do so full armed, bearing banners with his name emblazoned prominently on them, as the flags from a concluded campaign became battle flags. The urgent need to securing the border was distilled into the platitude “a nation without borders is not a nation” after the 2020 election.
But if the question of shoring up the border became the basis on which Trump was elected, the busload of flag-waving supporters of the President became a revanchist cry for the former President, as on the eve of his formal exit from office. He animated a crowd to break down police barriers, doors, and windows of the United States Capitol was not from outside the nation, but bussed in from multiple domestic states. Calling a reprisal of his earlier rallies to question the reported tabulation of the 2020 election, Trump encouraged his base to refuse the certification of the election, rallying the barbarians to the gates to destabilize the democratic process by fighting for him. Whereas the violation of constitutional principles had long been feared to be coming from the security state, the questioning of votes in states that were expected to vote Trump and deemed “red” led many to buy tickets to Washington, for the final paroxysm of a Trump rally, a large contingent of armed men, many in tactical gear, arriving to break the security barriers, doors, and windows of the Capitol itself to ensure that their candidate continue to Keep America Great. Was it any surprise that of the 1, 200 Capitol Police working at the site, only about 7% had access to the riot gear they would need to repel them?
The setting seemed an inside job to invite protestors to act out their fantasies of direct democracy, setting a stage for the dangerous faux populism in which Trump revels. Calls for a strongman President emerged in the late morning insurrection of January 6, Trump’s surrogates had been calling for the adoption of martial law in swing states December 18, 2020, on Newsmax, if not seize voting machines to invalidate the results of the election he had lost: the military mode to which protestors adopted was facilitated by the cataclysmic invocation of a fear the Republic would be destroyed, if the Electoral College Vote, tainted with suspicion of foreign intervention, was not suspended by the delaration of martial law. The militarism was improvised, with home-made tools and recycled banners, but the increased normalization of martial law as an alternative outcome electrified the crowd, and placed its members outside normal comportment even at an electrifying rally, offering justification for advancing with newfound energy and purpose with eerily united intention.
Donald Trump has been rumored to be convinced of his program of overturning the election’s results as he promoted the continued “audits” of votes in several states from Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, long crucial electoral puzzle pieces for Trump’s Presidential campaigns, carefully calibrated to manufacture victory. If the focus on “audits” that were unprecedented as able to overturn the election, that have reverberated in the online forums of QAnon and other outlets of a revisiting of the outcome of Election Day. The crowd-sourcing of a final protest that overran the Capitol building, cast in insurrectionary terms as a struggle for governmental control, and rooted in the false populism social media has magnified, perhaps with the acknowledgment only declaring a state of emergency or provoking an insurrection would enable the results of the election ever to be overturned.
The proliferation across the nation of pro-Trump “caravans” promised a direct sense of access to government. They offered to carry protestors to Washington, D.C., to fight the aftermath of the election were a new register of group think, rooted in the fear of an end of a “Trump Era” posed an earthquake of political proportions rarely recognized in full, moblizing multiple caravans before and after the election, in a show of force to prevent Trump from loosing the election, and waving MAGA flags from Michigan to Florida to Oregon to North Carolina, seeking to mobilize swing states by a show of force on the road, honking horns, and sharing images of themselves on social media, often rebroadcast on the Russian funded RT television network as public shows of patriotic gore, reveling in thumbs up.
This time, they were promised to arrive in DC, to participate in the greatest call and response chant ever, an interactive overflowing of communal energy that would crystallize and energize the crowd that assembled on the Ellipse before a moment of massive discharge as they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue into the Senate Chambers, arguing to restore them to their former dignity and to show their disbelief and discontent at the certification of a vote that was declared fraudulent and corrupt.
The very invitation to Washington, DC was a way of responding to the President’s Call. Did those who boarded March for Trump busses consciously appropriated the “caravans” that formerly feared to threaten the United States. But if the Caravan led Donald Trump to call a National Emergency in November, 2018, and prepared for the National Emergency of February, 2018, the busses now ferried Trump supporters to what was designed as a march to take the nation back. Trump had presented the migrant caravan as a specter of globalist proportionsas a threat to the nation, whose numbers were fleeing countries who “have not done their jobs” from Guatemala, Honduras, to El Salvador in halting cross-border immigration, nations he blamed for the crisis of refugees of global proportions, but potentially including among them “unknown Middle Easterners” tied to terrorists or affiliated with ISIS.
Trump supporters oddly appropriated the “caravan” as a term of force and extra-ordinary circumstances of crisis that called for collective action. Was the assembly of such “caravans” not communicating a sense of the impunity of moving across space, demonstrating patriotism by flags that almost celebrated separatism from a rule of law? These caravans served to confuse global geography, and created an instrumental crisis of unprecedented proportions as Trump sent the troops to halt an unprecedented 1,000 Central American migrants applying for refugee status in three days. Proclaiming the need for “bringing out the military for a National Emergency” led over 5,000 active-duty troops to arrived at the border lest the “caravans” enter American territory, a specter that seemed only to reaffirm the need for $8 billion for a continuous border wall. The specter of these invading migrant caravans from afar grew as a vulnerability, as the mythic migrants of the Golden Horde known by the hue of their tents: migrant traffic triggered subsequent declarations of national emergencies in Central America, rippled through Guatemala against Hondurans, and triggered fears of compromised border security.
And 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. Waving confederate flags, the rioters may not have only been inspired by the outlandish claims of fraud and failure of governance in Trump’s speech that morning, but of insurrection. Was the logic of the men who attacked the U.S. Capitol, live streaming the siege as a similarly mediatized event?
The crowd that assembled to hear Donald Trump at the March to Save America Rally were animate with a level of urgency to save the nation that they viewed in danger if Joseph R. Biden’s Presidential victory was certified, and the electoral college victory long announced by the Mainstream Media came to pass. Their world was about to shatter. The recourse to a siege became the only option for an audience of Trump supporters existentially uneasy at the fear of the compromise or end of an old order where Fox News would be the dominant voice reporting White House actions to its 4 million viewers. The action was extreme, but the logic of insurrection was embodied in the confederate flags so many held, trumpeting rights by evoking the logic that the South had a right to separate the union–a “sacred right of insurrection” that excused their disturbance of civil peace. The march promised to be a reiteration of earlier marches for Trump and a reunion of sorts to invade the capitol by actual “caravans” that would arrive from across the country, shunning mask mandates, and posing as Patriots, from Florida to California to Arizona. They announced their imminent arrival to one another exultantly as they made their way to protest the election in Washington, DC, boldly announcing their imminent arrival on social media to the world. “DC Hear We COME!!!!! #StoptheSteal” [sic] above emoji of American flags; when they arrived, they waved the same flags that melded their identity as “Trump supporters” and “Trump’s MAGA Army from across the nation” with defense of an imagined nation, boasting solidarity by brandishing the same flags to again reject the election’s loss.
This was all staged. While invoking such a “right of insurrection” was not central in the impeachment proceedings House managers presented, and not articulated in President Trump’s speech, the rights to perpetuate a distasteful drama was one that he delighted in amplifying in his final day as U.S. President–and scarcely needed a map to do. Donald Trump loves a drama, and reprised his role as dramaturge in the month long aftermath of the election. The seeds of doubts placed in the vote tally over multiple months had occurred in local audits amidst charges of rigged voting, reprising the power of “rigged” as a rallying cry in 2016, animating his base and motivating believers with the false news that there were 1.8 million dead voters, already registered, who would be casting ballots in 2016.
The decisive votes of such voters were argued to have thrown the election, in terms that the largely white constituency of Trump voters were likely to better know from the odds of betting on a horse or sports game: they were not only registered but, Trump assured Sean Hannity, “some of them absolutely vote,” and the image of zombie voters helped kill the promise of representative government. Wth 2.5 million voters that were cross-registered between states, and voting twice, the uncertainty of legitimacy became a narrative of injustice, crafted to disorient and impassion.
The suspension of anything like a neat conclusion of the Presidential election was already primed for uncertainty and indeterminacy in 2016, so that it was almost in the eye of the beholder: while the numbers may be credible,–they were wielded to disorient, suggesting a desire for massive voter fraud able to be attributed to “bad actors” that seemed a scheme to sow division and uncertain outcomes, exploiting potential animosity in the electorate to defray any conclusion in the Presidential election, as if exploiting divisions among parties in an increasing tribal sense. Despite the increasingly disturbing division of the nation into the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ division of electoral votes from states, by far the greatest shares of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol came not from “red” states, at all, but Trump voters from those large urban areas where the votes swung to Biden in the end by a narrow margin indeed–they were from spaces, or counties, that had perhaps themselves felt or experienced the sense of being robbed and the very swing of pendulum in the reporting of electoral votes that Trump had himself felt so aggrieved: his narrative of a shift in voting patterns made sense to them and echoed their isolation. While rioters hailed assembled a broad extent of America, they were most ratcheted up and angered by Trump’s narrative, and most likely to coalesce on January 6, 2021.
We imagine, thanks to news photography in no small part, that the rioters were embodied by the Angry White Man, affiliated with a local separatist militia-style groups, and feeling they were fulfilling an oath with righteousness:
But the scraped metadata from mobile devices who visited the U.S. Capitol on January 6–far more dense than on previous Wednesdays–that provided a picture that was particularly illuminating of the overlap between social media devices used in the Capitol census block with those posting videos on Parler: if few were from Maine, Montana, and North Dakota, the densely isolated tagged locations from southern Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Atlanta correlate onto a sense of outrage and no doubt betrayal by the final reporting of vote tallies, and commitment to forestall the feared results of the election, particularly dense near the US-Mexico border in southern California.
Arcs traced from the metadata of folks who uploaded videos to Parler from that census block on January 7, 2021 traced the sourcing of the crowd for the March to Save America, the final potlatch after six years of MAGA events, protests, counter-protests and festivities that delivered the rage of the nation during the final certification of the electoral votes after the tabulation of the votes from each state: while each was presented as a threshold of deception by Trump supporters and online news sites–from the false voters who deceived the nation by voting by mail to the counting of votes without adequate oversight or by potentially shady ways to the electors’ selection in each state, this was presented as the final moment to preserve a MAGA culture and retain a news dominance and social media presence in the nation: MAGA bastions as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers–long present in anti-government activities from the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, the Three Percenters, and other “Patriot” movements that had been founded in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Seeing the end of the Trump Presidency as an era marked by widespread Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests, the anger at an end to the Trump /Presidency was presented as an end to sovereignty and a threat to sovereign defense against a deeply illegitimate Presidential election. The overlap between the local disappointment in the Presidential election’s results intersected with the narrative of an illegal gaming of the ballots that expanded fears promoted of a “rigged” election in 2016, by investing the tabulation of an actual election with deep and pervasive illegitimacy.
As the 2016 contest heated, it was notable that Trump’s campaign website appealed in all caps echoing social media to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” by inviting citizen groups more akin to vigilantes monitor irregular voter behavior, he created a logic for political involvement in a coming election. The faux populist movement of the Trump Candidacy would culminate in its aggrieved calls for rectifying injustices done to The Donald into the Biden Presidency, and after the date of inauguration, with the former President issuing, in late February, 2021, Trump proclamatory statements lamenting the “Continuing Political Persecution of President Donald J. Trump” that refused to separate himself from the nation, playing with the tally of votes cast; even if he had decisively lost the election by over seven million votes, Trump let the world and his followers know, of their danger of disenfranchisement. Trump warned, as voting rights were being stripped of African Americans, of how “attacks by Democrats willing to do anything. to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election,” not being able to remind his readers that this was an election many moreover “feel that I won.”
Was Trump referring to the attempt to stop them from staging a siege of the U.S. Capitol? As they arrived to rally behind the outgoing President who resisted admitting his electoral loss from across America, with a large share from Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and southern California, did they realize that the Capitol building where they were taking their protest had been largely constructed by enslaved laborers, rented from their owners enslaved laborers to quarry sandstone and complete the construction, unable to attract skilled construction workers to Washington, DC, to construct a hall that the U.S. Congress would move from Philadelphia in 1800? The assertion of a right to preserve Confederate traditions of dissent, separatism, and grievance in a misguided defense of alleged liberties and rights to defend a status quo ante Trump. Archeologists speak of the “haunting” of a place by evidence of the remains of past civilizations or cities that survive underground–as a “city within the city,” erased by time–and one has to wonder at the ghosts of the enslaved who constructed the U.S. Capitol that the protestors faced with their confederate flags raised. Did they encounter the ghosts of enslaved laborers who cleared land for the building, haul sawed lumber and stone to the site ceded from two slave states, Maryland and Virginia?
Slaves of men paid for their labor had been conscripted into labor from clearing the site for building to carpentry, stonecutting, and bricklaying from 1795 to 1800–only one hundred and twenty two are known, by first names, from slaves of the White House architect, “Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry” whose owner was paid for their labor, or “Negro Dick,” whose owner received five dollars a month–and the enslaved Philip Reid, from the foundry that cast the Statue of Freedom for the dome of the U.S. Capitol in 1855, and devised a pulley and tackle system to raise the allegorical figure to its peak. When Michelle Obama described her husband’s Presidency as an overcoming of this past, was a presumption that electing a woman or a black person would be grounds for electing a U.S. President, who should be elected for their own–as if it disguised the claim of an elite that her candidate could bring he nation redemption.
Perhaps few of the protestors who invaded the U.S. Capitol knew the history of its construction in detail, even if Congress had finally recognized in 2012, ten years previous, and Michelle Obama reminded the nation in 2015, in her call to nominate Hillary Clinton as a Presidential candidate; for many, the line was a dog whistle painting a picture so stock to be evidence of their arrogance and sense of entitled self-righteousness. Were they aware of being used to stage a siege they felt reflected their own populist interests of direct democracy? When flag-wavers descended to sites of ballot counting in 2020, waiving campaign flags, American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags to endorse state-wide audits of paper ballots and absentee ballots to review machine tallies with a skepticism bordering on alarmism. But the destabilizing of confidence, deployed in 2016, extended to alleged irregularities warranting voting machines demanded certification as “fraud-free” that threatened to undermine a democratic process, unleashing a river of groundless skepticism in of an alternative media universe of the filter bubble of FOX news, NewsMax and OANN.
The narrative of a stolen election was crucially deployed by Donald Trump in his speech at March to Save America to dovetail with the energy of protests that contested local ballot tallies that had grown increasingly contested as a demand to reveal a hidden or gamed truth. Such staged assemblies that proliferated at state capitols in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election seem almost an amping up of the populist rage that reached a crescendo in the license of crossing police barricades, the steel pipe reviewing stands recently assembled on the Capitol’s west front, to break down doors and windows in invading the U.S. Capitol, and proclaim it the “people’s house.” Breaking down the barriers, and flooding the Capitol, was almost a projection of the fears of migrants storming the nation, but this time the barbarians arrived fully armed, asserting rights–freedom of assembly; freedom to won guns; freedom to form a well-armed militia–that migrants never claimed. Back in 2016, public intellectual and linguist Geoff Nunberg observed ‘rigged’ came to be a “keyword” in the national political discourse, but extended the corruption to the mechanics of vote counting. The exposure of a “rigged” politics undermined civic participation in unprecedented skepticism: ‘rigged’ described the uneven economy, the tax system, and increasingly deferred any outcome of the election and injected the news cycle with faux populism replicated in social media to escalate that “built-in biases, so that losers may feel that the system is rigged against them,” by using a term expressing anger at unfair business practices or fraudulent investment into the arena of politics as only Trump could.
The new charge of incompetence of elected officials and claims of widespread fraudulence disrupted the resolution of any outcome. In the past, Trump feigned honesty when telling rallies “the election is going to be rigged–I’m going to be honest!” By late summer he implied to mainstream media he would not even accept a victory by Hillary Clinton in September, pushing the limits of a candidate’s sense of grievances while acting as if airing grievances as just another victim of fraud, mirroring the charge of a “rigged economy” many felt, and boosting his won support. The 2020 Presidential vote was itself “rigged,” involving dead voters, rigged voting machines, a massive scam of democratic principles discounting rights, demanding protest on the grounds of patriotism, that made the flag-waving demonstrators in the mob feel immune to charges of insurrection as they were waving American flags, many the very flags waved at stage capitol buildings months previous with similar megaphones, to assert American values that were under attack. Crowds protested as patriots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Las Vegas and Atlanta, bearing similar flags outside of arenas and capitol buildings, asserting liberties and demanding and end to improper practices of tabulating votes. At the end of a Summer of Protests, to which the Capitol Riots are oddly assimilated, the demand to Stop the Steal was cast as a petitioning of justice, designed as if to address the Supreme Court. The extension of doubt preceding the Capitol Riots fanned populist grievances as if they were infringements on constitutional rights, deferring acceptance of electoral results by extending a narrative that had no happy end. The protest rallies that sprang into action as lawsuits proliferated in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan with recounts demanded in Arizona and Wisconsin to prevent states from “flipping” and electoral votes to be claimed by Joe Biden.
Protestors mobilized a rhetoric of grievance that sought to expand the electoral map, long after the election. Their doubts were amplified on social media to destabilize the electoral map, creating “grey spaces” as if puzzle pieces that did not cohere, letting the world puzzle by holding narrative conclusion in abeyance into 2021, distending the election’s narrative by sewing deep doubts about secure results and preventing consensus from emerging from the electoral college.
As the problems proliferated from dead voters and cross-registration to how battleground states relied on duplicitous voting machines or made “unconstitutional” changes in voting practices, the narrative of grievance grew, calling into question the distribution of electoral votes that led us to tally up possible distributions of alternative futures, suddenly made palpable on social media and in television news alike.
The waiving of flags from the 2020 campaign as votes were being tallied at multiple cities morphed expression of concern about the tally of votes to questions of constitutional rights. Questions of outrage had suggested a criminal theft was at work, undertaken by elected officials, discounting their legitimacy and treating the tally of votes as an extension of the never-ending Presidential campaign but now leveling charges of broad electoral fraud before federal and state buildings, waving flags to assert the constitutional rights at stake.
The militant-like assertion of flag waving became a basis to assert the preservation of rights, and to “fight for them” to protect them, “fight against big tech, big donors, big media,” “fighting with one hand tied beyond your back,” and collectively “fight like hell and [realizing] if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” The expansive claims of unconstitutional grievances recapitulated on the morning of the January 6 rally at Freedom Plaza, escalated by a charge they were perpetuated by Big Tech, and announced as the basis for a loss of freedom, and presented as a final chance to fight for their rights. Many believed no other politicians would fight for them.
Trump used the verb “fight” before the men he seemed to sanctify as a militia some twenty times. The repetition of that verb seemed to be more than messaging, but a way of making sure they had heard, letting them know, “now, we’re out here fighting” as if defending constitutional rights that would be taken away, beginning with election security, an election security that was in doubt, and, Trump used the false collective, would be resolved as “we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” and break the third wall between rally and government, “we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to give . . . “ This time, the members of the mob who had arrived for the March to Save America were streaming uploaded videos of the historic event live, as if to spontaneously generate a movement over social media:
Even without the addition of the activating words “them hell,” the crowd was not only activated, filled with righteousness as they waved more flags, hoping to make their voices heard and their rights to wave flags. Congregating before the Capitol as electors were being certified, holding banners proclaiming their loyalty to Trump and refusal to concede the election, lest constitutional rights be sacrificed. And while it is difficult to say where they arrived from, the ones arrested for their role in breaking into the U.S. Capitol Building in later months reveal a remarkably broad concentration from Southern California, near the border, from Texas, and from northern Florida, as well as from counties in the the midwestern heartland for which Trump had described his affection. The besieging of the Capitol was a search for renewed meaning, and a final means of orienting themselves to the nation.
But these scattered sites across the nation, scattered as so many shards of broken glass, seem to have emerged with force from their collective anomie at the call of the departing President. Is it a coincidence that many were concentrated from the southwestern border, in New Mexico, or from southern Texas? Did the weighting of criminal charges against those from Los Angeles, Floridians from Broward County, and northern Florida, and Jacksonville, Oklahoma, or rural Pennsylvania, and Arkansas send a sign about racial hatred or White Supremacy? Were these isolated areas tied to secessionist groups of supremacists, as Oath Keepers, or is it difficult to tell?
Their righteous indignation was animated by the slogan “Stop the Steal,” instead of “Build the Wall,” but the “steal” would be a robbery of the wall, and of security domestic or electoral. Trump exploit the apparent lack of conclusion as if it were an expanded denouement of the 2020 Presidential election, targeting the Capitol building as the culmination of a false narrative of remedying a deep, deep failure of 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, and not only to a time before the election, and before it was certified. It was to turn back time 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, and to arrive at a moment of apocalyptic truth that remade government by entering into the Capitol itself, once seen as an icon of austerity, and proclaimed as such, even in the years after the Civil War, whose dignity was presided over by a Vice President from a dias.
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 brewing battle referenced in Gothic font and brewing clouds implied an apocalyptic battle between Trump and the “Deep State” of liberals, staged in the arena of the U.S. Capitol itself, echoed in increased social media chatter on “battle stations” and “dropping the hammer” and an approaching “war” over stolen votes suggested a destruction of government and appealed as inhabiting a huge exercise of cosplay.
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 map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol that in some version appears crossposted on TheDonald.Win conjured a troubling sense of enforcing the transparency of government the protestors had claimed, by luring them through maps of a hidden “sprawling underground world . . . curving like tentacles made of brick,” evoking, if playfully, the logic of secret routes of underground access to restore democratic representation by force in a world gone disastrously wrong and demanded repair lest the tentacles of the opposition party–the Democrats–might gain control of the U.S. Congress, by the double whammy of the previous night’s election of two Democratic Senators from Georgia as well as an African American Vice President.
The moment of crisis became imminent, but the routes to power were made to seem almost present to one’s eyes; it helped that Capitol Police were poorly equipped with old plastic shields that broke on impact, lifting the advancing mob a further sense of the invincibility despite their utterly unfounded claims to power. The image of tunnels that could allow the mob to gain easy access to Senate chambers, in air ducts repurposed in the Cold War as structures of civil defense were not even needed. The advance of members of the rally as Trump asked the assembled crowd to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue Constitution Avenue, to “save the Republic” by taking the Constitution in to their own hands, as he wrapped up his speech, some two hundred crowd members were already advancing on the Capitol by 12:33, moving past bike racks and other obstacles as they took over the inauguration stands, moving past officers who were not outfitted with shields, shouting “Hey! We’re breaking the wall!” with glee or sneaking through fences, entering the capitol from the west and from the east as the police finally declared a riot by 1:46, overwhelmed, according to recent forensics, by about 28 to 1, as over three thousand, four hundred members of the mob exulted in their new identity and success at forcing the police to pull back inside the building by 1:56, no longer able to secure the inaugural stands, as Trump was still speaking. The protestors who engaged Capitol Police and city police grew to an estimated 9,000, obsessed with creating transparency in the electoral tabulation.
As fear of direct access to the Capitol grounds grew, increasing the giddy sense of success as police were waiting for reinforcement, and the mob broke windows to the Senate Chambers climbing on the the mid-terrance, and entering the east and west sides as police defense lines before the White House crumbled by 2:28, leaving many wondering why the guards stationed before the White House were not offered protective shields, and leaving the crowd that rushed into the walls breached by red-bereted Proud Boys members to feel that they were in the process of overpowering the system, and need not have recourse to the tunnels by which they might have intended to breach the Capitol building.
The image of direct access to the chambers of government teased Trump supporters as a promise of transparency, as map of the tunnels underneath the Capitol Building that circulated on TheDonald.Win 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, by the logic of claims of lack of transparency. Perhaps they were also looking for violent anarchists, but they acted more like insurrectionists. Trump had cultivated an image of instability, akin to the specter of the invading migrants by celebrating the border wall as a prop for his Presidency, announcing that all difficulties faced by the United States began from its border, not its interior: “if we had a wall, we wouldn’t have any problems.” If the specter of immigrants as a threat to the nation’s sovereignty, tied to electoral transparency, the moment of revanchism had come as 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 the many 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 target the U.S. Congress, staking a counterweight to its historic representational functions in their own bodies, 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. The barbarians had now crossed police lines, barricades, bicycle racks, and overpowering officers as they invaded the halls of government. The arrived out of a distinct sense of a mission to defend the electoral results they wanted, with a sense of cheering the man to whom they were bonding for a final time, assembling before mesmeric screens that magnified the face of the outgoing President to whom they played homage, and who would instruct them to interrupt the certification of electoral votes, in deeply personal tones, as if it was the final plea to re-litigate the election.
As late as April, Trump has continued to praise the crowd that arrived for his speech at Freedom Plaza as patriots, before fundraisers, boasting about its the size of the January 6 rally as if it offered a testament to his holding power in the party, but quickly claiming “he wasn’t talking about the people who went to the Capitol.” It is difficult to estimate the size of the crowd, or of the mob that besieged the Capitol as Trump spoke: if he claimed a number as large as 250,000; although 100,000 is a likely exaggeration, it was at least 10,000; as they approached the Capitol, the crowd gained a density of 5 square feet per person, mosh-pit style, that both allowed it to gain a new sense of identity, and to overpower unarmed police. During Trump’s speech, he spent most of his speech acting as if he had been playing out the tallies of votes on an electoral map in a non-stop loop in his head for months describing fraudulence across states–Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and then several counties in Georgia, to conclude in contradictions of an obsessive–“We were ahead by a lot, until within a number of hours, we were loosing by a little”. Trump seemed to have counted on the audience replaying the same electoral maps, tallying cases of fraudulence in comprehensive detail–illegal ballots, never audited; the astounding alleged “error rate” of Dominion Voting Systems in Fulton County–late-arriving ballots in Detroit; dead people voting in Arizona; back-dated ballots in Wisconsin; ballot-harvesting in Pennsylvania, votes received after the deadline, an accumulated variety of dizzying wrongs. They were recited in disturbing detail as if to turn back the clock on the election, and demand that the tallying of electoral votes just not occur, given all these wrongs. All conveyed a deep sense of being wronged, and a vast conspiracy of wrongs, all allowed to exist, if folks did not show righteous rage. Did he imagined we had all visualized the possibility that all states were not called, and the electoral map remained unsettled as more legal cases were pending, or ballots needed to be recounted.
In fact, the lack of clarity in the electoral maps of 2020 flipped, for the first time, the tabulation of electoral votes across the country into what was openly portrayed as a crisis of representation, unable to be resolved by the usual manner of the tabulation of votes, in which despite the clear majority of votes won by one candidate, the final tally of electoral votes were not clear on the map–and some television news stations seemed to expect the block of red states that ensured an electoral victory in 2016 to be repeated, and left Trump deferring any conclusion to the election until January 6, 2021.
Trump affirmed his refusal to concede, and urged the rally to refuse to accept these results as well, stewing in what he portrayed, again, pleadingly, as a crisis in representation that his own Vice President had failed to maneuver around. He taunted the crowed by insisting on the mendacity of Democrats who were all talk and no action, would undercut the America First policy, and fail to defend rights to Free Speech that was in danger of being curbed, with freedom of religion and of owning guns–articulating “rights” that extended from gun control to religious practice. The chaotic jumble of multiple flags dominated by the five letters long used to promote luxury complexes concealed the presence cultivated from white supremacist groups, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, all groups expected to be at the event, heirs to the supposed promises of a Lost Cause who wove separatist flags of different stripes, suggesting loyalty to deep truths. Trump lionized the patriotism of the crowd, which he insisted were “totally appropriate” in all ways, pronounced the election not only rigged, in a keyword of his campaign, and marred by a range of unprecedented “abuses” that can “never happen again,” distinguishing the crowds of 30,000 at the Save America Rally where he promised he would never concede as the crowd already approached the seat of the U.S. Congress in tactical garb before he concluded speaking.
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 of defensively waved 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 defending an imaginary of the nation greater than the actual nation; they proclaimed a project of patriotism and national reinvention, glorifying as “revolutionary” insurrectionism.
There was something deeply fraught and un-American in the dissonance of the crowd-sourced populism of these men and women who arrived to accomplish what could not be accomplished at the ballot box. But there they were, claiming populist roles for themselves and claiming identity as patriots, taking selfies and filming one another, defending an administration that had signed into law the America CARES Act that offered targeted relief for industries hard hit by the pandemic–whose Title IV boasted relief for airline industries and the financial sectors in the form of massive tax write-offs, and over $25 billion of loans and loan guarantees to aircraft carriers alone and over $15 billion to defense industries–as if it was a populist movement, redefining populism as a mission of unwittingly preserving interests of corporate elites. The huge tax write-offs of the CARES Act that allowed “carry-back” provisions allowing companies to deduct losses from the profits they had recently reported, even if they were unrelated to COVID-19 or the pandemic, boasted the outright gift allowed ultra-wealthy Americans to consolidate their social safety nets by deducting personal losses from non-business income, at a time they were worried about their income security, in a manner demanded by the Americans for Tax Fairness non-profit, bolstering their financial profiles of the wealthiest of the 1%, and ensuring their hospitals, health centers, as hospitals were overwhelmed.
What were these people doing defending their ground at Freedom Plaza? These yahoos were not from the edges of empire, from outside of the borders of the nation, but claiming its heartland. They were 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, drug lords, child-traffickers, and illegal aliens, but from across the nation. They were different barbarians, promoting popular sovereignty. If the maps of the barbarians that sacked Rome in the late antique period were identified as either the “great invasions” or more neutrally the “migration of peoples” in the early twentieth century–the Völkerwanderung of the third century–the crowd at Freedom Plaza was animated by the continued specter of migrants that would invade America, if Donald Trump was not recognized as the victor of the election. They had come from far and wide, and converged on Washington DC to let themselves be heard, seeking not to overthrow the nation but to represent the völk lest they be destabilized, holding their flags to not be seen as a group of invaders, but to reclaim the state.
The Alexandrian poet Konstantine Kavafy 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.” 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. The hope those who invaded the Capitol grounds to forestall certification presented the true emergency they would solved by the “four more years” they had demanded–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 they had arrived on the terrace, exulting in sense of short-lived victory. The members of the crowd at the moment of discharge, Canetti argued, sense of bonds to one another solidify. He would have been struck by the theatricality of the formation of a crowd that formed with a clear 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 spectral “red map” used as a backdrop of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the highest-rated news program Fox airs, and in cable news history: watched by over 4.3 million on average, the maps orient viewers to the world enough to promote Carlson’s improbable rapid emergence and designation as the hands down “front runner” for Republicans in 2024. The red map that is almost synonymous with the recouping of Trump’s 2016 victory is embodied by the “four mour years! four more years!” cries preceding the approach of the U.S. Capitol. Carlson embodiment of a race-baiting, dynamic figure as Trump would affirm a constellation Roger Stone ha promoted in persuading Trump to run for President in 2000 and 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 American 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 struck a clear chord for viewers.
Did Carlson help to inspire the riots? Carlson’s “fighting words” crystallized 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 dismiss the electoral maps perpetuated by “Fake News Media.” The fictional maps provided the grounds for the notion that the election was indeed stolen, that the narrative of a fair and free election had been disrupted, that the Trump supporters must act like minutemen with urgency of the fierce, compelling call of now, lest all be lost.
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 better 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. Did Carlson indeed give Trump his framed map, or did the chairman of FOX News, Roger Ailes?
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.
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 signal 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. The guns, explosive devices, and tacitical policing gear as well as hunting weapons were fetishized as a protected”right,” enshrined in the Amendment ratified in 1789, although those rights derived from the English common law notions of preserving the peace–not the libertarian “liberties” of owning guns that span hunting rights or self-defense, rather than the common defense. Yet the keeping of military arms for use in local militia was appropriated with expansion of the very term “militia”, now fetishized as a right of border protection and vigilantism without local regulation.
INdeed, the personalization of rights to “defend” the nation inside the “well-regulated militia” that the Second Amendment affirmed as a right central to preserving “the security of the state” has become delegated to self-run groups, often composed of Border Patrol members or military veterans, designed to preserve their sense of security deemed “necessary to the security of a free state” has increasingly elevated “right” to bear arms into an obligation, staged with theatrics on the very structure of the inaugural stands transformed to grounds of a tactical campaign of defense, whose propulsive energy soon became one of aggressive assault.
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. 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 with a sense of sudden entitlement that “the space is theirs.”
The transformation of the space outside the Capitol to an architecture of protest, even not able to be entirely filled, affirmation of the stakes of the battle for rights that was at hand. For Canetti, the architecture of the space–here symbolized by the inaugural stands, and by the open architecture of the Capitol dome, becomes filled as it invited mobilization. Indeed, the filling of the space transformed the crowd into a collective surge, whose motion through space “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–that are, mutatis mutandi, the very terms often applied to the migrants on the southwestern border, but are now poised to enter not the country but the seats of government power. In the context of a history of crowds over the twentieth century, Elias Canetti sought to understand the psychology of mass movements of Fascism outside of a Freudian concentration on ego, and relation of self to collective, but as a new configuration 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 as the mob acted as a militia.
The centrality of gun rights as the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol became a militia itself, was recouped in subsequent call for a “Million Militia March” on inauguration day, a counter-protest in grotesque parody of the Million Mom March, which 20 years ago drew an estimated 750,000 to protest an epidemic of gun violence, or the Million Man March, against the continued infringement of civil rights in America by police violence. The sustained transposition of constitutional originalism as justifying a “right” to bear arms is diffused in claiming the assertion of a full-blown “right to insurrection” should government overstep its constitutional right, distilling the notion of a well-regulated set of liberties to a “well-regulated militia” engaged in aggressive self-defense–far from the founders’ original intent. If the fear of southerners of slave insurrections , affirmation of a “right to insurrection” within the Second Amendment is argued as a basis to keep politicians in line, or a check against arbitrary authority of rulers. A protest on Inauguration Day was planned to include a return, this time “carrying Our weapons, in support of Our nation’s resolve.”
Was not the call to an insurrection the very term that the members of the mob would adopt for themselves, proclaiming an insurrection that was able to The “right to insurrection” was claimed by the mob as they assembled before the inaugural stands, and proceeded to the Capitol.
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, instructed by the leader to whom their banners all proclaimed fealty.
Many waved an American flag, but far more wove banners of Trump’s campaign slogan, repurposed for insurrection, or adopting other symbols of an allegiance that was more originalist than the members of Congress assembled to certify the electors. The crowd members acted as if they were mobilized as a separate country–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; this was a country deeply tied to White Supremacy, to the founding fathers, and asserted that the state of affairs had become an emergency, and a new allegiance to foundational principles had to be asserted and proclaimed. 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 intoned haltingly 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!”
Longfellow’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 expression 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 photo-lithographs 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, warned the director of the Claremont Institute, noting similarities to post-Civil War elections of 1864 to 2018–or 2020–Democratic victories in Congress would “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. The violence was long oin coming. 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 as 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 would effectively destabilize the scrim of national identity and “homeland” 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, desparate to defend their sense of a nation whose integrity was being endangered by the electoral process.
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 announced the arrival by arrows that portended the feared arrival of the inhabitants who lived on the edges of the known world in antiquity–Scythians, Dacians, Goths–
–those who arrived from “silenced” red states, familiar with the show of power of militia at Trump rallies in previous months, felt that they were outside the world that was known and represented by the acting government in process of certifying the electors. While the “shoring up” of the nation by secure borders served to sanction Trump’s call for deportation and anti-immigrant violence in 2015-16, new fears of undocumented migrants materialized 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. Indeed, Donald Trump’s public address was a bookend to Trump’s promises to “stop illegal immigration” and to fortify the border.
Trump mesmerizingly claimed escalating “illegal” immigration were ravaging the nation, elevating need to “make America safe again,” demonizing the threat of immigration, increasing the policing of the southern border, encouraging citizens’ arrests to help police and the Department of Homeland Security, which solicited applications to teach citizens 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, in nineteenth century fantasies which used claims of objectivity to present a collapse of the ur-nation of Rome in an “age of migrations” that was elided with globalization–opening floodgates to outsiders–Huns, Scythians, Bactriians from the borders of the known world–
–and positing a fear of “mutual penetration” that might be seen most likely as one of “contamination” and taboo. If Ferdinand Lot had reprinted his work in August 1945 with a preface stating that even at the very start of World War II, he had chosen not to modify any part of the conclusions or results of his synthetic essay, but impartially and objectively recount the invasion across Roman borders of barbarians without fear of German censorship but to merit the dignity of the French tongue, the fears of non-English speaking migrants animated many of the white protestors who arrived at the U.S. Capitol, waving flags to designate their own identities.
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.
Trump pledged at Mt Rushmore although the “monument” he claimed 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 March for Trump 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.
If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations. It is as if life or death matters were open to public debate: rarely have reactions to an infection been able to be received so clearly along partisan lines. While reaction to COVID-19 were long cast in partisan terms by the President, our Fearless Leader of Little Empathy, as far overblown, the surprise was perhaps that even as the data grew, and the exponential growth of infections in American cities began, the decision to announce Shelter-In-Place directives in hopes to “flatten the curve” shuttering non-essential businesses with increased fears of overloading public health facilities.
Faced by drastically uneven hospital bed capacities in individual states, reflecting existing fears of hospital bed capacities for intensive care units or floor beds, and deepening fears of needs to add increased beds across the nation, to confront a major public health emergency. Using different scenarios of increased needs for beds based on infection rates, a relatively moderate need for beds: infection of a fifth of the population in six months would compel expanding existing capacity for beds in multiple western states already hard-hit form infections, like Washington and California, east coast states, including Massachusetts and New York, and Midwest’s like Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, and many pockets of other states, including Louisiana. Actual fears of such an impending emergency of public health emergency —
–grows even sharper if one allows oneself to imagine an expansion of infection rates to 40%–not unheard of for the highly infectious novel coronavirus–over the same six month period:
1. Even as “Shelter-in-Place” measures sought to staunch the spread of infections across the nation, the uneven nature of the measures adopted by state governors, mayors, and counties suggested a fragmenting of the nation, as the governors of many states reacted to the issuance of shelter-in-place orders or stay-at-home directives by declaring their separate rule of law, in the words of Alabama’s Governor, “we are not New York state, we are not California–right now is not the time to shelter in place.”
Yet if the confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus seemed concentrated in preponderance in Louisiana, California, and New York, the virulence of its transmission was far more widely distributed, Philip Bump created a simple overlay to show, and the readiness of imposing measures of restriction were often resistant to accept school closures, or shuttering bars and restaurants as a means to restrain the virus’ spread.
Such choropleths are poor indicator of concentration and dispersion of infection, or of the “hot-spots” early watchers of the novel coronavirus hoped to isolate, folks commuting from counties of identifiable outbreaks created an immediately far more complicated map of viral dispersal, often crossing state lines and state jurisdictions at the very start of March, as work commuting alone bled from 34 counties into 1,356–even into Mississippi!
Despite some a lone call the President impose a national shelter-in-place order, but the response of asking for a collective sacrifice would be hard to imagine. But the animosity that Trump revealed to any governors who tried to impose a policy of social distancing has intensified a new sense of federalism, as the increasing opposition that President Trump has directed toward Governors who have responded with attempts to enforce social distancing led, mutatis mutandis, to a new call for “liberating” states from social distancing requirements, President Trump announced April 21 that “We are opening up America again,” with great content, heralding an “opening” across twenty states comprising two-fifths of the nation’s population, if partial reopening are only slated in eighteen states.
But how could one say that the need for social distancing was not increasingly important, in a nation where health care is not only not accessible to many, but that hospital bed capacity is uneven–and would need to be ramped up to serve the communities–
–but that many areas are distant from ready testing, diagnosis, or indeed the ability for easily accessible health care? What is COVID-19, if not a major wake-up call for disparities in public health and medical access?
–and many regions suffer severe health care professional shortages, that have been obscured in the deep shortages of health professionals, according to Rural Health Info, who have revealed these gaps in the following infographic, but many towns in each county remain difficult to get to hospitals in time in cases of emergency or need.
2. The legitimacy offered to “re-opening” states for business channeled a rousing sense of false populism across the nation, courting possible onset of a second wave of infections by easing llocal restrictions on social distancing–although testing is at a third of the level to warrant safe a transition, several governors claim “favorable data” to justify opening shuttered businesses. But when @RealDonaldTrump retweeted an attack on public safety measures against COVID-19 that were enacted in California and other states to slow airborne viral infection that labeled the closures of bars, restaurants, and theaters as revealing local states’ “totalitarian impulses” in the face of COVID-19, as having effectively “impaired the fundamental rights of tens of millions of persons” and flagrantly abrogating constitutional rights and natural liberties: the endorsing of a tweet of former judge, Andrew Napolitano, of an open “assault our freedom in violation of Constitution” demeaning sheltering policies as”nanny-state rules . . . unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance,” inviting the sort of social disobedience, encouraging the stress-test on our nation that the pandemic poses be generalized?
While the calls to prevent violations of the U.S. Constitution have grown in recent weeks from March to April, it makes sense to question the validity of an eighteenth-century document to a public health emergency–or to abilities to respond to a zoonotic disease of the twenty-first century. Never mind that such arguments ignore the reserving of rights of state governors in the U.S. Constitutions Tenth Amendment to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants of their territory, is the ability to manage state health not a calculus for public health officers, rather than a partisan debate? There is a despicable false populism and rabble rousing in decrying “nanny-state rules” as “unlawful and unworthy of compliance,” and covers for “assaults on freedom” as a Lockeian natural right. Yet in retweeting such charges and denigrating policies of social distancing as “subject to the whims of politicians in power,” President Trump perpetuated the notion that medical consensus was akin to an individual removed from public concerns. In doing so, Trump echoed the opinion of a member of his own Coronavirus Economic Advisory Task Force, Heritage Foundation member Stephen Moore, to protest “government injustices” echoing false populist calls to “liberate” Michigan and Minnesota from decrees of Democratic governors. As Moore called for further protests, opening a group, Save Our Country, dedicated to agitating for the reopening of states, out of concern for the “abridgment of freedom” of sheltering in place.
The call to arms over a rejection of social distancing emphasized the translation of the pandemic into purely partisan terms, and echoed the partisan resistance to the states-right discourse of a rejection of health care, using the panmdemic to divide the nation along party lines.
3. The weekend before SIP was announced in the East Bay, my daughter’s High School suspended, and I snuck out in the mask-free days for a Monday morning coffee at my favorite café, where my friend Mike caused some consternation in line by ordering through his black 3M facemask. The mood was survivalist and grim, but we stopped outside our local Safeway, as if to provisions before an impending lockdown, looking for half-and-half. Staring me in the eyes, Mike said with some resignation that the massive mortalities in northern Italy were our future in a week at most, as the spreading waves of infections migrated crosscountry, approaching in something like a delayed real time; the question was only when “It’s gonna happen here.”
What was happening across the Atlantic Ocean was trending not only on social media, but was being attentively followed by epidemiologists like Dr. Cody, apprehensive of the state of development of pubic health across the entire East Bay.
The Public Health Officers in the region had been haunted by the vision, alerted by the tangible fears of the Santa Clara Public Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody. That very day, Cody was convening the coming early Monday morning, gripped by a sense of panic for a need for action, as the public drinking festivities of St. Patrick’s Day loomed, and as Chinese health authorities curbed travel and cancelled New Years celebration, even if its airborne communication was doubted, in hopes to contain an outbreak that still seemed centered in its largest numbers in Wuhan province–
4. It was if we were watching in real-time image the global ballooning of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area feared was on its way to Silicon Valley, or the entire Bay Area, as the virus traveled overseas. The lockdown that had begun in northern Italian towns in a very localized manner from late February when a hundred and fifty two cases were found in Turin, Milan, and the Veneto, had, after all, only recently expanded to the peninsula, filling Intensive Care Units of hospitals or transforming them to morgues. Although elegant graphics provided a compelling narrative, with the benefit of retrospect, that “Italy’s Virus Shutdown Came Too Late,” the interactive story of a “delayed” shutdown after the February 24 shutdown of sites of outbreak within days of the first identification of an infection in Milan, across two “red zones” around Italian cities, and the March 3 cordoning of larger areas.
The reluctance to impose a broader shutdown over the northern economy created a tension between commerce and public health that led to a late ‘shutdown’ of the movement across the peninsula by March 10 to prevent infection risks, haunted by public health disaster.
Fears of the actuality of a similar public health disaster spreading under her nose led Dr. Cody to convene a quick check-up with local public health officers to see if they registered a similar alarm, and what policy changes were available across a region whose populations are so tightly tied. And the need to convene a mini-summit of Public Health Officers to take the temperature of willingness to recommend immediate public policy changes was on the front burner, as one looked at the huge difficulty of containing the outbreak in Italy–often argued to not have been responded to immediately enough, but revealing a full public health response that the Bay Area might not be able to muster, as Italy’s hospitals were flooded by patients with infections and was on its way to become the site of the most Coronavirus deaths.
Vivid fears a growth of COVID-19 filling the hospitals and emergency rooms after St. Patrick’s Day–an event for a far larger audience contracting the aggressive virus–led Dr. Cody to arrange a group call among the Public Health Officers in San Matteo and San Francisco early Monda. Dr. Cody had broad epidemiological training was rooted in an appreciation of contagious disease–including contagious diseases outbreaks like SARS, H1N1 influenza, and salmonella, and had worked on planning for public health emergencies and completed a two yer fellowship in Epidemiolgoy and Public Health, managing E. coli outbreaks as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with CDC. Fears “crystallized” quickly of a scenario of similarly exponential rise in case loads making Silicon Valley a new epicenter outbreak of an epidemic overwhelming the public health services. As she quickly contacted Public Health Officers in San Francisco and San Matteo, to contemplate a response, by March 8, a lockdown in all Lombardy and other states was declared, as COVID-19 cases multiplied, in a chilling public health disaster replicating the lockdown in China.
In contrast to the uncertain public health numbers from China, as the city’s airport, highways, and rail stations, images of massive mortality from health care disasters in Italy were haunting and suddenly far closer in space, even if cases of viral infection were already reported in each province, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan–revealing a global pandemic that linked place to a global space in ways difficult for some to get their minds around. The honesty that came out of Italy was an alarm.
The Bay Area health authorities were looked with apprehension at the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, after the exponential growth of infections from COVID-19 in the region: Dr. Mirco Nacoti had just published an eye-catching account of the catastrophic conditions of Ospedale Pap Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo that weekend, describing the levels of general contamination of caring for COVID-19 patients, for whom over two thirds of ICU beds were reserved, and filled a third of 900 rooms in thd peer-reviewed NEJM Catalyst; he described phantasmagoric scenes of a hospital near collapse as patients occupied mattresses on the grounds, intensive care beds had long waiting lines and with shortages of both masks and ventilators, and poorly sterilized hospitals became conduits for the expansion of diseases. The clinical model for private care incapacitated, as patients were left without palliative care; a surge of deaths in overcrowded wards overtook China’s community-based clinics at such higher death rates of 7,3% Italian doctors plead felt incapacitated by the surge of cases overflowing at intensive care units from March 9-11 as a model for mass infection, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
The desperation of a staged re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Pietà of L’Espresso were a few weeks or so off. While the spread of infections in our region had not yet begun, ant eh below photoshoot by Fabio Buciarelli did not appear until April 5, we were still formulation the desperation of confronting the ravages of disease we lacked time to develop any reactions, processing current or impending mortality rates.
The danger of trusting scientific modeling, or data, and fostering deep suspicions of trusting data on confirmed infections, or modeling that suggested the danger of failing to practice social distancing.
5. Decisions to “shelter in place” promised to “slow the spread” of COVID-19 transmitted widely in group settings, and able to create a public health disaster in the Bay Area, and was quickly followed by Santa Cruz county. After the growth of cases in Santa Clara county–whose rates of infection doubled over the weekend to 138 as of Monday–the absence of a any national restraining order save a suggestion to social distance, as Seattle cases of infection had grown to 400–and some 273 cases of infection had appeared over th weekend, despite limited testing availability.
The clear eventuality of a public health disaster, after a directive closing bars, night clubs, and large gatherings, as well as many school closures in San Francisco and the East Bay–where my daughter attends Berkeley High, whose doors shuttered on March 13; Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor entertainment on late Sunday night, as Gov. Newsom encourage all elderly to self-isolate immediately. The 6.7 million in the Bay Area early agreed on the need for a “shelter in place” order as a basis to control the spread of COVID-19 that had been discovered in the region on March 16, 2020, anticipating the nation by some time.
The closure of all non-essential businesses in the seven counties sprung from the epicenter of Santa Clara county–Silicon Valley–but included affected a much larger area of commuters, no doubt, across an interlinked region of commuting far across the northern state to twelve other counties.
The cases in Italy would only grow, creating a textbook case of the exponential expansion of illness that killed a terrifying number of physicians in hospitals on the front lines against its expansion, as the arrival of medical supplies and medical viral specialists from China increased the logic of the lockdown as a response to its spread.
The evident stresses on the health care system of Lombardy, where a terrifying number of physicians on the front line contracted the virus and died, in the wealthy region of Lombardy, distanced the disease whose effects were projected or distanced onto China, and provided a clear scenario that Cody understood could be repeated, with even worse consequences, in the crowded population and limited health facilities of Santa Clara County: her own close ties to public health authorities in Italy made the exponential growth of cases from February 21 across the peninsula seem a preparatory run-through for a future disaster, as China was sending increasing medical supplies and specialists to Italy in a global story as a pandemic was declared in China March 11; northern provinces were declared under lockdown March 8 quickly extended to the nation, as a spike in 1,247 cases were found on the previous day.
When Cody urgently alerted San Francisco Public Health Officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, to discuss the fears of a new epicenter of COVID-19 spread in Silicon Valley, they did not start by contemplating their authority to issue a legally binding directive to shutter businesses in the region. But as they discussed consequences of the exponential increase in Santa Clara County and the greater danger of facing an analogous overwhelming of pubic health hospitals as in Italy, haunted by a danger of a similar scenario overwhelming public health, and Cody’s tangible fear, Aragón floated the idea of a shutdown, acknowledging their authority of acting without permission of governors.or mayors or county supervisors; the call touched on a series of calls to debate options, including the most dramatic — a lockdown order–which seemed the only certain means to enforce isolation and social distancing haunted by the image of the increased diagnosis of COVID-19 across the Italian peninsula that would indeed only be publicly released March 18. Two days later, Governor Newsom expanded the policy to the entire state; the time lag meant that by late April, almost half of all infected with the novel Coronavirus in California were found in Los Angeles County, and were facing the prospect of overloading its public health system and hospitals.
The influence of the health care provider Kaiser Permanente was unseen, but the preventive agenda of the health provider can be seen in a sense in the shadows of this quick consensus among six Public Health Officers. But the qyuick defense of the decision–soon followed by dozens of states since–suggests the prominence of Kaiser Health Care in the dynamic of emphasizing preventive health care, and in anticipating epidemiological spread. Cody’s brave insight into the fact that northern Italy provided a rehearsal for the public health disaster, shifting from the ban on mass gatherings to a concerted effort to isolate millions, was less apparent to the nation.
When addressing the new Latin American policy in Miami’s Freedom Tower in late 2018, the new National Security Advisor John Bolton targeted Nicaragua and Venezuela in a striking geographic metaphor. He offered a new metaphor for described the dangers of a “triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua,” in November 1, 2018, demonizing Latin America and the island of Cuba in terms that suggested possible plans for “taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty and basic human decency in our region.” As if to displace attention from the Northern Triangle from which so many asylum seekers have fled to the United States in recent years, including unaccompanied minors, and where civil society is overwhelmed by drug trafficking, gang violence, and police corruption, the new triangle Bolton seeks to shift attention is a target.
So it may have been no surprise that when attacking the legitimacy of Socialist Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela by imposing expansive sanctions ton Venezuelan oil and gas, Bolton seemed to tip the cards of power. Upping the ante from defining the Socialist regime of Venezuela as an apex in a triangle, in previous saber-rattling that committed the United States to striking a blow at a “triangle of terror” tied to the Socialist heritage of Hugo Chavez and to Raúl Castro, Bolton “appeared to disclose confidential notes written on a yellow pad” to reposition military troops to Venezuela’s border, standing before a global map the divided the globe in no uncertain terms, as if announcing a new configuration of power in his role as National Security Advisor for Donald J. Trump. The “triangle of terror” Bolton warned of in November 2018 seemed to essentialize the fundamentally dangerous notion a Latin American region ripe for instability. But it may have also been sheer coincidence that alliterative force of a rather pointless if powerful polygon was a powerful cartographic conjuring of a strategy of national defense, not located in the Northern Triangle, or the former Triangle of Terror where ISIS cultivated troops, but a new borderless triangle of even allegedly even greater danger–a triangle with a rich political genealogy from the Cold War.
Bolton’s adoption of the rare tired stock term of a triangle seemed to shift attention from the other Triangle of Terror, located when it was most recently in the news on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the very site from which negotiations have been announced to start to withdraw American troops. It may have been sheer coincidence, but Bolton seemed to shift attention from a triangle in the Middle East where American troops had been long stationed and that had been a hide-out of Osama bin Laden and Taliban fighters, as if by the powerful abilities of the friction-free nature of GPS–
–to a triangle that was closer to America’s own sphere of influence from the triangle of Peshawar, Quetta, and Kabul, from which the US was busy extricating itself. Bolton’s November speech was quickly taken, one might remember, as defining the intent of team Trump in relation to focus on a new Axis of Evil, adopting a hard line in Central America as sphere ripe for intervention–“This is not a time to look away. It’s a time to increase pressure, not reduce it,” Bolton announced–and the recent exercise of economic muscle to bolster American refusal to recognize the self-declared electoral victory of Nicolás Maduro, and to declare the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó as President of the nation, demanded a map to concretize the global geopolitical stakes that Bolton and Trump were ready to commit to Venezuela, although the map before with Bolton spoke revealed few of the roots for the focus on this new Triangle, but rooted confrontation with Maduro’s claims to legitimacy in the defense of democratic liberties.
Bolton cast the region as a geopolitical battleground for American interests in stark and rhetorically powerful alliterative terms. He openly opposed the United States to a “Troika of Tyranny”–a term that lexically hinted at a vehicle driven by Russia, but wasn’t the 2016 Presidential election–and almost openly evoked the chills or breezes of a new Cold War, with its division of the world to spheres of recognizing two possible Presidents in Venezuela in ways that expanded an electoral map of one nation to spheres of geopolitical influence–if not alliances–expanding in bizarre terms an electoral map to the world to show that it had global consequences–as if global power dynamics were as simple as an electoral map.
The infographic seems to advertise how much “other countries” had at stake in who was Venezuelan President, keeping mum as to why they did. It helped that Bolton looked the part of an inveterate Cold Warrior. And one could not but recall the openly proprietorial terms of last November, when he announced “Cuban military and intelligence agencies must not disproportionately profit from the United States, its people, its travelers, or its businesses” but pointedly attacked Venezuela by imposing sanctions on its gold, and attacking the “triangle of terror” or “troika of tyranny” perhaps metaphorically tied to a Bermuda Triangle, redolent with weirdly alchemical associations of unknown dangers near islands on the high seas–
–as if one could pretend that the declaration was about the rocky shoals of securing needed democratic reform and less to do with oil revenues and resources, as with the defense of democracy.
The transposition of the polygon of a triangle from Afghanistan to the hemisphere was close to a notion of hemispheric dominance, if it also turned attention from a long war in Afghanistan to a closer, seemingly more surgical, winnable military confrontation. The map affirmed the need for using economic muscle by seizing income from oil as a way to undermined as a Socialist dictator, however, whose socialist government was corrupt and based on cronyism, linked in the global map to authoritarian governments in Turkey, China, Russia, and Iran, and their allies, linking an argument of hemispheric dominance to broad geopolitical warning of the consequences of failing to recognize Guaidó as being Venezuela’s legitimate President in American eyes.
Maps often lie, as do infographics: but the international magnification of the lack of legitimacy Bolton had been preparing to declare for some time came not only with trappings of objectivity, but with a not so coded message, that might be the true legend of the global divisions in the infographic, and was the major social media take away: a proposed movement of US troops whose removal from the Syrian and Afghan military theaters was in the process of being negotiated by the Secretary of State: the image, unintentional or not, immediately raised fears and concerns about American military plans and sent a shudder in global media.
While it may have been sheer coincidence that the metaphorical migration of the triangle of terror from one theater of global confrontation to the next was occurring in Bolton’s rhetoric and was mirrored in the imagined frictionless switch in deployment of soldiers in the legal pad Bolton displayed to television cameras–
The mobility of the metaphor and the military seemed to echo the new logic of the Universal Transverse Mercator map, where territorial boundaries and sovereignty have far less prominence than specific sites of dispersed geographic location, and imagined transfers of military power could be a frictionless motion in space.
The infographic provided a sort of parallel world carved up and divided by entrenched political interests but whose alliances helped sovereign boundaries to recede similarly. The global two-color map almost made it difficult to understand that he addressed Venezuela–the topic of his Press Briefing in January, 2019–save by the legend identifying red as “Maduro” and blue as “Guaidó”, elevating each man who had claimed the presidency as holding a global constituency, and dividing the globe to magnifying the geopolitical centrality of the Venezuelan election. In the early February State of the Union, Donald Trump elevated–behind the rubric “Abortion”–the pressing concern of Venezuela immediately after “National Security” and “North Korea,” in ways that similarly monumentalized the question of recognition of the future president of the nation, under the rubric of “never apologize for advancing America’s interest, moved from the Border to “National Security” and withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a historic arms control accord of forty years in standing–with the commitment to “outspend and out-innovate” all other nations in weaponry–to North Korea and Venezuela, regions that were almost designated as areas of future combat.
Trump’s pledged to the union in a mid-February address to “stand with the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom” against unspecified enemies, but targeted dictators tinged with Socialism. The gripping evocation of a struggle against “the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation . . . into a state of abject poverty” may have foregrounded the prominence of Trump’s interest in targeting Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Occasion-Cortez as Socialists, in order to taint the Democratic party. But it was also a crisis that recalled how John Bolton, his new National Security Advisor, had conjured a new danger for the United States’ geopolitical position, independently of nuclear disarmament treaties, but which evoked our historical need for intermediate-range missiles to protect domestic interests.
The role of Maduro in Venezuela has been disastrous for its citizens, to be sure, and mismanagement of natural resources by the state demands attention: But much as Trump distorted actual policies by targeting the “Socialist regime” of Venezuela in a speech marked by excessive flag-waving, patriotism, and rally-like chants of “USA, USA,” the prominent place of map before which Bolton spoke distorted the situation, by literally taking our eyes off of the ground. The map obscured the flows of refugees from Venezuela and the humanitarian crisis in South America, as well as access to the vast oil reserves lying beneath the Orinoco River basin’s Belt. The extensive reserves to which America has limited access is mapped by USGS, but was left tacit in the American declaration of sanctions, but motivating an abrupt change in returning attention to the Western hemisphere for the National Security Advisor. And the assumption of Venezuela as OPEC Presidency, as much as the defense of democratic principles, made the clear ties of National Security to the preservation of access to and production from the Orinoco Reserves–shown below by PDVSA–and the truly globalized investment in the fields shown below, estimated to include three hundred billion barrels of bitumen–the black, viscous, organic “sludge” that contains petroleum–in what are estimated to be the largest reserve on earth, involving multiple international players–from Statoil of Norway to ExxonMobil to Chevron to BP, but also CNPC of China and TOTAL of France, as well as even if the private ownership in the Orinoco Belt was ended in 2007 by Hugo Chávez, whose Presidency haunts the current crisis. But although nationalized in name, the project of oil extraction are only majority owned by he vast majority of bitumen remains too deeply buried for surface mining–some 88-92%–by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)–creating a site that was used by Chávez to finance social reforms and projects, and created revenues of $30 billion annually in 2011, making Venezuela a sort of bit of an economic bubble in a globalized world, tied to international markets for carbon and oil, and making Venezuela a “hidden” global petroleum power, estimated to have hundreds of billions of barrels of oil.
The international ties to projects of extracting bitumen and refining oil in Venezuela–which produced about 2 millions of barrels a day in 2015–estimated to have far more technologically accessible reserves. The decision to amplify the level of rhetoric used to isolate Maduro and acknowledge Guaidó as President surely has close ties to the assumption of increasing attempts of national oil and gas company to reroute its oil supplies to Europe and Asia, as members of the Maduro regime told the Russian news agency Sputnik, not only responded to the sanctions, but undercut the Venezuelan crude that usually flowed to CITGO refineries in Texas, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Illinois which made access to crude that lay in Venezuelan territory a national security question–as Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino tweeted hopes to “continue consolidating strategic alliances between PDVSA and Rosneft” in November, disturbing images of hemispheric dominance, as well as undermining American energy security.
Bolton’s–and Trump’s–description of Venezuela as an ideological struggle is all one sees in the two-color division of the globe that almost heralded hopes for a return to a Cold War where maps were understood primarily as a global battleground, recalling the days at which a vertiginous sense of power in postwar Europe led us to map exchanges of nuclear missiles, and imagine apocalyptic scenarios where the world was divided by global war–but a global war that seemed to really be about American interests on access to energy reserves, hiding behind the scrim of a ratcheted up rhetoric of democratic legitimacy.
The economic crisis in Venezuela is both tragic, and an acute crisis of humanitarian scope. But the global map seemed to reduce it into a global confrontation of two blocks, if not a crisis of global consensus about representation and political legitimacy, that seemed to hollow out the term of democracy of its content: despite national sovereign division in South American, the sharp divisions of the blue of North America and most South and Central American nations described inexistent international blocks of consensus. What seemed a legitimate record of global divisions about the crisis the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government to lay claims to Venezuela’s rich reserves of oil. Without acknowledging the political or economic actualities in the South American nation, the map hinted at a global crisis, its stark red v. blue color-scheme reflecting the offers of Russia to restructure the debt of Venezuela’s oil and gas companies, and China to lay claim to a stake in Venezuela’s oil, by asserting the reserves to lie within America’s hemispheric interests, and equating those interests as lying with America’s National Security.
As if to bolster Guaidó’s claim that he is backed by the democracies of the world–in ways that nothing better than an infogram can attest–
The map before which Bolton spoke has become a topic of recurrent interest, as the nature of the global divide has been parsed and examined. The divide, this post argues, was less an informative one–deisgned to generate debate–than to paper over the situation in Venezuela’s political crisis as a question of alternative candidates for President, treating the contest as an election, and using the colors of an electoral map to suggest that the election was conclusive, and the legitimacy of Guaidó reseted on clearly ideological foundations.
Bolton spoke at the White House briefing before a map revealing a broad global divide ostensibly about recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy as Venezuela’s President but that hauntingly recalled the geopolitical divide that was firmer than many since the Cold War. It provided an image of the Cold War as it was seen from Washington, in some way, as if ideological divides that are clearcut still maintain legitimacy in a globalized world. The infographic on two screens seemed to affirm the broad global consensus of questions of the legitimacy of Maduro’s government, as if this justified the decision to block access to all property located in the United States of the national oil and natural gas company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), place its assets in escrow, and prohibit American citizens from paying the company directly for access to unrefined or refined oil assets. But the “press briefing” was also a transformation of the White House into a new newsroom of sorts, that exposed the illegitimacy of the Maduro government through a map that tied the United States to the defense of democratic principles–coded in blue, with other democratic allies, in opposition to “reds” linked to Socialism or Communism–China, and Russia, even if it was not Soviet, but also some questionable allies–that reinstated the for-us or against-us global space to make a point. The disclosure before this map of a threat of sensitive statement that echoed a bespectacled Bolton’s assertion that “all options are on the table” provided a powerful infographic that tied Washington to an image of legitimacy, even if the awfully crude map lacked legitimacy to orient American viewers to global affairs.
The new global imaginary that Bolton promoted as he stood beside U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin painted a global schism as the consequence of Maduro’s declaration of his victory in a second term as President, as a violation of that nation’s constitution–and as standing in violation of the Venezuela’s constitutional elections–but was as much a response to the defense of a restatement of American economic sovereignty in the Western hemisphere, a phrase going back to the turn of the last century, if not the Monroe Doctrine, but which gained new currency in the Cold War as issuing from the Dept. of State, and as a question of national security rather foreign affairs, by tactically magnifying the geostrategic role of the Venezuelan election, rather than offering evidence of a constitutional argument about sovereign legitimacy. The question of sovereignty seemed intentionally blurred, as the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury took questions about sanctions against a foreign state-owned oil company, currently OPEC chair, whose assets were being frozen to promote democratic legitimacy, but in fact to strengthen America’s hemispheric dominance.
This time, the map–whose stark divisions into blue and red blocks suggested a map of American alliances, echoing an imaginary of detente, rather than legal rights–seemed to place the defense of denying the flow of economic goods from American territory as a globalist argument, by reframng the issue of constitutional rights or legality in globalist terms that preserved an image of American dominance within the color scheme that it divided the world.
And National Security Advisor John Bolton, who in less than a year in the Trump administration has become an advocate for military interventions in both Iraq and Iran, used the briefing before a map to raise rather openly the possibility of a military resolution of the crisis over the Venezuelan Presidency, as the Commander of US Southern Command, General Mark Stammer, is set to meet the Ministry of Defense of Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia, and Maduro has conjured fears of a “coup” driven from the United States. But the fear that the invitation of American oil companies to organize the refining and extraction of Venezuela’s abundant crude reserves after the January 23, 1958 Democratic uprising, just before the Cuban revolution, sent shock waves into the United States, pushing the Trump administration rather precipitously into a search for infographics that could substantiate dangers of infringement of its hemispheric interests and geopolitical dominance, and to convince the world of the danger of Maduro’s disenfranchisement of elected members of the Congress, and the lack of legitimacy of a regional vote that supported Maduro’s government against a fractured opposition–and led to the invitation from Russia to restructure the state-owned oil and gas company’s massive debt, recasting the struggle about the government’s legitimacy into new global terms.
The colors on the global map reflect, to be sure, the contested results of elections in Venezuela, where compromised elections had produced the heavily disputed endorsement of Maduro’s Presidency just last May. After an offer from Russia to restructure the massive national debt in November, 2017, Maduro declared new elections in May 2018, which the opposition decided not to recognize, and which polls suggested he wouldn’t win, but in which he was victorious–coincidentally at the same time thatJohn Bolton gains the portfolio as director of the Trump NSA.
Familiar blue v. red electoral maps were used to describe the votes of the Great Patriotic Pole and opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity that were recast suddenly in global terms in late January in Washington. Socialist Maduro affirmed independence in his inauguration, and in rebuke Parliamentary President Guaidó won immediate support from Donald Trump after he declared himself Interim President and leader of the nation and of oil company, precipitating a powerful infographic to be devised in Washington that oriented audiences to an electoral map in global terms. But for Trump–and for Bolton, who cast the election as a question of National Security–the global divisions in globally strategic terms.
Trump’s segue in his February 7 State of the Union from the INF to Venezuela, included a transition about North Korea, but suggested global imbalances that any obscure the question of access to petroleum reserves in Venezuela, and the deep, implicit question of whether the American military should or would be used to guarantee access to Venezuelan oil. In ways that must have crossed Bolton’s radar, but have faded from most public comments, Maduro when he pledged to decouple the pricing of Venezuelan crude from the dollar, use of non-dollar currencies as the Chinese Yen for Venezuelan oil, and seeking to cut oil production to “stabilize” oil prices–and entertaining the cryptocurrency Petro, based on the five billion barrels of oil found in Field No. 1 of the Orinoco Oil Belt–possibly less than a quarter of Veneuela’s considerable total oil and gas reserves, whose accessibility to the American economy has suddenly become increasingly tenuous.
The events tied to the assumption of the Presidency of OPEC led to ‘slow coup’ of January 23–the anniversary of the overthrow of the Jiminez dictatorship by Venezuelans in 1958–as opposition politico Juan Guaido auto-invested himself with the presidency with broad American support, followed by a chorus of right-wing governments in Latin America, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
The result was to pretend that the elections which the opposition party had boycotted last May could be cast again as an electoral map, this time not involving Venezuelan votes–or the self-determination of the nation–but symbolically recasting the election in terms of a global map. Even as Maduro offered to negotiate, he bristled “The presidential elections in Venezuela took place, and if the imperialists want new elections, let them wait until 2025,” perhaps reacting to the provocative recasting of the national elections, whose legitimacy has been questioned by observers, in ways that led Bolton to take to Twitter to threaten “serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaidó”–as if he were the victor of an election. Bolton had escalated attacks on the “legitimacy” of Maduro from mid-January and the “illegitimate claims to power” of the Venezuelan “dictator” as abrogating the “a government duly elected by the Venezuelan people” and democratic practice. But the stark divide of the global map seemed to resist any discussion of negotiations and affirm the United States’ ability to shift troops from Afghanistan to Venezuela’s border immanently–while preserving something of the illusion that the “blue” votes for Guaidó would be affirmed by American muscle.
The gruff determination and stoniness that registers in Bolton’s face as he sought to communicate the divisions of the world that potentially lay in the failure to affirm America’s recognition of Guaidó bled far beyond the defense of democratic principles, and seems to have threatened to cast more than a shadow over Europe. Bolton’s slightly veiled message of national security seemed, in classic America First style, to cast a shadow over European allies, here symbolized by the actual shadow that his pensive head cast on the United States’ traditional NATO allies.
Was Bolton in the act of forging global divisions of a new Cold War, military detente and hemispheric dominance, sneakingly if all too familiarly tied to defense and affirmation of democratic principles?
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!