In the days since Trump’s ragtag army invaded the Capitol building on January 6, numerous politicians and media commentators have had their say, many of them pointing to the diverse forms of phantasmatic projection circulating among this scrambled “mob.” This is, we are told, a pretend legion consisting of QAnon saviours, Civil War reenactors, off-duty troops, miscellaneous trolls, Christian evangelicals, out-and-out fascists, anti-hipsters (similar beards, different tattoos), assorted Boomerwaffen, with the Commander in Chief, overweight and pulsing in radioactive orange, is cast as Captain America.
One is reminded of that famous passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: “Vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars.” This jumble may understate other kinds of social coherence involved in the contemporary right-wing crowd, and the character list is certainly different (though “discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds” rings true). But the only term to describe an insurrection that features a white supremacist shaman is “postmodern,” a situation where any image, or belief, can seemingly be combined with anything else.
Mike Davis, in his contribution to Sidecar, plays this perception in comedic mode, deflating some of the aggrandizing rhetoric of the defenders of business as usual, return to civility or a new normal: “a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians” is a wonderful and disturbing image. It is genuinely difficult to know whether the phobic delirium in evidence is best captured by The Eighteenth Brumaire or E.P. Thompson’s “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd,” where political confrontation is played as the push-and pull of theater.
As Adam Gopnik noted on B.B.C. Radio 4 last week, the antics of Trump’s contemporary Far Right are often played as comedy or carnival, until they are not. There are certainly echoes in the events on Capitol Hill of those British Republican conspirators, from Pentrich to Merthyr, who believed that a decisive action would spark the general rising. I’m tempted to think it is Thompson’s conception that helps best, unless as Richard Seymour noted (dread the thought), “First as farce, then as tragedy.”
What the commentariat hasn’t yet noticed is the way in which the stage iconography for this mini-drama – let’s hope it is a play in one act – infuses their own understanding of what took place, shaping the idea of invading barbarians. There is a photograph by Shawn Thew, made from inside the building, that focuses this point. Viewed through a dark aperture, the left-hand portion of the image, projecting diagonally into the space, is filled with a bronze neo-classical frieze. It is a fragment from Randolph Rodgers’s Columbus Doors of 1910. This portion of the picture is dominated by the panel known as the “Right Valve: Death of Columbus (1506).” Outside, beyond the door and bathed in a Claudian soft, bright light, are a cluster of Tuscan pillars, cropped four or five feet from the ground by the photographic frame. A broken column, which the cropping of the image suggests, was often used in funerary monuments. On the ground plane, amongst the discarded trash and glass shards, there lies a scarf or a pendant – red, white and blue – emblazoned with “TRUMP.” The photographer may have serendipitously come across this detail, or possibly he arranged it like this. It is what makes his carefully composed image.