•Recollections of protests past. There was lots of, “This hasn’t happened since 1814, when Britain invaded and burned the White House.” C’mon. In 1967 a protest crowd invaded the Pentagon grounds, trampled the lawn and joined a Tibetan chant led by poet Allen Ginsberg, in order to “levitate” the building.
OK, different spirit. But the storming of the Capitol was, for shock and symbolic value, a homegrown version of 9/11. Except it was U.S. terrorists directed by their president, defecating on their own national symbols.
•The irrelevance of experts. “Historians struggled to find a precedent” — as they usually do. “There isn’t one,” said a “presidential scholar” at Columbia University. Back during the Vietnam protests, I watched journalists on a chaotic Columbia campus beg the top scholar of U.S. political paranoia, Richard Hofstadter, for parallels from the past. He said nothing came to mind.
“It’s almost beyond belief,” said a Yale prof on Wednesday. The problem is there’s lots of precedent for events like this in the U.S. But none for them being led and directed by the president. So it’s confusing.
•Instant schadenfreude. There was no dilemma for those from places that have seen U.S.-sponsored coups. For them it was déjà vu many times over. “It’s like the cartoon version of a South American coup,” said someone watching. “Except our golpistas wear military uniforms and know what they’re doing. These guys are pathetic, they’re the mirror image of Trump.”
She’s talking about the clown costumes or “Q Shaman,” a devotee of QAnon’s conspiracy theories, with his horns, pelts and face paint. “This year,” someone said, “due to travel restrictions, the U.S. had to organize the coup at home.”
This reduction of the U.S. to a banana republic is ongoing. A day after the D.C. “coup,” an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant on Trump for “premeditated murder,” for the drone strike on an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad last year.
How about some empathy? It’s always easier to see the problems of people you know than your own. “If the U.S. could see what the U.S. is doing in the U.S., the U.S. would invade the U.S. to liberate the U.S. from the tyranny of the U.S.” (Available on blankets and mugs.)
•A reality crisis? None of this may do the moment justice. Internet maven Jesse Hirsh calls it “the televised clash of realities.” He says the images are “right out of LARP,” live-action role-playing. That makes more sense of the costumes and avatar quality: people blinking as they emerge from the cave of the internet and try to mesh reality outside with reality online. That’s one of many meanings of a reality crisis. It was also enough to throw the people who run Twitter and Facebook into a panic for their, er, roles enabling it.
•Was the coup planned? They surely discussed it, the Trumps, supporters, militias and sympathizers among police and agencies like ICE. But maybe they were surprised by how easy it was getting in. Or treated it as a rehearsal.
What’s clear is that Trump has never said a word in favour of democracy. He has no commitment to it. This may answer a question which has been debated but not resolved, because the definitions are many and fluid and don’t seem to fit his lack of ideology or organization: is he a fascist?
The answer? In his own mind he is, and that’s where he lives. All he really knows about the realm of action is being surly and breaking anything within reach.
•President-elect intervenes. Joe Biden always comes onstage, as he did yesterday, like a man looking for the bathroom. There was a lawyer series I liked, The Practice. When they had a hopeless case they’d turn to Eugene, played by Steve Harris, and say, “It’s time for the U.S.A. defence.” He’d babble clichés at the judge, then solemnly conclude: “Because this is the United States of America.” It had no content but it always worked. Biden replicates it: “America … honour, decency … That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.” It’s pretty close to Make America Great Again. He’s better than Trump but his is also the way that leads back to Trump.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Image credit: Brett Davis/Flickr