What happened on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was uniquely bizarre and unwonted, but perhaps not in the way it looked at first. It was not a coup, if by a coup one means the illegal and violent seizure of power. Illegal and violent the day most certainly was, but there was no question of seizing power by sending a cosplay gallery of motley characters to the Senate chamber. Even as a pretext for military action from Trump, the event was hardly suitable. A coup is a different kind of political act altogether. Turn to Turkey in 2016 for an example.
I would not object to calling it a “coup,” though, and that takes me to what I find most interesting about the events. We cannot interpret them within the framework of the American political tradition. They are significant because they signal a more radical shift. While a literal coup would have a precise meaning within that tradition, what happened Wednesday leaves us speechless. Look at the most-shared photos from inside the Capitol.
There is the one where a figure wearing a horned Viking helmet poses on the Senate dais while his companions snap photos. One lies pensively on the floor, seemingly on the phone. (The horned Viking turned out to be Jake Angeli, a professional actor.) In another, a gleeful insurrectionist sports a pom-pom woolen hat as he carries off a podium bearing the seal of the Speaker of the House. I was also struck by the image of the mob outside wearing a clothing line emblazoned with “Civil War, January 6, 2021,” referring to the very production in which they were now playing a role. By the end of the evening, as the Senate reconvened in somber tones, the insurrectionists were spotted having cocktails in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. Meantime, and as events on Capitol Hill developed, the Dow rallied 400 points to close at an all-time high. Not bad for a coup.
This was not theater, because a play is a safe and riskless activity, but it was roleplaying, which can be decidedly more dangerous for the participants—five people have died in these events. The “coup” ended, appropriately, when the main plotter was banned temporarily from social media. It was not a coup in the real world, but it was experienced as one by those taking part. More interestingly, those shocked by the events in the Senate were no less captured by the fantasy and might still believe that a real coup was attempted and defeated. In Washington, you can apparently now have the full “coup” experience in just a few hours. The action takes place in a kind of virtual reality, where terrible accidents can and do happen, but more tragic consequences to the political regime and the viewers at home are somehow prevented.
Does this mean that the Capitol extravaganza was trivial or unimportant? Not at all. In some strange way it was more significant than a real coup. A coup would at least make sense, while the almost complete replacement of serious politics by subterranean fantasy and roleplaying induces a sense of vertigo. Our traditional way of relating to the world has increasingly collapsed. Nothing seems real, and doubts persist about what to think or say in the face of this new situation. In the Senate debate that preceded the chaos, Ted Cruz was heard shouting to his colleagues: “Be bold. Astonish the viewers.” Prophetic words. We were astonished.
Think of Trump not as an autocratic ruler, a politician dealing in hard facts, but as someone who lives so enmeshed in his own dream life that he now expects events in the real world to follow automatically from those fantasies. Trump always seemed to me to represent the Degree Zero of fantasy: the irritability with the frustrations and inconvenience of real life, the desire for a life free of the constraints of political correctness or even good manners. What was missing was the genuinely creative act, the complex relations of a fictional world. Regrettably, there seems to be only one tested way to deal with these psychoanalytical afflictions: to force the fantasy to crash against reality, and that is what happened on Wednesday.
In his recent interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama initially tries to see Trump as an authority figure—even a proto-fascist—only to confess his puzzlement: “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter.” But is that Trump? No, rather the opposite. He is much closer to the characters of Dreampolitik so vividly captured by Joan Didion: the bikers who no longer regard the small irritations of life as something to be tolerated, the aspiring actresses who regard the future as somehow managed by a Hollywood divinity with its benevolent providence. “Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or hassling: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.” Later in the interview, Obama comes closer to the truth, though predictably he recoils from accepting it. Trump is not a figure of authority but a figure of freedom—freedom understood as the realization of every desire, no matter how extreme, in the here and now—and therefore someone representing powerful and growing forces in contemporary American society.
In this vision, the world exists to provide a stage for our fantasies. This is harem politics on the grandest scale. Unseemly and, in its current form, most likely unsustainable. What strikes is how much it relies on destruction as a force. There was only one alternative to Trump and that was to push Trumpism to the breaking point. And yet, all throughout the Trump years, the system worked. I think it worked even better than people assume, because the American system of government is not meant to be a placid Northern European social democracy. It is meant to create considerable room for the enactment of political fantasies, while preventing them from becoming too real. Every time Trump pushed things in the direction of reality—in the direction of imposing his stories on everyone else as real—the system pushed back, not so much by moving toward some more-accepted version of the world but by insisting that Trump and his followers remain mostly within the domain of fiction and playacting, that is, in the world of Dreampolitik. The system worked, but the problem is it now works to prevent only catastrophic outcomes, and it works through cycles of boom and bust.
Would it be better to replace fantasy with a proper sense of the real world? Ideally, yes, perhaps, but we’re now seemingly past that. The real world is almost a figment. We live surrounded by the Internet—we live inside it—and the institutionalized truth of the past has lost its hold. The hierarchical society, religion, the old elites, the natural limits of technology: all the monuments of the past are struggling to survive in the new America. So we will have to be somewhat more sophisticated about these matters. It’s not that all the conspiracies and prophecies multiplying on both the Right and the Left should be taken seriously, but that it has become increasingly difficult to say what should—the real world? Perhaps the Supreme Court could tell us where to find it. At this point, the best one can hope for are better fantasies, better attempts at world-making than our current political dramas. Where have you gone, Ronald Reagan? A lonely nation . . . and so on.
It looks like a beginning. A disastrous one, in many respects, but does anyone believe the demons unleashed in the past few years can be put back in their box and the lid firmly shut? James Madison argued in The Federalist that the way to break the violence of faction is to create a greater variety of interests and parties, so that a majority is not allowed to arise. The lesson remains valuable today, when the violence of fiction can be broken by multiplying its sources and, paradoxically, giving it freer rein — as Madison wanted to give faction a free rein, and was deemed mad for saying it. But a new James Madison and a new Alexander Hamilton would have their work cut out for them today because the institutional framework of the virtual society—a political theory of virtualism—still waits to be developed. This will require deep reforms in how the Internet, technology, and the media landscape are organized. We have only begun.
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