The spectre of Trump’s spectacles

What exactly happened in Washington on ‘Black Wednesday’?

Former US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by the US Congress in Washington on January 6, 2021 [Reuters/Jim Bourg]

Over the past week, America and much of the world have watched and rewatched, again and again, footage of the spectacular events which unfolded in Washington on January 6. But they are yet to agree on what exactly went down in and around the Capitol that day.

Was it an act of resistance against corrupt legislators? A violent riot? Mob-inflicted mayhem? An attempted coup? A case of domestic terrorism or an act of sedition against the beacon of US democracy?

President Donald Trump & co saw it as a “legitimate protest”, albeit gone chaotic. President-elect Joe Biden insisted it was “an insurrection”, albeit gone amiss.

Words matter. Words shape thinking and frame actions. Words express concepts. Concepts have political, security and legal ramifications.

What then should we call what transpired on Capitol Hill on January 6?

Calling the violent mob riots “legitimate protest” gone awry, is preposterous. A careful dissection of Trump’s speech immediately before the riots and his social media activity in the preceding weeks signal a serious effort by the president and his minions to disrupt Congress’s certification of the election results.

On the other hand, the evidence seen so far – the lack of secrecy, strategy, contingency, complicity, and precision needed to take over the powers of state – renders the labels “attempted coup”, “sedition”, or “terrorism”, less appropriate.

Indeed, once rioters entered the Capitol, they seemed keener on strolling than controlling the place; happier wearing and waving the Confederate flag than in raising it over Congress. They looked more interested in sitting in the seat of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, rather than toppling her from it. They even walked away with the House lectern without declaring victory from it.

The rioters came from different states, belonged to different groups and had different agendas. And while they shared certain lofty slogans and grandiose goals, none had an action plan or a clear objective for when they got in. Certainly, not to mount a coup.

When we think of a “coup d’etat”, we generally think of soldiers or mercenaries with faces painted black, dressed in military fatigues, heavily armed and ready to carry out their secret conspiracy to take over the government.

But pro-Trump rioters organised openly online, then filmed their entire journeys, they coloured their faces red, blue and white, wore military fatigues, capes made of flags, and other strange costumes of mythical heroes from TV and video games.

The only “coup” these hooligans carried out was in fashion not in politics.

For these reasons, it seems like “violent riots” may be a more accurate description of what went down, but since that also describes clashes after a football match, perhaps “violent riots bordering on insurrection” is more precise.

But this too misses the big picture. It obfuscates the role of the president, “the trickster-in-chief”, and ignores the context and nature of the Trump era.

Therefore, what transpired on Capitol Hill on January 6 was first and foremost a “spectacle”, a “media spectacle” par excellence. And as with all things Trump, the US media cashed in on it big time. CNN, for example, enjoyed the most-watched day in its history.

Trump’s spectacles have a way of superseding reality and eventually replacing it. They are driven by fiction, not fact, and shaped by fantasy, not reality.

Trump falsely claimed the elections were rigged simply because he lost. He called on his supporters to join a “big protest in DC on January 6”, telling them, “Be there, will be wild!” They came and it was wild. Crazy wild spectacle.

He told them to march on to the Capitol and assured them he would go with them. He did not. Not because he is a liar or a coward, God forbid.

Rather, because he prefers watching everything on TV than in real life. And he did – from the comfort of the White House.

Footage of the smug president and his smug family watching on TV screens his supporters gather for the rally earlier that day said it all.

This is all consistent with the president’s record of spending more time watching, appearing on and obsessing about TV, than on presiding over the urgent affairs of the country.

But this was not any show. This was Trump’s ultimate spectacle, the culmination of his four-year presidential spectacles, but more spectacular than them. It was his Battle of the Alamo, and like John Wayne, he produced, directed and starred in it. Then it all blew up in his face, bigly.

And so, just as the Trump presidency began with spectacle, it seems appropriate that it ended with another. As French philosopher Guy Debord wrote in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle half a century ago, “The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed.”

Back in January 2017, Trump delivered his hyperbolic American carnage speech at the steps of the Capitol and then he lied about the size of the crowd assembled at his inauguration, turning a minor issue into a national comedy. And last week, his presidency ended in a real carnage spectacle in the Capitol, carried out under the ridiculous pretext of rigged elections.

In between these two events, for four long years, Trump dictated and exhausted the media, indeed national agenda, through quick-paced leaps from one spectacle to another. His presidency proved to be the gift that keeps on giving countless scandals, fiascos, fanaticism, psychopathy, humiliation, delusion, and deception.

And just when it seemed like last week’s disastrous spectacle was going to be the last of his spectacles, the president went the full circle again, showing up at his border wall near Alamo – the real one – for another spectacle of phoney patriotism, railing against the spectre of Mexican and Muslim threats, exactly as he did at the very beginning of his 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump is living proof of the spectacle in its worst forms, with unmatched capacity for deception, repetition, delusion and exclusion.

His success in mounting these spectacles is to a large extent the media’s failure. US media outlets have long taken the expedient way of making the easy buck from his tantrums.

This must all stop when he leaves office next week. Otherwise, prepare for another round of more violent spectacles.