Opinion

The limits of LARPing

America's play-acting of civil war briefly turns real

For years now, my central thesis about American public life has been that it is fundamentally unreal, a kind of live action role-playing game augmented by digital technology.

The competing participatory narratives by which we experience politics have almost no connection to the banal reality of a sclerotic two-party system that primarily exists in order to increase the gross domestic product and the share prices of publicly traded corporations. Even at their respective partisan extremes — QAnon, Russiagate conspiracies, "Abolish the family" lunacy — the stories we tell ourselves about the perfidy of our leaders are a kind of ideological fan fiction.

I cannot remember a single day in the last five years when I was not solemnly assured that "our democracy," as Joe Biden recently put it, was not subject to an "unprecedented assault." The form of the supposed incursion of the forces of darkness varied: an administration official refusing to answer a bad-faith query from a journalist; a press conference with a foreign leader; earmarking federal funds for an ill-fated infrastructure project; a phone call; the use of tear gas outside the White House. Meanwhile this summer we allowed a group of anarchists to take control of a downtown neighborhood in Seattle. We watched the burning of storefronts with a studied indifference, and perhaps even a kind of exhilaration. Everywhere statues, buildings, and other emblems of civic authority were destroyed or otherwise defaced with impunity, and the burning and looting of cities was either dismissed as the harmless operation of a kind of pressure relief valve or, in some circles, as welcome compliance with the dictates of justice.

At one level we are comfortable with this unreality. Sated by an endless supply of cheap consumer goods and idiotic entertainment, we are happy to pretend that we are overthrowing a despotism or surviving a coup attempt when we are not busy letting algorithms tell us what type of laundry detergent we should purchase. But cognitive dissonance only goes so far. A small voice, one that perhaps only one person in a thousand or even a hundred thousand will bother listening to, says: "If you really think this, why don't you do something about it?"

On Wednesday we saw the limits of LARPing. The longed-for irruption of what Marxist intellectuals call "the real" — an actual attempt at the destruction of one of the most enduring symbols of the American civic order — happened. Supporters of a president who only moments before had been insisting that the recent election was illegitimate took him at his word and stormed the U.S. Capitol, smashing windows, occupying the floors of both chambers, vandalizing offices, skirmishing with police officers. At least one person appears to have been shot dead. Republican elected officials who had been only too happy to pretend that the fate of democracy itself depended upon the success of their absurd procedural gambit fled in terror. Liberal politicians who had decried the use of the National Guard to disperse looters only a few months ago screamed for a crackdown. Men and women with "Back the Blue" stickers fought with law enforcement in the streets. Unverified bombs everywhere.

There is a bizarre quality to the images of the protestors. Groups of tentative faces huddled around the ropes, as if unsure whether they should proceed after breaching the initial security checkpoints; men in body paint and plastic Viking hats screaming in the faces of cops; a lone fanatic in a beanie making a Roman salute in the speaker's chair while a journalist looks on from the gallery above; a congressman in some kind of spacesuit fleeing goodness knows where; bearded men waving as they make away with podiums emblazoned with public seals — one imagines the storming of the Bastille carried out by a group of college football tailgaters. But far stranger than their appearance is the lunatic inevitability with which virtually all of these people will return home to television, social media, consumption, gainful employment. This fact is in some sense even more horrifying than the violence itself.

What did Wednesday's events show us? I wish I could believe that the response would be a collective feeling that something has gone too far, that our tacit encouragement of a lunatic and conspiratorial politics has taken us to a dark place far beyond the comfortable ports of liberal capitalist decadence.

This does not seem to me likely. Instead I expect that in the weeks and months to come all the competing meta-narratives will be reinforced by Wednesday's violence. The basic epistemic disjuncture in American society will be strengthened. Fifty percent of the country is not going to change its mind about the results of the election. A senile president incapable of maintaining order in the capital of the republic will continue to be regarded as an essentially Hitlerian figure rather than Wall Street's second choice for the enrichment of our ruling class. Millions of Americans sat in front of their televisions and computer screens utterly enraptured by what was taking place, but what they saw will recede into memory. These events will alternately be regarded as confirmation of the threat of reactionary violence that apparently always lurked at the heart of this presidency and as the doomed last stand of America's remaining patriots.

The truth, that what should have been a harmless protest of the election results was allowed to descend into mob violence, will survive elsewhere, unregarded, unconfirmed, even, perhaps, unverifiable.

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