Opinion

The bloody power of symbolic gestures

Let's be more precise about what happened in Washington

The events of Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 were not an attempted coup.

Words mean things, and it's extremely important that we get our concepts right. A coup is an elite action, when people near the seat of power (usually senior members of the military) defy the law to overthrow a government and install another in its place.

In the current context, one example of a coup would be a faction of the armed forces intervening on Jan. 20 to prevent the Biden administration from taking power. We are, thankfully, nowhere near something like that happening. The upper ranks of the American military have very different sympathies. If Trump attempted to keep himself in power past noon on Jan. 20, which would be another form of attempted coup, the military would almost certainly back the lawful transfer of power by refusing to follow Trump's orders, thereby thwarting the power grab.

Now, it's possible to imagine a different outcome in the future. If Trumpism persists after its namesake is out of power and even grows in the ranks of the Republican Party, there could come a time when enough sympathetic people have climbed the military hierarchy that its leadership would back a coup attempt years from now. But we aren't there yet.

But then what, precisely, happened on Wednesday in the nation's capital?

As Mitt Romney put it in his remarks throughout that harrowing day, it was an insurrection, incited by the president of the United States, against the outcome of a democratic election. Because the insurrection was televised and because of the police were so overmatched by the throngs of Trumpists who entered the Capitol building, sending members of the House and Senate fleeing for their own safety, it looked and felt far more dangerous, and far worse, than it actually was.

Don't get me wrong — it was atrocious. But the insurrectionists were never going to topple the government of the United States or change the outcome of the election that their tribune lost. For that reason, their actions were awful mainly in a symbolic sense.

Symbols matter enormously in politics. And in a world of tweeted memes, virally shared TikTok clips, and YouTube streams beamed instantly to every corner of the world, the power of political symbolism has never been greater. Joe Biden and others can spout consoling bromides about how “this is not who we are,” but the world now knows that this is precisely who we are. We're a country whose core democratic institution — the national legislature — came under assault from an angry mob, egged on by the president, and for a couple of harrowing hours was unable to adequately defend itself. We look like an enfeebled, declining, imperial hegemon in a steep downward spiral.

But that, too, is insufficient to describe what we witnessed this week. That's because the insurrection took place against the backdrop of Congress attempting to finalize the results of the 2020 presidential election. In the end, the count of the electoral votes was completed, and Joe Biden's victory was affirmed, setting the stage for his inauguration less than two weeks from now.

How close did we come to a different outcome? It's impossible to know, because the 65 percent of the Republican caucus in the House (along with seven senators) who voted to object to Pennsylvania's vote tally (like the somewhat smaller number who objected to Arizona's) might have changed their stance if they knew they would prevail. Which is to say that the objection was a stunt designed to demonstrate loyalty to the outgoing president, and especially to his insurrectionary supporters. The whole point was for it to be a purely symbolic gesture of fealty.

And that points to the core truth about our situation.

For roughly the past three decades, right-wing media personalities have enriched themselves by cultivating and encouraging a virulent anti-liberalism among a segment of Republican voters. As the ranks of these voters have grown and they've been networked together into virtual communities through social media, increasing numbers of elected officials have begun to chase them, seeking their support, by validating the increasingly deranged views they are fed by media profit-seekers.

Donald Trump's primary and general-election victories in 2016 massively enhanced the power and intensity of this anti-liberal feedback loop. What we've witnessed since the November election has been its fullest flowering yet: the president, right-wing media, and dozens of members of Congress spreading and validating conspiratorial lies among a segment of the electorate — and then doing its bidding in the name of democratic representation.

Why did Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and the others flatter the delusions of those who stormed the Capitol building and cheer them on by casting their symbolic votes to reject the outcome of the election? They did so because, as a YouGov poll conducted on Wednesday made clear, roughly 45 percent of Republican voters approved of what happened in Washington that afternoon.

The insurrectionists are their constituents.

The Republican Party and its media allies have created this monster for the sake of personal advantage and without the slightest shred of regard for its consequences on the country's capacity for self-government. The monster is a faction of Republican voters who are increasingly incapable of participating in democratic politics and who long for a form of tyrannical rule.

That's why the most significant event of this week for the long-term viability of democracy in America may well have been the speeches of the outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who clearly and forthrightly refused to continue to engage in symbolic acts of fealty to the anti-democratic mob fighting for control of their party. They finally reached a line that they refused to cross.

That's welcome. But is it too late to tame the monster, especially when so many others are happy to continue feeding it scraps of red meat for the sake of their own political gain? I suspect that things have gone too far to be turned back now. But it's hard to say. If Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms extend their newly enacted restrictions on Donald Trump's use of the platforms, that could largely deprive the insurrectionists of access to the most gifted and destructive demagogue in American history. Someone else could rise up to take his place, or another social media platform could emerge as an alternative means of communication and organization. But even a temporary disruption could help to calm some of the anti-democratic passions churning through the right at the moment.

Longer term, there's no telling what's likely to happen. The chilling events of this week have given us a glimpse of one possible American future — one where symbolic gestures in defiance of democracy give way to real-world acts with potentially dire consequences.

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