One of the stranger elements of the current era is the juxtaposition of the cataclysmic and ridiculous.
No one denies that riots in the Capitol have a certain end-of-the-line feeling about them. At the same time, the aesthetics of the riot itself, with House floor invaders dressed in wolf pelts and snapping selfies, make the whole thing a little difficult to take seriously. It reminds one of cosplay, in which people dress up as their favorite action heroes, or of LARPing, live-action role-playing: both are essentially acting out video games.
Sure, we’ve been facing a collapse of institutional trust and what is likely to be continued and escalating political violence since summer, but put me face to face with the country’s most reviled “terrorist,” and I’m not sure I could keep from laughing. CNN and MSNBC anchors gravely push the need for broad censorship and a domestic PATRIOT Act to counter the threat of extremism, alongside video of a man in a Superman suit with a Trump mask. Osama bin Laden seems almost decorous—if exponentially more evil—by comparison.
At the inauguration of the 46th president, thousands upon thousands of soldiers lined the streets of the Mall and Capitol Hill, a facsimile of a nation under siege. Yet when the cameras were gone and the role played, our National Guardsmen were relegated to parking garages and Port-A-Potties, especially poor and foolish treatment if we were to take seriously the offensive cries about their potential “extremism.”
Across the pond, the Museum of London has just announced it will be displaying the “Trump baby” blimp, a preposterous-looking round plastic ball with orange skin and a puckered mouth that flew over protestors to Trump’s visit as he attempted to cement the “special relationship.” The blimp’s owners hope it will “stand as a reminder of when London stood against Trump.” If you read this with a straight face, you’re either a stalwart soldier of the revolution or made of stone.
It’s bad enough that the end of the American experiment in self-government seems more of a realistic possibility than at any point in most of our lifetimes, but to confront that it might come to such a ridiculous end is at once too much to bear and perfectly appropriate. Perhaps not knowing whether to laugh or cry is a feature, not a bug.
Maybe this combination of tragedy and farce is exactly the kind of mind-numbing bizarro world we should expect when the most powerful cultural and political faction of the age, woke technocratic neoliberalism, can be summed up neatly as an empathy-based movement devoid of any genuine empathy.
The ridiculous appearance of most of the Capitol rioters and blue-haired, genderless Antifa members lends the very real havoc they create a kind of television sheen. It can’t possibly be the case that the greatest republic in the history of mankind will be brought down by such transparent losers. Their LARPy veneer permits the rest of us watching to remain detached from each other as well as the outcome of the games, which, incidentally, will be officiated by Lady Gaga.
Perhaps it’s little wonder then, that out of those planning to watch Biden’s inauguration last Wednesday, a full 37 percent admitted they were tuning in to watch any attendant violence—which failed to materialize—in addition to the new president’s speech, plus another 6 percent who were honest enough to say it was the only reason to watch. “Look ma, the revolution’s on!”
As one of his last acts in office, President Trump has released the names of those whose statues (with the art world as unserious as it is, who will make them?) will be placed in the newly created Garden of Heroes. Reading through the list, it struck me just how dignified each and every one of them—with all their flaws, scandals, political heresies and mistakes—was by comparison.
That’s true of not just the ones you’d expect, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, and Antonin Scalia, but even those with fewer nation-shaping deeds to their names, like Lauren Bacall and Alex Trebek. If we are so unfortunate as to, in true pagan fashion, depart this life to be judged by our ancestors, we should tremble.
We don’t tremble, though. Our reaction to these simultaneously grim and ludicrous events has been more Hunger Games excitement than a sincere search for a way forward, even as the very real consequences, up to and including the loss of fellow Americans to coronavirus and political violence, pile up.
The right cosplays 1990, while the left pretends 74 million Americans will vanish into thin air if Jack yanks them off Twitter. If a global pandemic, economic collapse, and violence in our streets and seat of government cannot shake us from our decadent stupor and turn us to the difficult task of rebuilding institutions worthy of the public trust, it remains to be seen what can.