Much has been, is being and will be written about January 6, 2021. The supporters of a sitting president of the United States stormed the Capitol to stop Congress’s joint session from certifying the Electoral College vote. For a couple of hours, the world’s most iconic democracy looked like a shambolic mobocracy, with scenes of insurrection and chaos broadcasted across the globe.
This pseudo-coup shocked the public mind, and rightly so: unlike our ancestors, we remain unaccustomed to the sudden eruption of violence. To see the Capitol’s neoclassical halls assailed, to witness the impotence of law enforcement, to hear democracy tremble as angry crowds violate one of the nation’s most sacred symbols, these are extraordinary sights that seem to demand hyperbole.
In the face of these most-unusual scenes, some deplored the downfall of American conservatism; others called for retribution. Politics aside, however, we should all agree upon one thing: January 6, 2021 symbolizes America’s state of decrepit decadence.
What happened on Capitol Hill was not a coup, if we take the term to mean the brutal and illegitimate seizure of power. The participants were not Machiavellian revolutionaries, well-organized brigades or careful Jacobins. Wearing Viking helmets, flaunting their oversized tattoos, taking photos with police officers and live streaming the event online, the rioters formed a procession of clueless role players. They rejoiced in the performative character of their violent actions, devoid of fundamental purpose.
The damage they caused was real, and its symbolism morbid. But the insurrectionists displayed an almost child-like desire to disrupt, to destroy and to be seen. It is no coincidence that some wore costumes, took photos and painted their faces with extravagant colors. Blurring the line between reality and fantasy, the members of this macabre carnival behaved like bad actors in a play about a coup that was happening in real time. At once real and unreal, this pseudo-revolutionary attempt showed us the face of an America that retains its veneer of order but is crumbling within.
Two particular moments illustrated this state of spiritual disarray. First was the entrance of “Q Shaman,” an actor turned conspiracy theorist who spent hours preaching to the crowd. With his horned fur helmet, his bearded face and his athletic figure, the man looked like a pagan prophet. In a sense, he was one: The Shaman’s screams fueled the determination of his followers, most of whom belonged to the QAnon movement — whose members hold that Donald Trump is confronting an elitist cabal of paedophiles who want to enslave us all.
We could hardly design a more fitting symbol of political decadence than a mob of ordinary Americans storming the Capitol in the name of a grotesque, but nonetheless dangerous, theory. The pagan imagery, the mythical story and the tragedy masquerading as farce, all represent the gradual dismemberment of America’s uniting narrative — the culmination of decades of economic precarity, opioid addiction and dysfunctional education.
Another notable episode happened when a pack of rioters, after breaking windows to get into the Capitol building, stayed inside the red ropes to admire the statues in the room. Some took photos while others stayed silent for several minutes; all looked amazed, if not awed. This scene contrasted with usual coup attempts. Typical revolutionaries do not spend 20 minutes gazing at the artistic wonders of the parliament that they purport to overturn.
More importantly, however, this image serves to illustrate a certain sense of cultural malaise: While accomplishing one of the most unpatriotic acts imaginable, the rioters seemed to discover the grandeur of America for the very first time. For some, the Capitol’s statues acted as an unprecedented encounter with beauty, art and majesty. The rioters did not just lack organization, tact and talent — they also fundamentally misunderstood what they were fighting against.
Of course, we can hold that Wednesday’s events symbolize wider malfunctions without excusing the insurrectionists and their violence. But this chaos should make us realize the need to rebuild our communities and institutions. As Gustave le Bon put it, “the beginning of a revolution is in reality the end of a belief.” Let this belief be the deluded idea that we can leave entire swaths of our population to rot in deserted towns wherein mass inequality, spiritual blackout and dismembered families reign supreme.
On the evening of January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Ill. His speech intervened after a series of odious crimes committed by pro-slavery mobs. Twenty-eight years of age, the burgeoning orator offered an analysis of mob violence that is directly applicable to our present situation.
“Whenever the vicious portion of [our] population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn, ravage and rob,” Lincoln began. “This government cannot last.”
To counter the vices of extremists, Lincoln defended the erection of a “political religion,” a sense of national identity that would bring everyone into the tent of republicanism. Citing a series of day-to-day examples, Lincoln explained that political institutions require the cultivation of certain habits that must ingrain themselves into the very structure of popular feeling. From schools to seminaries, every facet of American life must teach and celebrate republican principles to shape what Lincoln later called the “public mind.”
We are now faced with the very same challenge — to reintroduce a deep-rooted sentiment of political citizenship that goes beyond the biological drives of Homo sapiens and the self-interested pursuits of Homo economicus. To unite an America where 45 percent of Republicans support the storming of the Capitol is no easy task. While President Biden must talk to the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump, he cannot do so by treating them as children, by finding excuses or by whitewashing the crimes of extremist mobs. The perpetuation of our political institutions demands both reconciliation and shame: to hold the insurrectionists and their leaders accountable, to bulldoze the most nefarious remnants of Trump’s legacy, to rebuild America’s physical and digital infrastructure and to reinstate a semblance of public trust.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.