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The Capitol Insurrection Had Me Back on My Grade School Battlefield

Then, the imaginary struggle also turned to real violence. But this time, no one seemed sorry.

Dorothy Woodend 13 Jan 2021 |

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

In Grade 4, our entire elementary school class went to war. In the woods behind the school we formed two armed camps and enacted battles, spy campaigns, raids and the occasional kidnapping and ransom.

The centre of this struggle was two forts, made from branches that we hacked off nearby cedar trees and used to swath our hideouts. Kids brought knives and even hacksaws to school, the better to cut bigger, heavier branches to add to the fortifications. Though teachers lectured us about not playing in the woods, we were obsessed with the dramas of conflict that we’d created.

Like a miniature Game of Thrones, things began to escalate until one day I had the distinctly queasy sensation that the game had gotten out of hand, and real violence was in the air.

That feeling returned to me last week, as I watched the mob of people, some dressed up in LARP gear — helmets, furs and face paint — overrun the U.S. Capitol like a bunch of rogue children.

While the adult business of certifying the election results was taking place inside, outside these Lord of the Flies castaways were breaking down the doors, trying to disrupt the action. The fevered fantasia of video games, reality TV and a thousand action films scattered reality to the four winds.

Not only had these folks lost the plot, they willingly let the plot overwhelm them. And they were happy about it. “Gleeful desecrators” is how one commentator described it. Like the Dukes of Hazzard on meth, the caped liberators roamed the hallways of power, a few steps ahead of the law. Or so they thought.

Like most people, I was riveted. But along with the horror was a great deal of familiarity, from Grade 4 war games but also throughout my life. Anyone who grew up in rural North America would likely recognize members of this bullshitter army. A lot of them resembled my relatives, people I went to high school with, even old boyfriends.

But as the details emerged, the darkness got deeper. The raiders weren’t just redneck extremists, QAnon followers and Proud Boys, they were all kinds of people — young women, grandmas, Olympic athletes, cops, even politicians. Any trace of the comical quickly disappeared as the brutal goals of the insurrection became clear.

Throughout the Trump presidency there have been many moments when the fabric of reality seems to melt and warp. Moments so surreal it was hard to believe what was happening, but perhaps none more so than what took place on Jan. 6.

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times about fantasy running roughshod over reality, described the capering animus as like a dalliance with occult forces. “Because Trump is, however incompetently, the president and not just a character in an online role-playing game, by turning to the dreamworld he made himself a conduit for the dream to enter into reality, making the dreamers believe in the plausibility of direct action, giving us the riot and its dead.”

What does it take to make people turn away from reality and indulge in blood-soaked mob action? Art holds a few answers.

An upcoming exhibition of painter Francisco Goya’s work in New York offers a window into earlier precedents, and it’s not a pretty picture. As a Guardian article notes, “Over 200 years ago, this Spanish artist perfectly captured the kind of collective delusion and mass fanaticism that swarmed the U.S. Capitol last week. The mob of Trump supporters who assaulted the home of American democracy were as inflamed as the crowd who march with crazed eyes behind a manic musician in The Pilgrimage to San Isidoro, as dangerous as the hate-drunk crowd in The Second of May 1808, spellbound by their goat-headed charismatic idol.”

As Goya’s paintings make clear, the demented joy that comes from inverting power dynamics is old stuff. But recent events had a more cinematic sheen to them. Stoked by Call of Duty and perhaps repeated screenings of Braveheart, the mob’s thirst for blood and violence resembled a film scene from hell. High on hate and patriotic sloganeering, they moved like a murmuration of ragged raptors, festooned in red, white and blue plumage.

851px version of CapitolMob.jpg
The Capitol mob, ‘high on hate and patriotic sloganeering.’ Photo by Alex Gakos, via Shutterstock.

The willful clinging to such fantasies of victory has been stoked by more than just Trump and his coteries. There is an entire entertainment complex, call it the military/industrial/action-hero complex, that’s been churning out product since the time of D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation.

Hollywood plays a role in fostering the belief that the common people can and should hold the powerful to account. Tales of ordinary folk besting the Washington fat cats with good old-fashioned country values are legion. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington doesn’t track so well when the central characters are pooping on the stairs and threatening to lynch members of Congress.

Still, when the authorities came calling with arrest warrants and real-world repercussions, those who took part in the insurrection wailed, kicked and carried on like crybabies. Most striking to me was the sense of surprise that there might be serious and adult implications, stuff like getting fired, arrested or being put on a no-fly list.

A certain tangy schadenfreude attended scenes of people being escorted off airplanes, but as much as it is enjoyable to see comeuppance served hot, I oddly felt a sense of pity. Many of these folks weren’t the brightest lights around.

People who’d placed their faith in the departing president, believing that like Santa Claus he might bring them what they want, a sense of being important and of value, seemed as confused and bewildered by the sudden turn of events.

The other elephant in the room? A tiny virus expelled in mass quantities from screaming, unmasked crowds is also making itself known. The number of people who thronged together to break down doors and smash windows that will get sick and die is yet to be seen, but surely there couldn’t be riper conditions for the rapid spread of disease.

But the real agents of chaos, the people who stoked the fire and set it loose, slipped away. Some tendered their resignations with hand-wringing soppiness and pious protestations of shock and dismay. Whether they will reap what they sowed is unclear.

As writer James Baldwin once remarked about his countrymen and women, “I never met a people more infantile in my life.” There’s always been a contingent of the American population that believed the propaganda about being the greatest nation on earth, but movies and television must bear some of the blame for expanding this infantilism exponentially.

It’s as old as America itself — the notion that you can get away with stuff if you’re brazen enough. This was one of the defining qualities of the attack on the Capitol, the sense of immature inviolability and invincibility.

But these were not kids. Even kids know better. Most children have an innate grasp of justice from a very early age. If they do something wrong, generally they know it and the sense of shame and guilt is immediate. Confronted with the truth of their bad behaviour, there might be a few clumsy lies and attempts to avoid getting into trouble, but most apologize and ask for forgiveness.

In this aspect, the insurrectionists behaved far worse than children, in that they don’t seem to recognize that threatening to kill people, or actually killing them, warranted any remorse at all.

Back in the woods in Grade 4, when the sulfurous stink of real violence coiled off our small bodies the ugliness of it was enough to stop the game. We stepped back from the brink and trooped back to the classroom, to chant the multiplication tables with a renewed sense of rigour and dedication.

Who knows if the people who participated, at every level, in the events that took place in the Capitol experienced a similar recoil? Maybe some did, but others who are too soaked in the Kool-Aid. It takes concentrated, constant effort to make people abandon their sense of right and wrong.

The events of Jan. 6 made me feel an oceanic sadness for people so desperate to believe in a fantasy that they would follow a POTUS Pied Piper into the mouth of hell itself, forsaking reason and decency for the dream of monsters.  [Tyee]

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