We all know Marx’s remark that history repeats itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce. Marx had in mind the tragedy of the fall of Napoleon I and the later farce of the reign of his nephew Napoleon III. Back in the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse remarked that the lesson of Nazism seems to be the opposite one: first as a farce (throughout the 1920s, Hitler and his gang were mostly taken as a bunch of marginal political clowns), then as a tragedy (when Hitler effectively took power). Obviously, the intrusion of the mob into the Capitol also wasn’t a serious coup attempt, but a farce. Jake Angeli, the QAnon supporter known to all of us as the guy who entered the Capitol with a horned hat similar to a Viking helm, personifies the fakeness of the entire mob of protesters. Viking warriors are associated with horned helmets in popular culture, but there is no evidence that Viking helmets really had horns. They were invented in this shape by early 19th century Romantic imagination: so much for the authenticity of the protesters.
The same holds for Trump’s presidency. When our digital gang of four – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube – cancelled Trump’s online accounts, many commentators noticed the problematic aspect of this act. A private company (not even clear who, which body, in it) excluded someone from public space. This is a consequence of the privatization of digital commons, of the public space, in which we more and more communicate, especially in a time of lockdowns and bodily distancing. Trump was hit especially hard with this measure, because his main channel of reaching the public was sending tweets. Or, to quote Russell Sbriglia (from private correspondence):
“Could there possibly be a better exemplification of the logic of the ‘theft of enjoyment’ than the mantra that Trump supporters were chanting while storming the Capitol: ‘Stop the steal!’? The hedonistic, carnivalesque nature of the storming of the Capitol to ‘stop the steal’ wasn’t merely incidental to the attempted insurrection; insofar as it was all about taking back the enjoyment (supposedly) stolen from them by the nation’s others (i.e., Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ+, etc.), the element of carnival was absolutely essential to it.”
What happened on January 6 in the Capitol was not a coup attempt but a carnival. The idea that carnival can serve as the model for progressive protest movements – such protests are carnivalesque not only in their form and atmosphere (theatrical performances, humorous chants…), but also in their non-centralized organization – is deeply problematic. Is late-capitalist social reality itself not already carnivalesque? Was the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938 – this half-organized, half-spontaneous outburst of violent attacks on Jewish homes, synagogues, businesses, and people themselves – not a carnival, if there ever was one? Furthermore, is “carnival” not also the name for the obscene underside of power, from gang rapes to mass lynching? Let us not forget that Mikhail Bakhtin developed the notion of carnival in his book on Rabelais, written in the 1930s as a direct reply to the carnival of the Stalinist purges. Traditionally, in resisting those in power, one of the strategies of the “lower classes” has regularly been to use terrifying displays of brutality to disturb the middle-class sense of decency. But with the events on Capitol Hill, carnival again lost its innocence. Will, then, in this case also, the farce repeat itself as tragedy? Will it be followed by a serious violent (or, even better, not so violent) coup d’état?
There are certainly ominous signs pointing in this direction:
“A poll taken the day after the assault on the Capitol revealed that 45 percent of Republicans approve of the action and believe Trump must be imposed as president by force, while 43 percent oppose or least do not support the use of violence to achieve this end. The far Right has thus created a base of about 30 million people, an increasing number of whom explicitly reject the principle of democracy and are ready to accept authoritarian rule. We are lucky that the object of their veneration is crippled by narcissism and cognitive decline. It is only a matter of time, however, before a new Trump emerges, less delusional and more competent; the pathway to the installation of an authoritarian regime against the will of the majority of the electorate is now well established.”
But Trump is not just crippled by narcissism and cognitive decline; these two features are at the very roots of his success. His followers’ basic stance is that of a “cognitive decline,” of denying the true impact of the pandemic, of global warming, of racism and sexism in the US. For them, if there are any serious threats to the American way of life, they must be the result of a conspiracy. (The way the pandemic affected Trump is ambiguous: Trump basically lost the elections because of Covid, but his movement also gained strength from the way he reacted to the pandemic by denying its full impact.) Out of this decline emerged a substantial radical-right movement, a synergy of white supremacy, pandemic denials, and conspiracy theories. Its class base is (as in Fascism) a combination of the lower middle class white mob, afraid of losing their privileges, and of their discreet billionaire enablers.
Was the US state apparatus really disturbed by the Capitol intrusion? It may seem so: “America’s most senior general Mark Milley and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is comprised of the heads of each military branch, issued a statement Tuesday /January 12/ condemning the violent invasion of the US Capitol last week and reminding service members of their obligation to support and defend the Constitution and reject extremism.” The FBI is now investigating and prosecuting the protesters, but hidden traces of solidarity remain: as it was often noted, just imagine how much more brutally the authorities would have acted if BLM protesters were to lay siege on the Capitol… Protesters were not defeated; they simply went home (as Trump advised them to do), or, perhaps, to a nearby bar to celebrate their act.
Most of the Capitol protesters “flew from their affluent suburbs to the U.S. Capitol, ready to die for the cause of white privilege.” True, but many of them were also part of a lower-middle class, which sees their privileges threatened by the imagined coalition of big business (new digital media corporations, banks), state administration (controlling our daily lives, imposing lockdowns, masks, gun control and other limitations to our basic freedoms), natural catastrophes (pandemic, forest fires), and “others” (the poor, other races, LGBT+…) who are allegedly exhausting the state’s financial resources and compelling the state to raise taxes. Central here is the category of “our way of life”: socializing in bars and cafeterias or at large sport events the free car movement and the right to possess guns; the rejection of everything that poses a threat to these freedoms (like masks and lockdowns), and of state control (but not against controlling the “others”). Everything that poses a threat to this way of life (unfair Chinese trade practices, Politically Correct “terror,” global warming, pandemics…) is denounced as a plot. This “way of life” is clearly not class-neutral: it is the way of life of the white middle-class people who perceive themselves as the true embodiment of “what America is about.”
So, when we hear that the agent of this conspiracy did not just steal the elections but is taking from us (gradually eroding) our (way of) life, we should apply here another category, that of the theft of enjoyment. Jacques Lacan predicted way back in the early 1970s that capitalist globalization will give rise to a new mode of racism focused on the figure of the Other who either threatens to snatch from us our enjoyment (the deep satisfaction provided by our immersion into our way of life) or itself possesses and displays an excessive enjoyment that eludes our grasp. (Suffice it to recall anti-Semitic fantasies about secret Jewish rituals, white supremacist fantasies about superior sexual prowess of the Black men, the perception of Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers…) Enjoyment is not be confused here with sexual or other pleasures: it is a deeper satisfaction in our specific way of life or paranoia about the Other’s way of life. What disturbs us in the Other is usually embodied in small details of daily existence: the smell of their food, the loud sound of their music or laughter… Incidentally, was not a similar mix of fascination and horror present in the left-liberal reaction to the protesters breaking into the Capitol? “Ordinary” people breaking into the sacred seat of power, a carnival that momentarily suspended our rules of public life: there was a little bit of envy in all the condemnation.
The dimension of what Trumpist protesters are denying is terrifying. Despite the vaccine, the pandemic is still spreading, with social differences exploding. As for our environment, “the planet is facing a ‘ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals’ that threaten human survival because of ignorance and inaction, according to an international group of scientists, who warn people still haven’t grasped the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises.”
What we should focus on now is elements of a similar denial in Biden’s inauguration. Here is SE Cupp’s comment on the inauguration:
“It was almost as if none of it really happened. Except, of course it did. The last four years have tattooed a trauma on so many Americans, and it won’t fade overnight. There’s healing to do, and Biden has a long journey ahead. But at least for an hour or so at the United States Capitol, there was finally a much-needed respite from the madness, the moment of demarcation that will forever be 2020.”
Not only did it happen, but also it emerged out of the very world celebrated in “The Hill We Climb,” the poem read by the Young Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at Biden’s inauguration. Describing herself as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother [who] can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one,” she said:
“And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us / We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. /…/ We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. / We’ve seen a force that would shatter or nation, rather than share it. / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. / And this effort very nearly succeeded, but while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated in this truth.”
If the term “ideology” has any meaning, this is it – the fantasy of the establishment and progressives all joined together in a sublime moment of unity. When we are immersed in this unity, it effectively appears as if Trump didn’t really happen. But where did Trump and his followers come from? Does his rise not signal a deep crack in that unity? If we want to have any future, we must not put our differences aside, but do precisely the opposite: focus on our divisions and antagonisms, which traverse the US society, not the “uncivil war” between the liberal establishment and Trump followers, but the actual class antagonism and all its implications (racism, sexism, ecological crisis).
That’s why the calls for unity and healing divisions are false. Trump as such stands for radical division, for us against them (the “enemies of the people”), and the only proper way to beat him is to demonstrate that his division is a false one, that he is really one of “them” (a creature of the establishment “swamp”), and to replace this division with a more radical and truer one, namely the establishment with all its faces versus the broad unity of all emancipatory forces.
So, will the farce repeat itself as tragedy? There is no right answer that may be given in advance to this question. It depends on all of us, on our political mobilization, or the lack of it. “Be careful what you wish for!” Trump warned Biden apropos the idea to deposit him by way of evoking the 25th Amendment. Maybe Trump himself should have been careful what he wished for in his support of protesters. However, maybe, in the long term, he made a pertinent point: what Biden wished for is contradictory, an impossible dream, and the sooner we awaken from this dream the better for all of us. It was easy to defeat an obvious target like Trump. The real struggle begins now.
In the much-celebrated ceremony of the inauguration, there was a lone figure, who stole the show by just sitting there, sticking out as an element of discord disturbing the spectacle of bi-partisan unity: Bernie Sanders. As Naomi Klein put it, what mattered more than his mittens was his posture: “the slouch, the crossed arms, the physical isolation from the crowd. The effect is not of a person left out at a party but rather of a person who has no interest in joining. At an event that was, above all, a show of cross-partisan unity, Bernie’s mittens stood in for everyone who has never been included in that elite-manufactured consensus.” In his commentary of the inauguration, Bernie already described the contours of the struggle to come. Every philosopher knows how impressed Hegel was when he saw Napoleon riding through Jena. It was, for him, like seeing world spirit (the predominant historical tendency) riding on a horse… The fact that Bernie stole the show and that the image of him just sitting there instantly became an icon, overshadowing all the Gagas and Gormans, means that the true world spirit of our time was there, in his lone figure embodying skepticism about the fake normalization staged in the ceremony. And that there is still hope for our cause.