A doomed, feral coup wrapped in a hesitant, cowardly lynching
Feralness without real power is murderous and ugly and destructive; but it’s still just feral in the end. This was feral.
That is me, at 9-years-old, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The back of the picture just says: “Feb. 1980. Billy Townsend + Abe.” I assume my dad took it. In 1980, he was a top environmental official in Florida Gov. Bob Graham’s administration. He brought me along on one of his business trips to D.C.
I’m writing a much longer, deeper piece about history and the visual metaphor of that picture. But another visual metaphor from D.C. intruded on Wednesday.
Let’s be clear: the Trump/Hawley/Cruz etc. Capitol mob no more believed or cared if the presidential election was stolen than lynch mobs believed or cared if the person they were lynching was guilty. It’s the same instinct. Both mobs did what they did because they enjoyed it. They liked it. It was fun. It made them feel good and powerful. This was a feral boat parade that murdered a police officer.
The joy of the mob’s feral power is fundamental to American history and its distribution of formal political and economic power. It has always been part of the American governing instinct. It just never happened inside Congress before.
So here’s what happened on Wednesday: a massive armed white lynch mob — including military and law enforcement people out of uniform — carrying the Confederate battle flag stormed the Capitol. There’s nothing new about that. Nothing. That’s exactly how it’s always happened. Those same people have stormed countless buildings and lives throughout American history. I wrote a book about it.
Viking Hat Dude is the diminished, minority heir to the joyfully violent and murderous majoritarian racial and cultural power of American history. He’s the heir to Rosewood.
All that’s new is that Congress contains women and people of color and modern boogeyman “liberals” and “radical progressives” and “communists” at enough scale to make it attractive to lynchers as a target. If Congress had contained them at scale in 1923, the Rosewood mob (or the Tulsa mob or the Ocoee mob or the Omaha mob or the Claude Neal mob or the Putnam and Polk County mobs or the Chicago mobs or the Elaine mobs and on and on and on) would have hit Congress, too, eventually. In the name of freedom, or something.
It appears there were on Wednesday a handful of zip tie-carrying “coup plotters” who might have taken hostages or murdered leaders if they had gotten to them. But for the most part, this was a joyfully violent mob that kinda thought it wanted to lynch Congress. The coup plotters meant business; everybody else was looking for fun. Of course, coup plotting and joyfully violent mobs can become indistinguishable. And often have.
Yes, Officer Brian Sicknick was murdered fighting the mob, as honorable a sacrifice as has ever been made by an American police officer. But no one actually got “lynched” in the historical sense, even though police eventually surrendered control of the Capitol to the mob; and its members could have done whatever they wanted in the moment.
They could have murdered many more people and gotten into the chambers if they were really willing to sacrifice a few of their own lives for Q and their “beliefs” and “Lost Cause”.
That suggests something about courage of thugs and the invisible limits imposed — even by the mob itself — by all the years of seemingly futile American grinding against joyful majoritarian political violence. The sacking of Omaha in 1919 was almost exactly the same, but quite different. Feralness without real power is murderous and ugly and destructive; but it’s still just feral in the end. This was feral.
And that’s why having and losing righteous, moral confrontations with superior power — with concentrated capital and concentrated guns — is the oxygen of representative self-government. You never know the limits you’re imposing the when you do the right thing — even in defeat.
Many police agree with the MAGA mob. (Just listen to them talk most days. The silence of “leaders” like Grady “fake Antifa press conferences” Judd speak deafeningly today. ) Some police actively participated. And state security forces treated the mob with appalling deference not shown to actual peaceful Capitol demonstrators.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that American concentrated capital and concentrated guns would have wiped out MAGA if it had gone full lynch mob and killed Mike Pence for Trump or started killing Congresspeople. And everyone seemed to know it — the MAGA QAnon mob most of all, its dead exceptions not really withstanding.
The MAGA mob went just as far as sympathetic concentrated capital and concentrated guns would allow, which was pretty damn far. But they were never near taking possession of the actual power of American concentrated capital and concentrated guns on Wednesday.
And now the full power of American concentrated capital and concentrated guns, which clearly sympathizes with the mob and prefers their politics to Elizabeth Warren’s or Raphael Warnock’s, is being dragged kicking and screaming into a long overdue reckoning with what it has always created and abetted in America.
That’s not exactly comforting; but it is interesting and suggestive of a future in which concentrated capital and concentrated guns may grudgingly begin to behave better if we who are not MAGA keep demanding it and MAGA continues demonstrating the alternative. The usefulness of MAGA — which far predates MAGA — may have finally run its course for concentrated capital and concentrated guns.
Ask the National Association of Manufacturers — or Sheriff Judd, if you can get him to answer.