Capitol Invasion – The Dark Face of America

Sculpture José Resende / “Watchful Eyes”/ Guaíba, Porto Alegre


The Trump phenomenon is not the story of a madman who would have captured power by surprise. This phenomenon expresses the truth of this era, the entry into an unknown political era.

In reaction to images of Donald Trump supporters storming the Capitol, Joe Biden insisted at length: this is not the true face of America. But if such images spread so quickly, is it not, on the contrary, because they reveal the hidden face of the democratic veil? It has been proven, the Trump phenomenon is not the story of a madman who captured power by surprise, it affirms the truth of this era, the entry into an unknown political era in which the grotesque, the buffoons, the carnival, will subvert and dispute the power.

“You all saw what I saw”, declared Joe Biden after the occupation of the Capitol on January 6 by Trumpist rioters, “the scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect the true America, do not represent what we are”.

Did we see the same thing as Joe Biden in the images of the occupation of the Capitol by groups of riotous pro-Trump protesters? Nothing is less certain. Because these astonishing images, delirious images, where the burlesque crosses with the tragic and vulgarity imitates the historic, well represent a certain America with which the new president-elect will quickly confront. If they spread so quickly through social networks, it's not because they didn't resemble America but, on the contrary, because they revealed its hidden face.

Such images not only compromised democratic laws and practices, they desecrated a certain symbolic order, the image that America has of itself, a constantly reworked democratic imaginary. They desecrated their rites and habits in an impish, burlesque carnival scene, performed by clowns disguised as animals. And the impact of these images was as destructive as an aborted attempt at a coup d'état, it discredited secular institutions and procedures, those that direct the democratic transition, that legitimize the credibility of elections, the verification and recount processes, the certification of the elected candidate.

This symbolic desecration is at the heart of the Trumpist strategy.

With Trump, it is no longer a question of governing within a democratic framework, according to laws, norms, rituals, but of speculating on his discredit in the downturn. His paradoxical gamble consists in basing the credibility of his “discourse” on the discredit of the “system”, in speculating in the fall on the general discredit and in aggravating its effects. Since his election, Trump has not stopped campaigning. Political life under Trump turned into a series of provocations and clashes in the form of decrees, declarations or simple tweets: ban muslim, defense of white supremacists in the aftermath of events in Charlottesville, war of tweets with North Korea, attempt to criminalize the protest movement that emerged after the death of African American George Floyd…

During his campaign, Trump addressed this divided section of society via Twitter and Facebook and managed, in four years, to gather these scattered discontents into a euphoric mass. Trump had orchestrated their resentment, awakening the old sexist and xenophobic demons, offering a face and a voice, a visibility, to an America downgraded as much by demographics and sociology as by the economic crisis. He unleashed a wild, undistinguished powerhouse that was just waiting for the chance to act freely. And he did it in his own cynical and caricatured way. He gave himself up to these masses invaded by the desire for revenge, and excited them. Trump issued a challenge to the system, not to reform or transform it, but to ridicule it. Mission accomplished on the afternoon of January 6th.

Democrats didn't know a bit how to counter every provocation from Trump, other than with their moral outrage, which is always a sign of blindness in the face of a new political phenomenon. They might as well open their eyes now, the Trump phenomenon has not gone away. He benefits from the support of the most mobilized layer of his voters who, far from being discouraged by his verbal excesses and his calls for violence, find their own fury in it. What unifies the mass of its supporters is the power to say no to established truths. Unbelief is erected as absolute belief. No authority is spared, not political authorities, not the media, not intellectuals and researchers. All are condemned to the Trumpist bonfire.

It's the anti-Trump conservatives who say the best about Trump. According to George Will, a neoconservative editorialist, the president's provocations, since his election, amplified by "modern communication technologies", "encouraged an escalation in the public debate of such violence that the threshold of the passage to the act was reduced for individuals as troubled like him." Donald Trump “sets the tone for American society that is, unfortunately, a malleable wax on which presidents leave their marks”. And Will concludes: "This low-level King Lear proved that the phrase 'evil buffoon' is not an oxymoron."

If clowning often arises from the register of comedy and farce without evil intent, Trump used the resources of the grotesque to orchestrate the resentment of the masses, awakening their old sexist, racist and anti-Semitic demons.

“Evil buffoon”: associating these two terms, the conservative editorialist highlighted the divided nature of Trump's power, on which criticism by his opponents has constantly run aground. For four years, the reaction of Democrats and mainstream media in the United States has been one of misunderstanding the mechanisms of this new hegemonic power embodied by Trump. What they didn't understand is the centrality of this flamboyant character, the modernity and resonance of his message in American society and history. His ubiquity on Twitter is that of a carnival king who arrogates to himself the right to say everything and to discredit all forms of power.

The Trump phenomenon is not the story of a madman who would have taken power by surprise… Quite the contrary, this phenomenon expresses the truth of this time, the entry into an unknown political era.

In his course at the Collège de France in 1975-76, Michel Foucault coined the expression “grotesque power”; It is not, for him, a question of using the word “grotesque” in a polemical way with the aim of disqualifying statesmen who would be defined as such, but of trying to understand, on the contrary, the rationality of this grotesque power, a paradoxical rationality because it is manifested by the irrationality of their speeches and decisions. “Grotesque sovereignty operates not despite the incompetence of the one who exercises it, but precisely because of this incompetence and the grotesque effects that derive from it [...] have power effects that their intrinsic qualities should disqualify.”

According to Foucault, grotesque power is the expression of its extreme potency, of its necessary character. “The holder of majestic, of this excess of power in relation to any power whatsoever, is, at the same time, in his own person, in his character, in his physical reality, in his customs, in his gestures, in his body, in his sexuality, in his way of being, an infamous, grotesque, ridiculous character [...] The grotesque is one of the essential preconditions of arbitrary sovereignty. The indignity of power does not eliminate its effects, which are, on the contrary, all the more violent and devastating the more grotesque the power is.”

“Explicitly showing power as abject, infamous, grotesque or simply ridiculous, the unavoidable character, the inevitability of power is evidently manifested, which can function precisely in all its rigor and to the extreme point of its violent rationality, even when it is in the hands of someone who is effectively disqualified”.

Michel Foucault warned us with a remarkable prediction against the illusion shared four years ago in the United States by the media and democrats, which consists of seeing in grotesque power “an accident in the history of power”, “a failure in the mechanism”, while it is “one of the cogs that are an inherent part of the mechanisms of power”.

Grotesque power is the continuation, by other means, of discredited politics. How to incarnate a political power based on discredit if not by putting on the scene a limitless, unbridled power, which overflows with the attributes of its function and the rituals of legitimation.

“He's a clown – literally, he could have a place in the circus,” declared Noam Chomsky one day. In a circus or in the middle of the carnival that became world politics. Far from becoming president, once elected, as was to be expected, he ridiculed the presidential function with his whims, his mood swings, his grotesque postures. At the end of his term, he launched his supporters to storm the Capitol, even promising to accompany them. An insurrectionist president is something never seen before! But, is that surprising?

Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava wrote, in August 2020, in an article on The Intercept, “We must now prepare ourselves to respond, psychologically and strategically, to anything that might appear to be a coup d'état. These are the most plausible dark scenarios, and it would be better to face them, rather than avoid them.”

Since his 2016 campaign, has Donald Trump not surfed this wave of discredit in public opinion that earned him the vote of more than 70 million voters? January 6th was his feast and his consecration. They occupied the Capitol, if only briefly, if only symbolically. The images will be witnesses for a long time, eclipsing the images of the January 20th transition as their counterpoint, side by side, like Credit and Discredit. They probably don't reflect the real America, according to Joe Biden, but they are his dark face, suddenly revealed. The tyranny of buffoons has just begun.

*Christian Salmon is a writer and member of the Center de recherche sur les arts et le langage (CNRS)

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the portal AOC.



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