The old golden savages killed their philosophers

by Sam Kriss

Yesterday, in the funniest thing to have ever happened in Washington DC, thousands of Trump supporters breached the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent Joe Biden’s victory being confirmed in the Senate. This is worrying, for obvious reasons. These people are entirely disconnected from reality, susceptible to far-right messaging, capable of violence, and numerous. It’s a dangerous erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law. It’s tragic: four people died in the disturbance; four worlds have gone black forever because of the doomed political fantasies of a TV game show host. But it’s also – and this is not an ethical judgement, or even really a commentary, just a statement of the facts on the ground – hilarious.

It’s funny in the way that the truth is always funny. Here is the bland citadel of American power, big white halls with mediocre paintings, men in breeches either firing muskets at each other or engaged in some lofty Enlightenment-era debate. The myth of America. And here, hooting and hollering as they ransack the place, are the Americans. This is the world you made: an army of corn-fed cretins, blasted in the face by digital media until their brains shrivelled into radioactive pebbles; churning flesh in the gears of the most advanced bureaucracy ever devised by man. A nation that rants, that stands on street corners yelling to itself, sometimes into a camera, sometimes into the faces of anyone passing by. They came here from the dead places. Car dealerships, yacht clubs, poisoned creeks; the places where covid swept away twenty million years of cumulative memory and nobody really cared. Not the wretched of the earth, but a new kind of lumpen. The rabble at the dead end of history, lost in a world that no longer needs their productive labour, or their folkways, or their lives.

One of them was a topless, muscled man wearing a fur hood, patriotic face paint, and horns. Another came to the protest with a bright red MAGA cap perched on top of his ghillie suit. Others were dressed in Revolutionary War outfits, or as cavemen, or simply looked like they’d just escaped from a hospice. Orwell once wrote that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. Now, the same thing is happening on the right: yesterday’s crowd included a man hoisting a sign that read NO BLOODY CIRCUMCISERS – PERVERTS IN U.S. COURTS, U.S. SENATE OR U.S. PRESIDENT, NO FORESKIN NO PEACE!!! Given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, all these people could have easily hidden their identities – but because of they’ve convinced themselves that a cloth mask dangerously cuts off your oxygen supply, they allowed their faces to be photographed, and now they’ll all be rounded up and sent to federal prison for a decade. One of the fatalities occurred when someone tasered themselves by accident. When they broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office, they took turns pretending to be her, sitting in her special chair, picking up her phone and acting as if they had to take an important political call. This is funny. Even funnier is the spectacle of the politicians themselves, ducking in the aisles, cucked and cowardly in their ridiculous plastic-bag gas masks, trembling in fear as their own constituents try to rip the wood panelling off the walls. This is not what an attempted coup looks like. This is the circus. And you’re lying, you’re lying to yourself and everyone around you, if you claim that you’re not entertained.

More than half a decade ago, I wrote up a fruitless A-to-B anti-austerity march through central London, ending in Parliament Square: The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. It never happened. The closest we ever came was the storming of Millbank Tower in 2010 – and that was always enemy territory; we couldn’t march through Tory HQ and shout, like the people who breached the Capitol: this is our house, this belongs to us. If it had been leftists breaking into the halls of power, we’d have known exactly what to do: declare a provisional revolutionary government, set up a thousand different subcommittees, and then immediately start braining each other with congressional paperweights in a series of bloody factional purges. This lot, meanwhile, had no idea what they were supposed to actually do once they were inside.

For a while they milled about, carrying flags and stealing things. They didn’t even start any fires; all they left with were some bits of wood and covid-19. There was no plan to any of this, because their brand of right-wing populism isn’t really a politics at all. It has no real coherent sense of what it wants to abolish or what it wants to uphold, and a long frantic scream instead of a theory of change. This is why you don’t need to worry that a ‘competent fascist’ might come along to pick up where Trump left off: incompetence and incoherence is the substance of this movement. Nothing that smells like ideological rigour will stick in our swirling stupid age. (This is why it’s equally unlikely that these unfocused anti-establishment energies will be redirected into a populist grand coalition with the left. This isn’t a primitive dissatisfaction that just needs a few lessons on how surplus value works to mature into a good socialist analysis; it’s its own thing, not inchoate, but a final form.) A friend of mine once came across a QAnon protest in London and realised that she simply couldn’t understand any of their signs, all of which seemed to have to do with the politics of an entirely separate reality. As a political demonstration, it was a total failure; it did nothing to communicate what the activists thought was going on or what they wanted done to fix it. But it wasn’t a political demonstration. What these people want is simply to be recognised: for the social machine to know they exist. (Obviously, this same instinct is perfectly capable of wearing the skin of left-wing politics too. It’s the spirit of our age; it swallows everything it finds without discrimination.) Entering a semiotic zero-space does nothing to hurt this cause; if anything, believing truly stupid and incomprehensible things only adds to the mystique. Force the machine to ask why. Is this fascism? Is this a coup? The protesters broke into the temple of American democracy, not despite the waiting cameras, but because of them. They want to see themselves floating within the system of images. Notice me. Care about me. Give me a hug.

They know that Trump really won the election; the truth of it is in their bones. All the stuff about voter fraud is just an elaborate rationalisation of something very visceral and very universal and which has nothing to do with politics. If Trump actually lost, then it means I don’t matter. If Trump actually lost, then the universe repudiates me. Hard to blame them: very few of us are capable of confronting the Lovecraftian reality of our blind, uncaring cosmos. These people aspire to exist, and they were just unfortunate enough to sink all their cathectic energies into a painted clown instead of something more appropriate, like a sports team or a war. But you can understand why: here, the same affects go all the way up to the top. Just like his followers, Trump doesn’t have a plan. If he’s still refusing to concede defeat, it’s simply because he believes in the power of positive thinking. Just like your ex-girlfriend, he thinks that the universe will give him whatever he wants as long as he wants it hard enough. It’s worked well for him so far, hasn’t it? So why give up on your dreams now?

In the end, it’s hard for me to feel too upset about anyone who trashes a big public building in Washington DC. I last visited DC about a year ago; unfortunately, I had friends there. Unfortunately, because it’s grimmer than a typhoid-riddled refugee camp or a North Korean jail: the worst, most miserable place in the world. This is not a city. It’s an endless maze of low barriers and security zones, a place infinitely cordoned off from itself. Every street is lined with low ugly business-park blocks that modestly announce themselves as the headquarters of some kind of terrible global evil: the International Directorate for Diarrhoea and Diarrhoea-Causing Pathogens, the Alliance for Tearing Small Holes In Mosquito Nets, the US State Department, the IMF. Evil without grandeur: the ground floor of every one of these blocks is always occupied by a CVS or a Peet’s Coffee. You want to eat? Eat this cinnamon swirl; it’s made from corn syrup and chalk. Your only other option is some brassy gloomy den of a hotel restaurant, where greased lobbyists feed their politicians on plates of paler flesh, scorched and braised, with truffles grated on top. Don’t ask what animal this came from. You don’t want to know his name. In the streets, the DC people bustle about: cut-throat mediocrities with suits shinier than their lanyards and foreheads shinier still, visibly humming with satisfaction. I made it! I’m here, in the birdshit trench of despair where Everything Gets Done! It’s good that these people don’t get Congressional representation. They shouldn’t get to breathe. Nothing good can survive in a place like this. Imagine if Slough or Swindon or Milton Keynes were also the nexus of a fanatical empire bent on world domination. Imagine seventy square miles in which the Nazis won the war.

The one really interesting place in DC is the Lincoln Memorial. It has what Albert Speer called Ruinenwert, ruin-value. (His idea was to construct buildings that would one day produce sublime wreckage, as a noble example for the Aryans of the distant future. The Red Army made sure that Nazi Germany left no monuments. As ever, America picked up the slack.) After all, it’s already a kind of tomb. The marble is too smooth, it glows too evenly; begging to be slapped about a bit, roughened up by time. I imagined the ceiling collapsing, the bog-weeds marching out of the Mall and up the famous steps to wetly choke these stones. The man himself sits there on his marble throne, huger than life. Maybe in the future, the savages that will inhabit this place might regard Lincoln as a kind of stern primordial god; maybe they’ll sacrifice twins at his feet. The text of the Gettysburg Address is chiselled into one wall. Lincoln is apparently no longer a woke hero, but it’s still stirring stuff. These are the words of someone who really genuinely believed in his political ideal – a new birth of freedom, an extirpation of the sin of slavery – and who was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of lives to achieve it, before he finally gave his own. A man like Lenin or Napoleon, a bloodied founder of the law. I imagined those holes in the wall cracking and filled with slime, and the tomb-dwellers of the future barely noticing them as they shuffle in and out carrying skinned deer and captive children from the other tribe. Outside, on the windswept steps, a black-clad Christian with a megaphone was preaching to a crowd of none. On Judgement Day, when you stand before holy God, it won’t matter a bit about Donald Trump. The Bible says all have sinned. Call Donald Trump a liar if you want, but how many lies have you told in your life? A few steps away, but not facing him, a man in dayglo cycling gear stood and heckled. YOU ARE DEFENDING A PIMP, A LIAR, AND A CON ARTIST! JESUS WOULD BE APPALLED! The secret is, of course, that the collapse I was imagining had already happened, that it’s been happening since the first syllable of recorded time.

As bowtie-wearing types have pointed out, the storming of the Capitol looks a lot like a barbarian sack of Rome. The gardens ravaged, the altars and chalices profaned, the Huns rode their horses into the monastery library and mangled the incomprehensible books and reviled and burned them – fearful perhaps that the letters of the books might harbour blasphemies against their god, which was a scimitar of iron. But what kind of Rome is Washington DC? To be honest, maybe it’s the same one. Philip K Dick got it: The Empire never ended. A single state, unevenly distributed in time. Storming out of the colonial lands to the west, far away from the traditional centres of civilisation. A ruling class that turns its genocidal conquests into a series of fun and fashionable diversions: foreign food, foreign décor, foreign clothes, foreign gods. An underclass that simmers and periodically threatens to burn everything down. Slave plantations. A set of good solid decent civic virtues that always seem to have really existed somewhere in the past, however far back you go. (Or – and this is always a nice rhetorical trick – among the barbarians.) And that unique combination of brutality and silliness, entertainment and administration and death. What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Later writers tried, but they couldn’t really understand the Romans. The medievals and early moderns had no reference point for the ruins they inhabited. Europe had to wait until the twentieth century, until it was once again conquered by a huge frivolous empire that only wanted to entertain. The primary instrument of Roman rule wasn’t the magistrates or even the legions, it was the arenas. Auction off the tax collection, let some local notable have his crown, but build a circus. The empire depends on it. Or maybe that’s the wrong way round: maybe the majesty of the Roman state, with its court poets and its marble halls and its great orators with their hands nailed to the rostra, only existed to spread the institution of the arena further across the world.

This time around, of course, things are simpler. There is nothing outside the empire and nowhere left to expand. There is nothing sacred to be defiled. You can worship God and the scimitar at the same time. The barbarians have always been ourselves.