The MAGA Putsch

The attempted putsch at the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6th is remarkable for several reasons—the insurrectionary fuse being lit by the President himself in his speech to the crowd in the Ellipse, the collapse (and partial collusion) of the security forces assigned to protect the Capitol, the stark images of costumed protestors in the iconic congressional chambers of the House and Senate, and the rather nonchalant way everything returned to some semblance of normal mere hours after the last partisan had been flushed from the building despite the loss of life and the reality that for a few hours the nerve center of a global empire did not have a functioning government. Empires do not fall very often so there are not many scripts that one can reference in order to verify whether what one saw on this winter day will be an historical marker akin to the Goths sacking Rome or the Ottomans taking Constantinople or a mere health scare of a realm that still had plenty of time left on its imperial clock. Yet the putsch was unique in that it was our first glimpse of what major political turmoil will look like in a world that is now organized under the logic of spectacle. Understanding what this means allows one to perhaps make sense of so many of the absurdities that transpired.

Perhaps the first thing to point out is that while deep cultural and ideological differences exist in the United States, the attempted putsch does not necessarily represent a grave threat to the underlying assemblages of American power. To paraphrase a famous political thinker, the state is best seen as a steering committee of the ruling class and the chaos in the Capitol was a squabble about which ideological faction should perform that role for ruling elites in the US. While many who breached the gates and doors of the Capitol were clearly seeking to physically harm lawmakers, their intent in this was not to open up a space for the creation of a completely new form of governing institutions run by a subaltern political class, but to ensure the then currently sitting President did not have to step down in a few weeks’ time. Moreover, regardless of the how the putsch turned out, it is unlikely the major financial or commercial firms would not have been deeply impacted by the outcome. The marauders were not demanding turning over major industries to the workers nor were they even demanding major policy initiatives like COVID relief or universal healthcare. Simultaneous raids on major banks and financial institutions, corporate headquarters (including those of the much-reviled tech companies), or other hubs of US power were absent. Indeed, the putsch is most remarkable for the absence of any kind of clear ideological worldview—past authoritarian leaders of both the reactionary and radical variety went to great lengths to clearly spell out their agendas and political goals in lengthy written tracts. The most consistent and coherent political objectives coming from the erratic statements in the hectic moments from the Capitol was the need to overturn the election so that Trump could remain in office. Why Trump had to remain in office was never clearly expressed (unless the now immortal phrase “make America great again” emblazoned on the numerous red hats being worn answered the question sufficiently).

As Guy Debord first posited in the 1960s, (and as this space has explored in previous posts) social life in the western world has been absorbed into a vast spectacle that mediates all interpersonal relationships. One of the effects of this spectacle is to conceal and hide the levers of power and direct discontent with present world order into manageable and non-threatening acts of appearance and performance. For reference, recall Debord’s key line from Thesis 17 of The Society of the Spectacle: “The present stage, in which social life has become completely occupied by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing—all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances.” We can see this play in many ways during the ransacking of the Capitol. The aesthetics of the insurgents had a certain “military burlesque” quality to it—lots of wearing of tactical gear and brandishing of Trump or “Thin Blue Line” flags with a few fully costumed partisans wearing bulls horns or deer antlers in an attempt to pass off as primitive warriors. The vast majority of participants showed up with the expectation of having their pictures taken and of generating content for a galaxy of personalized social media and digital video accounts—a strange tactical calculation to make if one’s intention is to violently overthrow an (allegedly) heavily fortified building with substantial surveillance in place. Indeed, when the doors were breached and the building’s interiors were taken, the majority of participants began taking photos of themselves and posing in front of the Capitol’s famous interior features as if they were a band of particularly rowdy tourists.[1] This is not to suggest, of course, that the putsch “did not take place” or was some kind of elaborate simulacra—the blood that was spilled on this day and some of the emerging reports of behind the scenes coordination disprove this. Yet when it was all said and done, the putsch ended not with failure in gaining access to the key building (Hitler’s Munich Nazis never made it inside any government buildings before his Beer Hall Putsch was squelched), but with a kind of collective shrug and a nonchalant exit from the Capitol. There does not appear to be any concerted effort to hold the Capitol for an extended period of time or bargain for some kind of outcome. Many hardliners did show more nefarious intentions (such as hostage taking) and had to be forced out by reinforced police and National Guard, but it seems once everyone else got their selfies, it was time in the words of one exiting insurgent, “to go get a beer.”[2] Mere hours later, the Congress certified the election of Joe Biden—the one thing that seemed to be motivating the putsch in the first place.

When the performance of revolt had been sufficiently rendered, it was time to return to the various lives of career and consumption that constituted daily life for most of the participants. That the countless photos and minutes of livestream of their lawbreaking could be used as evidence against them in future prosecutions seems not to have been of a grave concern. The insurgents were so deeply embedded in the spectacle’s fragmented nature that they seemed unable to believe acts captured on cell phone cameras posted on the internet would have impacts in the non-digital world. Yet this speaks to the heart of the motivation of the putsch in the first place—the belief that an election that by all empirical accounts was free and secure was still somehow stolen and fraudulent.

In this one sees how the dialectical nature of the spectacle is at its most powerful. The spectacle generates what appears to be intractable conflict between rival factions within a given space. Yet this conflict never really threatens the underlying assemblages of power. In the case of the 2020 election, Trump and his supporters claim electoral fraud and rigged ballots while those opposed to Trump challenge his claims and suggest the election was on the level. The spectating masses become wrapped up in the drama as mere observers or as limited participants through comment sections on digital platforms. The various steps of the drama script themselves as various moments—lawsuits are filed, rallies are held, speeches given and all of it commented on sports talk radio style on various news platforms. For many, the dissemination of elaborate conspiracy theories like Qanon provide almost narcotic like experiences through the exploration of some of the dark peripheries of the Internet looking for clues and evidence of a completely alternate reality. Through it all, the institutions that benefit from this strife—cable news outlets, social media platforms, broadcast media platforms and the enormous corporate entities and banks that support their operations—showcase it all and profit from the largesse that is generated. Meanwhile, the core systemic contradictions of society—spiking death rates from COVID, health infrastructure in tatters, increasing numbers of people suffering from food insecurity, a collapsing small business economy, millions kicked out of their housing, etc. are ignored. It would seem that the current COVID infections and fatality rates—rates that rival some of the worst casualty totals from history’s worst wars would be of pressing concern to the political classes but such is the power of the spectacle and its ability to render “the true as a moment of the false.”[3]

Nevertheless, the various narratives as well as their internecine intensity serve the same grand spectacle. Debord observed this back in the 1960s during the periods of unrest that happened in his own time. Throughout The Society of the Spectacle, Debord discusses how the spectacle takes many and often contradictory forms. Thesis 57 is particularly instructive: “The bureaucratic regimes in power in certain industrialized countries have their own particular type of spectacle, but it is an integral part of the total spectacle, serving as its pseudo-opposition and actual support.”[4] Debord writes this in the context of the Cold War and the opposition of some countries to western hegemony. His point is that while there may be an ostensible political tension between countries like the Soviet Union and the United States, the conflict ultimately serves to sustain a larger global assemblage of power. No country is completely outside of the spectacle. Domestically, spectacles may also appear to compete with each other for dominance. Debord writes in Thesis 65, “The automobile spectacle, for example, strives for a perfect traffic flow entailing the destruction of old urban districts, while the city spectacle needs to preserve those districts as tourist attractions.”[5] In the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965, Debord wrote, “American blacks have their own spectacle, complete with its press, magazines and coloured (sic) film stars and, if blacks realize this, if they spew out this spectacle as phoney, as an expression of their humiliation, it is because they see it to be a minority phenomenon-nothing but an appendage of the spectacle in general”[6] The overall point Debord makes in these examples is that specific spectacles may come and go, but each of them are a tentacles of the total spectacle whose function is to legitimize the prevailing institutions of socio-economic power and concealing their contradictions.  

Thus one can have a mob of partisans drunk on the stories and images and conspiracy theories proliferated on various media sites storm the Capitol building of the world’s de facto imperial power without it necessarily constituting a genuine threat to the position of that empire in the world and those who manage it. The traditional values of American democracy as expressed in the US Constitution may be a grave risk, but this is not the same thing. As China shows, the structures of global capitalism that the spectacle conceals can exist and thrive in a variety of political frameworks and the end of American democratic institutions would not mean the end of the global financial and commercial assemblage of power. Trump himself loved to boast how the stock market was always going up during his presidency and when the DOW, S&P 500 and NASDAQ all closed on January 6th, they were up anywhere between .5% and 1%.[7]

One other point seems relevant here to illuminate the place of the spectacle in all this. Social media was full of expressions of disbelief and discombobulation over the how so many people could be so riled up to commit acts of violence and sedition over fraudulent claims of electoral fraud? The situationist response to this would probably be to pose a similar question—what media-fueled fraudulent narratives do you believe in? Do you believe in the myth of the American Dream and do you spend your daily life pursuing it? Do you seek to acquire the material goods and lifestyle practices you see portrayed and celebrated via the various media platforms you consume? Do you believe that you are the next Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos and with enough grit and pluck you will reach the same heights of success? If the answer is yes, then you, Debord would argu,e are just as wrapped up in the spectacle as those who stormed the Capitol. This is not to suggest that the insurgents were somehow justified in their attack or some kind of equivalency exists—one still exercises agency and the responsibility to act in a law-abiding and moral upright way remains the obligation of each individual. But when one realizes that everyday the spectacle churns out all sort of false narratives and erroneous facts—from the claims of advertisements to the “stories” of social media “influencers” to the promises of politicians, then it should not be that surprising that a particularly potent spectacular narrative captured the minds of a segment of the American population and moved them to violence.

In this we can hear the words of Howard Beale from the iconoclastic 1974 film Network echoing the following condemnation and recommendation:

We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! [8]


[1] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/elaminabdelmahmoud/trump-mob-social-media-insurrection

[2] https://twitter.com/RzstProgramming/status/1347016381703847942

[3] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit: Black and Red, 1970), 10.

[4] Ibid., 32.  

 [5] Ibid., 36.

 [6] Ibid, “The Spectacular Commodity Economy,” in A Sick Planet (London: Seagull, 2008), 23.

  [7]  https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/stock-market-news-for-jan-6-2021-2021-01-06#:~:text=The%20Dow%20Jones%20Industrial%20Average,biggest%20gainers%20on%20the%20index.

  [8]   https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/characters/nm0002075

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