And, as indicated by the movie quote, cinematic references were definitely the point for people who, once they claimed the stage, clearly had no idea what to do with it. Rather than kicking ass and taking names, they looked like asses and made memes. Incoherent, incompetent, devoid of ideology beyond inchoate rage at not getting their way, they mulled and milled about — posing, posturing, taking selfies and live-streaming their exploits. “Our house!” West Virginia state delegate Derrick Evans exclaimed on Facebook Live as he joined the rioters who had smashed windows and bullied their way through doors. “We’re in, baby!” (On Friday, he was charged with unlawfully entering restricted grounds.)
Evans’s audience was the media ecosystem of the radical right-wing, a feedback loop consisting of various websites and social media accounts spouting lies about a stolen election and sundry conspiracy theories; mainstream media outlets such as Fox News and a U.S. president who legitimize and amplify even the most outlandish ideas; and gullible consumers who internalize those messages, then engage in performative acts of grievance for the approbation of the tribe. Rinse, repeat and escalate — even if that means democracy is trashed and people die.
When the rioters were interviewed on Wednesday, many of them inevitably invoked the language of “our freedoms” and “history being made.” But beneath the justifications for their criminality lay the ugly truth that their passions reside not in policy differences and governmental priorities but a cult of personality. Just hours before, Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani urged thousands of rallygoers to “fight for Trump” and engage in “trial by combat.” Like an all-powerful auteur yelling “Action,” Trump declared that “You will never take back our country with weakness” and sent his bit players to improvise a juicy cliffhanger and third-act twist.
As the world-builder behind a subculture of vigilantism and comic-book cosplay, Trump has proved to be a master of the riff, delivering off-handed threats and dehumanizing remarks throughout his four years in office, whether encouraging violence against the media or praising white supremacists as “very fine people.” After watching the carnage he instigated on television Wednesday, he finally sent a video out on Twitter, urging the rioters to go home — but not before telling them, “We love you, you’re very special,” in tones reserved for Dr. Frankenstein reassuring his misunderstood monster. (According to a close adviser quoted in a Washington Post article on Thursday, Trump wasn’t quite as proud when he watched TV coverage and was “turned off” by the “low-class” costumed rabble that was defending his honor.)
When he delivered a scripted two-minute speech on Thursday, in which he grudgingly acknowledged the “new administration” and pretended to decry the violence he had stoked, he was stiff, ill at ease and wholly unconvincing. Reportedly, some of his followers felt betrayed by his reversal. It’s likely that many more saw Trump’s speech for what it was: a performance that, by virtue of its obvious insincerity, signaled that he was still on their side.
It shouldn’t minimize the gravity of Wednesday’s coup attempt to note that it epitomized a trend that’s been underway for decades, wherein politics and entertainment have merged with unsettling seamlessness. Washington, Congress and the White House have always provided provocative backdrops for Hollywood. But at least since 1993, when the backstage campaign documentary “The War Room” became a hit, the sausage-making itself took on an improbable sex appeal.
The joke that “politics is show business for ugly people” became a truism with the advent of 24/7 cable news, on which even the most obscure congressmen turned into rumpled, badly coifed stars. Social media platforms reward bored doomscrollers with content that becomes more polarizing, untrue and violent as they click through. With robust civics education in decline, citizenship became another diversion, less a matter of informed, levelheaded engagement than a vector for hyper-affiliation worthy of pop stars and superhero franchises. Politics has morphed from being about what we believe to who we are; disagreement has curdled into existential threat.
Meanwhile, as the Cold War ended, Hollywood — ever chary of offending a potentially lucrative marketing niche — cast about for convenient villains to fill in for the evil Soviets, ignoring the right-wing white supremacist threat right in front of them — a threat that has been lurking in this country for years. And, with movies imitating the immersive head space of video games, it was only a matter of time before spectacle morphed into LARP-like life.
All of those impulses came to a disgusting, deadly head on Wednesday, when the Trump cult took fandom out of the simulacrum and into real life. They brought assault weapons and pipe bombs with them, but it turns out they were mainly there for trophies and bragging rights. They might have imagined they were starring in an action thriller, but it turned into a farce and, finally, a tragic, treasonous horror show. Meanwhile, Trump’s cast of thousands awaits their next stage direction from a deranged director with no intention of leaving the stage. Ugly people, indeed.