There is no contradiction between acknowledging the danger of what happened and recognizing that the people posing that danger made fools of themselves. In fact, it’s essential to do so. Trump’s supporters should not be allowed to memorialize this disgraceful day as a bold, noble revolt and the people who participated in this mob as committed patriots or daring commandos. Part of stigmatizing what happened and standing up to it should be turning the rioters into laughingstocks.
Take one photo in wide circulation, of a man walking off with a lectern with the seal of the speaker of the House attached to it. He’s dressed like a suburban dad, in Asics sneakers, unremarkable jeans, a gray wool coat — and a Trump knitted hat. And yet, in the middle of a brazen theft that also happens to be a gesture of profound disrespect to the institutions of government, he’s grinning widely and waving to the camera.
Yes, it’s an image of impunity. This is the expression and behavior of a person who believes that when his president tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” that threat applies only to other people.
But it’s also an image of a punch-drunk idiot. There’s no grandeur in mugging like a high school student on senior prank day while stealing a completely useless object. Given the way law enforcement appears to have collapsed in the face of the rioters, this theft isn’t even a daring heist; it’s a goofy, childish act.
Then there’s the fellow who broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office and was photographed first with his feet on a desk and later with a piece of mail he pilfered from the speaker. His hyped-up Facebook postings before Wednesday only make his behavior more ridiculous: Only a coward makes a lot of noise about being prepared to die violently, then tries to turn making off with an envelope an act of hyper-macho heroism, complete with bare-chested posing.
Yes, the mob included a masked man wearing a Punisher badge — a visual that’s become an endorsement of vigilante justice, including, disturbingly, among police officers — and carrying plastic ties as if preparing for a hostage-taking. Yes, rioters broke windows, took down American flags and paraded Confederate ones. It is reasonable to be afraid of violence. It is right to be sickened that a woman was shot and killed and three other people died because of this nonsense.
But the day’s resonant news photos also included Trump supporters wandering through the halls of the Capitol with their phones out like gawking tourists, and rioters playing out their fantasies of being action stars. These are not serious political actors. They are not commandos. All of them come across as silly fantasists.
Even ostensibly-menacing graffiti like a scrawled “Murder the Media” on a Capitol building door or “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN,” written in red ink on a file folder left in Pelosi’s office, shrinks down to size the longer one looks at it. These are the hasty improvisations of people who find themselves in the radical equivalent of the dog who caught the car: They had no plan, they have no message, and they don’t even have the penmanship or flair to produce striking images.
And Trump’s speech inciting the attempted putsch? It was dangerously effective, if less coherent than Bluto Blutarsky’s rallying cry at the end of “Animal House.” Like the entirety of his presidency, Trump’s behavior was as embarrassing as it was horrifying.
The attack on the Capitol that followed was the same kind of “futile and stupid gesture” that followed Bluto’s call to arms. The foolishness of the day in no way diminishes the horror of what happened. Instead, it magnifies it. That the Capitol was attacked because the president of the United States is too deluded and selfish to acknowledge reality, and because his remaining supporters have enthusiastically enlisted in his self-deception, is a monstrous thing.
History should remember Jan. 6 for what it was: both shameful and dumb. It may not be grand. But it’s the only way to truly explain what happened in Washington, and to try our best to make sure this particular idiocy never happens again.