We cannot make sense of the Capitol attack simply by trying to assess whether its perpetrators were really out for blood or just acting out a game of make-believe for the benefit of the cameras. The Trump insurrectionists exposed that a politics of spectacle, built upon delusion, is no less dangerous than "the real thing." Precisely because they lack an affirmative political vision, far-right movements fetishize violence as the premier form of civic participation. It is what is offered to the masses in lieu of actual power. The result is violence that becomes almost casual, shorn of any political rationale and reflecting a reality in which human beings are just as disposable as their video game counterparts.
Events from recent years make it clear that the binary between fantasy and danger is a false one. Consider, for instance, the mass shooters who live-stream their rampages on Facebook or gaming platforms such as Twitch, a growing trend from Florida to New Zealand to Germany. Performative violence of this sort is no less real for being optimized for our new media ecosystem. If anything, performative violence gains its horrific quality because it treats human beings as means to an end — props that frame the protagonists' moment of glory. The attack on the Capitol exists on a spectrum with these acts of violence, offering yet another instance of live action role play directed against real human bodies. The truly frightening thing about cosplaying in this regard is that it is part of a politics of delusion that is acted out in the real world. That many who participated in the attack are having trouble grasping the legal consequences that came along with their live-streamed insurrection testifies to this sense of confusion between material life and the revolutionaries they played on TV.
What does the growing prevalence of this mode of violence as spectacle — and the groups that embrace it — mean? In 1936, the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin observed that "fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves." That is to say, fascists used art in the service of politics to deflect people from pursuing the redistributive demands that historically came alongside mass political movements. Today, too, such performances furnish excitement and purpose for participants while leaving alone the underlying power structures that oppress them. Benjamin noted the rise of fascist aesthetics in contemporary film, visual arts, and ceremonies and other civic rituals; today, we encounter a much-reduced range of aesthetic expression. To the extent that the far right makes art, composes music or writes literature, it is so poor in quality that it can be read only as kitsch. What is left, and what is truly glorified within the emerging far-right imagination, is violence. Ours might be a hollowed-out fascism, a reality TV version of the 20th century's premier political horror, but that does not make it any less dangerous. Kitsch can also kill.
For far-right leaders today, inciting violence against the nation's "enemies" offers the fan base a pathway to political participation that preserves the anti-democratic character of the movement, as if to say: We do not need you to govern, only to harm. It is no wonder, then, that intimations of violence have become a common mode of personal expression among adherents of current far-right movements: Cue a thousand photos of extremists decked out in tactical gear, toting their professional-grade death tools and looking eager to reenact some bit of revolutionary drama. The insurrectionist wearing the "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt seemed ready to take up his guard duties against political prisoners but not to stop the certification of Biden's victory. Violence has become the central act through which the far right understands political agency, which is why fantasies about harming the nation's "enemies" — journalists, activists, opposition politicians — abound within the right-wing imaginary.
Violence is not, in this sense, ancillary to far-right politics but central to preserving the vast inequalities that even its "moderate" supporters wish to maintain. Beyond the tax cuts and deregulation so favored by his plutocratic backers, President Trump's signature accomplishments were notable for their gratuitous cruelty: the ban on travel from Muslim nations, family separation at the southern border, home invasions and deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that served no material interest beyond offering his fan base reasons to cheer. These are not disjointed parts of the right-wing agenda, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have recently argued, but rather co-dependent, which is one reason the growth of white nationalism has mirrored the uptick in economic inequality. Acts of violence, particularly against people of color, are the spoonful of sugar that helps the GOP's economic platform — notoriously unpopular among its base — go down. Violence does the deflective work Benjamin identified with fascist aesthetics.
The events this month also underscored that "freedom" — that most signature of conservative values — has been refashioned to contain violence at its core: freedom to carry a weapon and use it at will, to infect others around you during a pandemic, to die of preventable disease rather than submit to a national health-care system. Moreover, the primacy of violence within the right's political vision also helps explain why our authorized death dispensers — police officers and military personnel — have become demigods in certain circles. (That's why it was so shocking to see the Trump mob engage Capitol Police officers in battle, violating the unmatched sanctity of blue lives.) The right fringe also likes to align with, or posture as, law enforcement — playing the part of citizen soldier in protecting our nation from its foes, whether they are terrorists, Black Lives Matter activists or leftists. Anecdotal reports suggest that some Capitol rioters fully expected the cops to return the favor by supporting the insurrection — and that at least a handful of them did.
The mob that stormed the Capitol did not have a master plan to seize power or overthrow the government, but it did possess an intent to harm: to capture and possibly kill lawmakers, to subjugate them. And then what? The absence of strategy might seem like a reason for relief, but it is also a warning about a movement willing to inflict violence for the sake of spectacle. That a hodgepodge mob with no discernible convictions beyond its fealty to Trump could storm the Capitol and then head home after the game was up testifies to the hollowness that characterizes the far right as a political force. It is not that the core is rotten but that it is utterly absent. Violence is what remains.