The photograph is arresting: a bearded man stands at the top of a staircase located in the Senate wing of the Capitol bearing uniquely American symbols, marking both time and ideology. He holds in his right hand a red flag with the phrase “Trump is my president” written across it in bold white lettering. He wears a red hat on his head, close in design to the now ubiquitous MAGA hat, an accessory that, perhaps more so than any other political ephemera, quickly and completely signifies the personality and beliefs of its wearer. He stands in front of William Henry Powell’s Battle of Lake Erie (1873), a large canvas that depicts Oliver Hazard Perry’s mythic luck and heroic endurance during an American victory in the War of 1812. In the frame of this photograph are two images, one historic one contemporary, depicting stories of origins and conclusions: the emergence of the United States as a fully independent state following the culmination of tensions with the United Kingdom contrasted with the inevitable culmination of four years of violent rhetoric and the origin of a new political identity. Here, in this photograph taken by Getty’s Win McNamee, the elaborate gilded frame of Powell’s canvas seems to absorb the man, making him part of the painting, part of what it represents by nature of both subject and location. Here too is a contrast of heroic gestures that history-making demands: Perry stands tall in his rowboat, pointing decisively to his final destination (a gesture taken from the history of art but, no doubt, meant to conjure up Emanuel Leutz’s Washington Crossing the Delaware) while the rioter waves his flag—echoing the American flag in Powell’s painting—not in surrender but in advance, signaling to his compatriots.
Here is pure spectacle, not just an accumulation of images, but politics mediated solely by images and the desire to make them real. This was, in many ways, inevitable. Since its very beginning, the Trump administration has reveled in images, making them the very backbone of its ideology. Walter Benjamin, of course, very famously described “the introduction of aesthetics into political life” as the “backbone” of fascism. The fascist aesthetic, which reached its apotheosis last week in a coup that’s very point seemed to be the production and dissemination of photographs (indeed, there were even costumes). If Perry had Powell and Washington had Leutz to transform them into founding myths, the Capitol rioters had the camera. But the camera, and the expression that it emboldens, has really always been Trump’s promise to his most faithful. “Fascism,” Benjamin wrote, “sees its salvation in giving the masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”
And the expression of anger, of whiteness, of xenophobia, nationalism, and even social identity is what Trump gave those who voted for him. He did it insistently and consistently throughout his entire presidency. He played to their perceived political humiliation, promising to make them heroes. “Everybody is educated to become a hero,” Umberto Eco wrote in 1995, as he sketched the basic tenets of what he called “Ur-Fascism,” remembering his own childhood in Mussolini’s Italy. “In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being,” Eco noted, “heroism is the norm.”
“We’re going to the Capitol,” Trump yelled earlier in the day, egging on his supporters. “We’re going to try and give our Republicans... the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” What is heroism in this worldview if not “taking back” a country that has been openly stolen? What is heroism if not marching to the Capitol being “bold” by taking action for action’s sake? Look, the photographs say, at all these heroes. Look at men who call themselves “patriots” putting themselves directly in visual dialogue with America’s foundational myths; men who parade the flag of a secessionist force; men who take what is theirs and vandalize what cannot be taken. Trump turned suburban petite bourgeoisie into heroes, into patriots, into Founding Fathers of a deformed new nationalism, at least in their own minds. “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy,” Trump reportedly told Mike Pence, making the contrast clear enough.
But then, they are part of a growing canon of Trumpian heroes that exist as heroes only in the photograph: Think of the McCloskeys holding guns outside of their St. Louis home threatening peaceful protesters in the name of defense. (“The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders,” Eco wrote.) Then there are the “very fine people” who held torches in Charlottesville, avowed white nationalists who chanted “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us.” Taken together, they are a panoply of obscene images that appeal only to the fascist aesthetic.
The fascist aesthetic, Benjamin argues, struggles to make itself real, to make its dream of expression tangible. It can never be real—the things it values are themselves myths, damaged and dead—but yet, it struggles, and reproduces a deformed copy. The McCloskeys might have threatened but it was Kyle Rittenhouse who acted, accused of shooting three Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. But Rittenhouse, Trump argued, was acting in self-defense: “He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like,” Trump said. “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed.” Rittenhouse was swiftly transformed from a murder who sought out violence, responding to the president’s rhetoric, into a patriotic martyr for the cause (“an appeal against intruders”). Another hero.
It was that very appeal that created a summer of tear gas and riot gear and batons and rubber bullets aimed at protesters in cities throughout America, creating image after image that bore witness to police brutality. Even then, images proliferated that were nothing more than sentimental fiction, but still they were eagerly consumed by a public whose “social relationships” are “mediated by images.” But Trump and his supporters were unmoved by the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Instead, they were little more than fodder for a joke. (Think the video creeping across the internet of two Trump supporters reenacting Floyd’s painful death on the steps of a D.C. church. I will not link to it here, some spectacles are better left unwitnessed). “Ur-Fascism is racist by definition,” Eco wrote.
Trump’s only political savvy—and perhaps it’s not political savvy so much as entertainment savvy—has been that he understands the power of the image, its ability to leave behind the moment or context of its creation. That was evident when he ordered Washington, D.C., police to clear Lafayette Square of protesters so that he could walk to a nearby church and pose in front of it while holding a Bible. The police eagerly obliged, throwing tear gas and pushing peaceful protesters out of the way. Right before cameras clicked and shuttered, capturing Trump theatrically scowling, he urged governors to call the National Guard and “dominate the streets.” The resulting images are a profane example of the aestheticization of politics though I suspect that his supporters found them sacred. They saw a hero, a man willing to engage in action when others sat passively by. What did it matter if Trump tear-gassed protesters? What did it matter if Trump ordered military helicopters to use intimidation tactics against American citizens? They were—they are—the enemy. “Disagreement is treason,” Eco wrote.
In many ways, the spectacle of images made in dialogue with one another is inevitable. After all, Trump’s presidency began with the bleakest of images. During his inaugural address, he summoned up what he called “American carnage”:
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
American carnage was, of course, the fiction of a white supremacist who earnestly believed that the first Black president had destroyed America; the myth on which the Trump administration was built. But Trump needed to make the image real, to stoke the social alienation that was the respectable mask for Trump’s racist project, so he conjured up cities ablaze and ransacked by violent mobs. He offered his masses the chance to be heroes, tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase birthed by a racist cop, in an obvious appeal to his supporters. After all of this, last week’s attempted coup felt inevitable. Heroism demands endless war, fueled by enemies seen and unseen. Trump supporters had been primed for violence, ready to make images that would finally turn them into patriots, preserving the mythos of nationalism, of traditionalism, of their own potency. This too is why Trump and his supporters admire neoclassical architecture which resists modernity with its static facades. It is also why they value sculptures of Confederate generals and long for a monument in the form of a border wall. This is politics transformed into pure aesthetics. (There is, of course, a gendered element to this as well. Patriots are not pussies; heroes are rarely women.)
This is, perhaps, Trump’s most pernicious legacy one that, unwillingly or not, has altered the social fabric, the political fabric in some meaningful way. The images produced over the course of his presidency—and this is a paltry accounting for them—form a complete origin story, just as complex and overburdened as the large scale paintings that decorate the Capitol Rotunda. And I fear that we are ill-prepared to deal with the full meaning of the expression found in these photographs. The images, to borrow John Berger’s words, are arresting, I am seized by them. I want to dismiss them as nothing more than a rogues’ gallery, but that seems more comfort than reality. I am reminded when I look at these photographs that these rioters did this in our name. They believe did this for America, for Americans whose election was stolen by lurking nefarious forces, urged by an American president whose election into office was fueled by the ugliest elements of this country’s foundation: racism, sexism, xenophobia, nationalism. They are impossible to dismiss; impossible to laugh at.
Instead, we must contend with the fact that this was done in our name, in the name of patriotism. That is a far harder demand, especially as there are those who insist on unity and healing, an insistence that allows this spectacle to thrive, that allows the continued lure of fascism to contend for power. Benjamin wrote of a political and aesthetic form that is “useless for the purposes of fascism,” which would resist mythic projections. What would that look like? I hardly know but it’s perhaps that we start imagining such a form instead of replicating the Trumpian aesthetic for the sake of revenge or simple emotional expression. To imagine a politics and aesthetic that would resist the pull of fascism seems like the only hope.