The ransacking of the US Capitol Wednesday was Trump’s last gift to the Republican Party. They have had a “hell of a journey” together, as Lindsey Graham said from the Senate floor. But now Trump has given the party a convenient reason to spit him out just as quickly as they popped him like a pill four years ago.
What happened was neither a “coup,” nor quite an “insurrection.” Trump loyalists dressed up as American frontiersmen roaming the halls of Congress was closer to violent charivari than anything remotely resembling a plan. It was an embarrassment for the party of law and order, and the Republicans who now worry that they now have a rather more vivid instance of looting on hand than anything that transpired during the wave of BLM-fueled protests over the summer. Shoplifting from Footlocker is not quite as media-magnetic as taking Nancy Pelosi’s door plate as your scalp. But the Republicans can now saddle Trump with the blame, and move on.
The images recall images from other places: the men and women roaming Yanukovych’s mansion in Ukraine, or the US Troops picking up souvenirs from Saddam Hussein’s palaces. The man who had his foot up on the table of Pelosi’s office had that common-man-as-king-for-a-day swagger about him. But the meaning is almost exactly opposite, and is much closer to the Gilets Jaunes having their way with the Arc de Triomphe. For yesterday’s images do not come from a place of strength, but from weakness. One could get the wrong impression only because the kind of military-grade tanks that were deployed against the protests of Ferguson were missing in action in what was a failure of policing in Washington. A major act of identification was on display. It is the primary currency in which Trump cashes his checks with his own hardliners: psychological identification and other simulacra of empowerment. His loyalists got to photograph themselves in their own Mar-a-Lago-for-a-day: they savored the grandeur of the paintings, the intricate marble floors, and their own incongruity with the architecture.
Thomas Meaney is an American writer who contributes reportage and essays to the New Yorker magazine, the London Review of Books, and Le Monde diplomatique. He’s currently a fellow of the Max Planck Institute.