The Superhero Fantasies of Trump’s Mob

The insurrectionists have been sold a fiction, and their costumes warp the works that inspired them.

Pro-Trump protesters waving MAGA and Confederate flags at the Capitol
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

They thought they were heroes; that much is obvious. The animal furs and war paint, the banners and utility vests, the slogan slinging and wall climbing: Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol felt like fiction to watch, and doubtless many pro-Trump insurrectionists had Hollywood on their mind as they pillaged and took selfies. Some participants wore the logo of the Punisher, the Marvel Comics character who stabs muggers in Central Park. Others flaunted shirts that said CIVIL WAR in a font recalling the Avengers sequel of the same name. Those shirts were printed with the date January 6, 2021, which helps clear up whether the chaos was spontaneous.

But wait—isn’t the Avengers saga about the fight to stop a big-chinned narcissist from consolidating unchecked power and disintegrating a great civilization? Isn’t smashing up the Capitol, a long-standing monument to human compromise, total Thanos behavior? If the Trump mob contained cosplayers inspired by popular entertainment, they seemed to have missed some key thematic points of that entertainment. Earlier in the day, at the rally that sent Trump supporters raging toward the Capitol, Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” to settle election disputes. Trial by combat is a term used throughout Game of Thrones, a famous fantasy series about the horrors of a pre-democratic society in which might makes right.

In the rioters’ world, of course, right and wrong have custom definitions. Their insurrection was against reality itself. Every day, the “stop the steal” cause became more far-fetched: State and national legislators, courts at every level, foreign observers, media watchdogs, and Donald Trump’s own Justice Department all determined that Joe Biden won the presidency by millions of votes. Many of those who lost coped via costumes, for banal reasons. Sometimes, the truth hurts so much that it can disorient and unmoor a person. Denial is part of grief; fiction, fantasy, and what-ifs are part of coping; escapism is seductive even in the best of times. Trump’s bellowing about a rigged election provided comforting make-believe in the manner of any hack evangelist or entertainer.

A protester is seen inside the US Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Many of those who lost coped via costumes, for banal reasons. Sometimes, the truth hurts so much that it can disorient and unmoor a person. (Win McNamee / Getty)

Trump also has been peddling an attractive idea at the heart of American myths. “You’re very special,” he said in a video addressing the rioters while they rioted. Very special: What a funny, kidult sort of phrase. But insisting on one’s specialness—the sense of standing apart and above—is exactly what underlies vigilantism. It’s what powers superhero stories. It also runs through nationalism and white supremacy, ideologies based on a hope that all humans are not in fact equal. The special we’re talking about here is not achieved but conferred, whether through a radioactive spider bite or divine anointing or circumstances of birth. “This is our country; this is our house,” one invader, his face covered in a Watchmen-evoking gaiter, told a journalist in the Capitol. He didn’t need to explain why he thought his “our” trumped the constituencies whose congressional representatives were about to certify Biden’s election.

Some people, seeing the Comic-Con aesthetics of Wednesday’s mess, might be tempted to blame superhero culture for inspiring seditionists. But don’t we live in an era of self-aware, morally sophisticated fantasy? The Trump mob’s most obvious touchstones—Christopher Nolan’s flinty Batman films, the loyalty-switching drama of Marvel’s Civil War, and the dense plotting of Game of Thrones—are acclaimed for interrogating the vigilante impulse. Inevitably, though, they end up making the things they critique also look quite cool. The director François Truffaut once argued that there’s no such thing as a true anti-war film: No matter how ethically complex a script, no matter how well a director emphasizes the hell of violence, bloody conflict is so theatrical that it glorifies itself in every case. When would-be fascists worship the Death Star and take cues from The Matrix, they show action cinema’s disturbing capaciousness.

Really, though, the insurrectionists envision a world even simpler than the ones depicted by the movies they seem to be fans of. Trump has spoken of a singular “they” working against him, which is amorphous enough to include anyone who steps one foot off his path, as Vice President Mike Pence is learning. The attempted coup’s narrative can be rewritten at any point, as is now happening with the incoherent assertions that antifa actually invaded the Capitol. Trump’s storytelling about the election has been so crude that it rejects internal consistency. His mob’s role-playing is more reminiscent of children playing with action figures than of Robert Downey Jr. getting suited up to shoot a scene—though any comparison to toys feels ghastly when real deaths, destruction, and erosion of democracy are involved.

Given the context of fake news and conspiracy-theory mania, the almost literal weaponization of Hollywood’s fictions is just a symptom of a broader crisis with truth. People who yearn to step into another world will do so with little prodding, and the particular outfits they wear may not matter all that much. Pulling such people back into the real world, when prominent figures and online grifters are offering them fake ones, is one of the great tasks of our age. The difficulty of it was made plain as the gears of government began grinding again Wednesday night.

When Congress resumed, lawmakers’ corny, repetitive speeches on both sides of the aisle recalled another brand of fiction: the gaseousness of Aaron Sorkin and other political dramaturges who imagine that special figures with special rhetoric can thwart incrementalist structures and historical forces. The politicians’ remarks were decoration on the essential and boring process of a legislative body enacting the will of the people. That dull work wore on into early yesterday morning as TVs winked out across America. The country awoke not only to the certification of the president it had elected—it awoke to an accounting with reality.

Later that day, Trump—blacked out from social media and under threat of removal from office—rebuked the crowd that had taken up arms in his name as “heinous.” Following Trump’s video message acknowledging an imminent transition of power, many of his followers are expressing sheer confusion: “Weird and really sad,” wrote one poster on Reddit’s pro-Trump forum. The cognitive dissonance will worsen as the president’s fans process that five people just died amid a misuse of imagination, humankind’s one actual superpower.