The images keep flashing back to me. Jake Angeli, clad in horns, a pelt, and face paint, flexing on the dais of the Senate. America’s leaders, wearing both medical masks and gas masks—the one a barrier against the coronavirus, the other against another kind of threat. The bust of Zachary Taylor, his marble face apparently smeared with blood. Images like those were part of the point of yesterday’s attack; they will serve as recruiting tools for bigots and as indelible stains on America’s history. And they will very likely lodge themselves, impressionistically, permanently—horns, flags, masks, smoke, fists, marble, blood—in Americans’ memory of January 6, 2021. In a coup attempt, first you take the television.
I keep returning to another bit of perverse iconography, though, as I think about what happened to Congress—to the country—yesterday. It’s a video, shot by the journalist Frank Thorp from the gallery of the Senate, after the evacuation of the leaders of the U.S. government. Shot from above, in a chamber that serves in practical terms as a conference room but in mythological ones as the seat of American democracy, the video scans over papers scattered, chairs out of place, desks with lids agape—the detritus of earlier panic.
BREAKING: Protesters are on the Senate floor now: pic.twitter.com/k4Q0ln8pZs— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) January 6, 2021
The invaders are there in the video too. They mill around the chamber, casually, insouciantly. They seem either oblivious to or uncaring about the violence that is unfolding beyond the room’s walls. A man in an I ❤️ Trump shirt sits on a bench on the room’s perimeter, his hands neatly folded, his air meditative. Three guys wander in, seeming less to be seeking civil war than looking for a place to grab some coffee. A woman wearing a lime-green bike helmet and a TRUMP 2020 flag as a cape takes pictures of some of the papers that have been left on top of desks: evidence, maybe, of some imagined crime, or just a memento. The occupants quietly murmur. Someone’s phone pings. A vague air of confusion hovers over these insurrectionists: soldiers waiting for direction from a leader who long ago fled the battlefield. Lies have led them here—gaudy fantasies about an election stolen and a birthright robbed—and they seem, now that they have reached the inner sanctum of American government, unsure how to proceed with their victory. They gaze and sit and take some pictures. This is an apt anticlimax. Donald Trump’s movement has always flirted with nihilism.
As the siege of the U.S. Capitol played out on television, several news outlets used Thorp’s video as B-roll for their stories. The result was a strange collision. Here were anchors and their guests, shock in their voices, comparing the breach of Congress to the 9/11 attacks and talking about January 6 as another day that would live in American infamy. Here, too, were the rioters in question, looking in this moment less like a mob than like customers ambling around a Kinko’s. More depictions of diffidence began circulating, denuded of context but conveying a general sense of consumer entitlement. The guy who seemed to be making off with a lectern. A group of insurrectionists wandering around National Statuary Hall, looking vaguely like tourists, following the paths set by velvet ropes. The mob that invaded Congress, a participant interviewed on Fox News explained, was not a mob at all, but simply a group of patriots taking back “the people’s house.” They acted, indeed, like they owned the place. Richard Barnett, 60, entered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office; he plopped into a chair and grinned for a portrait, the soles of his boots facing the camera. He stole a piece of her mail. I know his name and age because, exiting the building, he gave an interview about it all to The New York Times.
The glibness was its own display of dominance. Apathy can be its own kind of weapon. The images of the rioters that came from the Capitol yesterday conveyed glee and anger and many things in between; what they convey very little of, however, is fear. The insurrectionists grinned at the cameras. They waved, merrily. They shuffled through Statuary Hall as the frozen faces of America’s past looked on. They overran the place. And then they were escorted out, calmly—politely—by Capitol Police. They were fueled by lies and fantasies; one thing they got right, though, was that their attack on the government—an attack motivated by their desire to overturn a free and fair election—would incur very few consequences. By the evening, as newspapers ran all-caps headlines about the trauma the Capitol had just endured at the hands of militant invaders, law enforcement had reportedly arrested some 50 people. News networks that had spent years stoking violent delusions scrambled to announce their shock that the delusions had turned violent. Politicians who had demonized peaceful racial-justice protesters this summer found acrobatic new ways to define “law and order.”
I’ll remember the events of yesterday the way television conditioned me to: through a split screen. On the one side, the eerie calm of Frank Thorp’s video of the Senate chamber. On the other, the pain and fear of the people who faced the brunt of the attack. Outside the Capitol, as the siege aired in real time, people panicked. They begged President Trump, who had earlier given a speech urging his supporters to “save America,” to censure the attackers. Outside the chamber, there was agony and consternation and outrage. There was violence and there was death. Inside, the invaders posed for pictures.