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Notes on an insurrection: violence, magical thinking

Millions of Americans watching a racist mob stage an armed assault on the U.S. Capitol last week

Brian Wright O’Connor
Notes on an insurrection: violence, magical thinking
QAnon conspiracy theorist Jacob Angeli Chansley captured in footage from ITV News, prior to breaking into the Capitol.

Millions of Americans watching a racist mob stage an armed assault on the U.S. Capitol last week could hardly believe what they were seeing.

As masked marauders smashed through doors and windows, beat police and rampaged through the halls of Congress with a Confederate flag waving behind them like a rebel yell, many said to themselves, “This isn’t the America I know.”

But to anyone victimized by the vast chasm between high-minded American values of freedom and justice and the actual exercise of power, the America that carried a cross to the sacking of Congress is all too familiar.

Magical thinking and its handmaiden of violence were the forces driving those who refused to accept President Trump’s election loss, instead ascribing his defeat to Deep State conspiracies and global forces of evil aligned against white Christian culture. And it is nothing new. At its core, slavery involved deeply rooted cognitive dissonance by denying the humanity of Africans in spite of Gospel teachings, while employing violence to enforce the hypocrisy.

Watching that deep strain in American culture play out in Washington, how could anyone deny the truth of what Black Power disciple H. Rap Brown said at a fiery press conference in the nation’s capital more than 50 years ago: “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.”

What’s important to understand about magical thinking is that wishes sometimes do come true. Consider the numerous cells of religious dissidents in post-medieval Europe, chafing under the yoke of establishment faiths and facing burnings at the stake, imprisonment and torture. Reports from the wilderness across the vast Atlantic kindled schemes of building a New Canaan in the Godless frontier.

So thousands of people over the course of the 17th century piled into leaky boats, carrying firearms and diseases, to cross the salt swells and receive the welcome of tribes up and down the Atlantic coast. We know how that worked out.

The help of Native Americans to those proclaiming a “City Upon a Hill” here in Massachusetts was indispensable in the success of the colony. The application of organized violence in clearing the remnants of Native power once the encroaching Puritans and Pilgrims needed more land than they had ever let on helped fulfill the dream of colonizers. Clicking the heels of their ruby slippers three times did indeed bring them “over the rainbow” but not without the aid of smallpox-infected blankets, large-caliber muskets and treaties not worth the paper they were written on. From sea to shining Manifest-Destiny sea.

The improbable success of the stern clerics and their followers in New England fueled a cycle of magical thinking and violence that continues to this day.

Abetted by Twitter, Facebook and other platforms that allow Big Lies to proliferate without filters, the serial untruths of Donald Trump and QAnon fire up aggrieved fundamentalists, militiamen, white supremacists and neo-Nazis intent on recapturing white dominance in an era when truth and demographics are working against them. The denialism among the Trump faithful has also helped fuel the COVID pandemic, as non-masked rallies serve as super-spreader events that sicken and kill victims who accepted the reality and the virility of the disease along with those who rejected it.

Trump and his never-truth enablers in the Republican Party are simply building on a culture of magical self-deceit that in recent years has seen the military establishment and most of the nation’s political leadership embrace the fantasy that America can remake Afghanistan, solve ancient religious and ethnic tensions in Iraq and turn the whole Middle East into a paradise of democracy. All, of course, at the point of a sword and the cone of a Raytheon missile designed right here in the Bay State. Recall the statement of a high-ranking official in the administration of President George W. Bush — the same crowd that said of Saddam Hussein, “We don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud” — who dismissed concerns about the war in Iraq by saying, “We create our own reality.”

A generation before the chorus of right-wing talk show hosts reinforced mistruths about Iraq, magical thinking prevailed in Vietnam. In that conflict, Pentagon generals cultivated self-deception like a priestly caste, deploying weapons and manpower in a deluded rain of death in Indochina — in spite of their own reports, contained in the Pentagon Papers, showing that the organizers of the massive waste of lives and lucre were keenly aware of the foolhardy nature of the enterprise. Meanwhile, those who denounced it — like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — were murdered.

The fact that race is caught up in the imperial overreach of America in places across the world and in conflicts here at home is too often overlooked. But it was in full display in Washington, as some Capitol police faced armed demonstrators, who had been sent surging down the Mall by a commander-in-chief stoking their revolt, by opening up steel barriers and letting them through.

Where Black Lives Matter demonstrations are met with the Praetorian Guard, Trumpsters had selfies taken with the guardians of Congress. And in the aftermath, rather than ringing the Capitol with an impenetrable cordon and arresting every felon who emerged from the building, they were allowed to flee. Instead of thousands of arrests, there were just a few dozen.

And it was hardly a coincidence that the anger and anarchy that boiled over in Washington came just a day after Black voters in Georgia played the deciding role in defeating a pair of simpering Trump lackeys in a double-billed U.S. Senate election day. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, who served at the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit once held by King, bested Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed in 2019 by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, in a special election to become the Peach State’s first Black U.S. senator. Jon Ossoff, a former film producer and journalist who is Jewish, defeated incumbent Sen. David Perdue.

Predictable unsubstantiated claims of massive electoral fraud came from the yapping maws of conspiracists after the narrow victories by the two Georgia Democrats. The fact that over 60 court challenges to the results of the presidential contest have been dismissed did not deter the magical thinkers from invoking the same tired canards of ballot-stuffing in favor of Democrats and ballot-dumping injurious to the GOP’s hopes to hold on to their Senate majority. That majority is now gone, with any 50-50 splits decided by the added vote of Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The question now is whether the most noxious effects of magical thinking can be contained. Will reason prevail, or will America see a latter-day version of the 1874 White League rebellion in New Orleans, an open revolt by racist Democrats determined to overturn an election victory by Reconstruction-era Republicans? That insurrection was quickly quelled by federal troops dispatched by President Ulysses S. Grant.

The signs are not encouraging. In Michigan last April, armed militias wearing swastikas and Confederate flags nearly overran the state capitol as they denounced Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus lockdown orders. Credible plots to kidnap and kill Whitmer were subsequently uncovered. The racist Proud Boys, told by Trump to stand by, are not going anywhere.

The Republican National Committee recently met and, with nary a mention of Trump’s role in inciting a riot, re-elected its chair in spite of losing the House, Senate and White House. In fact, doubling down on magical thinking, many Trump supporters have broadcast the fiction that it was not their people but hordes of far-left antifa activists masquerading as Trump chumps who rioted in Washington as a way to discredit the president’s followers.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, citing dark chapters of his Germanic heritage, saw clear echoes of Nazism in the Capitol insurrection, comparing the assault to “Kristallnacht,” when fascists rampaged through German streets, breaking the windows of Jewish merchants and ransacking synagogues and Jewish homes.

President Barack Obama issued a dire warning, saying the fantasy narrative of Trump and his claque “has spiraled further and further from reality, and it builds upon years of sown resentments. Now we’re seeing the consequences, whipped up into a violent crescendo.”

Obama, himself subjected to a decade of false attacks by Trump’s birtherism claims, said Republicans now have a clear choice.

“They can continue down this road and keep stoking the raging fires,” he said. “Or they can choose reality and take the first steps towards extinguishing the flames. They can choose America.”

The problem is that the Trump fanatics, echoing the violent Lost Cause racism of the post-Reconstruction South, are indeed choosing America when seizing upon a strand of the national DNA that elevates fantasy above reality, survivalism above humanism, racial conflict above reconciliation and violence above peace. The least we can hope for is that elected leaders desist in feeding the beast constantly gnawing at national comity. Containment may be the only policy. “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices,” said Voltaire.

Preventing the fire next time will require a massive truth serum in the body politic administered by elected officials and media members alike. A daunting task given the widespread distrust of vaccines of any kind along with the profits to be gained by the prophets of division.

But the alternative is the beast of magical thinking and violence growing to such strength that it rends the nation asunder and the darker angels of our nature run complete riot, ending the American experiment’s unsteady march towards a more perfect union.   

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