On January 6, a day after the historic election of an African American pastor, Raphael Warnock, to the US Senate, a well-planned coup sought to overturn the free and fair 2020 US presidential election, which Joe Biden had definitively won.
The insurrectionists, supported both explicitly and implicitly by Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers, overtook the Capitol building with the aim of subverting the traditionally perfunctory congressional procedure of certifying electoral ballots.
The mob considered Biden’s election illegitimate mainly because they consider Democrats “illegitimate”. This is in no small part because a majority of Black voters vote for Democrats, and Black people, in their eyes, are not “true” Americans, hence their votes do not and should not count.
The images emerging from the failed coup are distressing. But they are also strange and don’t fit easily with how we might imagine insurrection, in part because they seem to tell two completely different stories.
In one set of images, there is a distinctly “day pass at Disney World” atmosphere, as pro-Trump rioters giddily wander in and around the Capitol building. They take selfies to mark the occasion, share laughs, and loiter around the grounds.
In one photograph, a rioter photographs fellow rioter and QAnon supporter Jacob Anthony Chansley – covered in Nordic tattoos and sporting a Viking helmet – as though he had slinked under the velvet rope at Epcot Center and was now playfully “part of” the replica or simulation.
The other set of images is far darker, depicting moments of imminent or actual violence, if not assassination. Videos show angry mobs punching windows, using objects to break into the building, and using the full force of their collective bodies to crush police officers.
Of all the images that have circulated, perhaps none quickens the pulse quite like that of Eric Munchel dressed in tactical/military gear from head to toe, from the baseball cap featuring an American flag crosscut by a rifle and a tactical (not a COVID) mask to the rigger belt and the combat boots. He holds a pack of flex cuffs, expensive gear used by police and the military to detain people. This man in black, face covered, is on a mission that was never secret, and he is here to execute that mission with the stealth and precision of a Black Ops soldier.
When circus and siege are the same thing
How to square these two sets of images? Was it a macabre clown show or a horrifying insurrection?
The answer is that circus and siege are the same thing; they are the two halves of a white supremacist whole. When placed within the context of the United States’ long history of white people rioting – almost always directed at people of colour – what seems dissonant in fact makes perfect sense. Because we have seen these kinds of images before: in lynching photographs.
But we may not know that we have seen these images before. Americans live with what scholar Jacqueline Goldsby calls a “spectacular secret”: lynching.
The US government’s abandonment of Reconstruction in 1877 meant that federal troops were immediately pulled from the US South, giving those states free rein to install Jim Crow segregation as the unofficial, then official, rule of law. Between 1877 and 1950, white mobs murdered at least 4,075 Black men and women in 12 Southern states alone, typically by either hanging or burning alive.
Lynching was a strategy of violent domination that accompanied segregation as a means of enforcing white supremacy. This technically illegal and unofficially sanctioned form of “mob justice” occurred in southern, midwestern, and northern states.
The power of lynching was not simply in murdering Black individuals to “make examples” of them, but in turning murder into a novel form of entertainment. In the early 20th century, lynching was one of many cultural practices that entwined the spectacle of power with the pleasures of mass commercial entertainment. Take, for instance, the fact that in Coney Island in 1903, an elephant was electrocuted live on stage to demonstrate the deadliness of Thomas Edison’s current. The elephant was named Topsy, after the enslaved child in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), whose wild antics made her a popular racial caricature on the minstrelsy stage. Within this broader cultural context of violence and spectacle, lynching was not a departure from “modern” America; it was an extension of “modern” America.
How visible was lynching? There are thousands of lynching photographs, all hiding in plain sight. Not only were lynchings not a secret, but they were a common feature of American life.
Lynchings were festive events, meant to draw a crowd. People built stages, installed seating, and circulated advertisements. People made travel arrangements to attend. Studio photographers documented and commemorated the violent, celebratory event. The mob frequently desecrated the victim’s body by chopping off body parts (fingers and phalluses) to keep as mementoes. Quite often, photographs of the mob with their murder victim(s) – like photographs of “trophy kills” – were made into postcards, either for the witness-participants to keep as personal souvenirs or to send to family and friends.
Perhaps most striking is that these photographs were even taken. Many people in this mob are wearing their Sunday best, as if attending a church picnic, or as the couple stage-left in the accompanying photograph suggests, perhaps going on a nice date. And perhaps most tellingly, no one in this photograph is purposely hiding their face or averting their gaze, fearful of being caught in the act.
In fact, as critic Shawn Michelle Smith, writing about the mobs in these lynching photographs, has pointed out, not only does the white mob convey no shame, but in fact it telegraphs open celebration. The moment that the camera captures is not spontaneous or makeshift. It is staged and highly choreographed; everyone is posing, so that they might walk away with a record of a pleasurable, enjoyable, and eventful evening.
Humour and fascism: Longtime bedfellows
What these historical images share in common with the selfies and images coming from the pro-Trump coup is this direct gaze, meeting the camera head-on. That is because when white supremacy – whether enforced by the Ku Klux Klan or the police – works for you, there is no need to cover up or avert your gaze; your crime is kosher. The faces of rioters in the Capitol building were by and large unmasked, revelling in both the crime and their impunity.
In the midst of looting, Adam Johnson flashed a bright smile and waved to the camera. With the speaker of the House’s lectern in tow, his comportment, scholar Matthew D Morrison has noted, bears an uncanny resemblance to the iconic image of TD Rice. A New York performer and playwright, Rice was the “original” Jim Crow who, by “blackening up”, started America’s long tradition of blackface minstrelsy.
The image of Johnson, like that of Chansley donning the garb of Nordic whiteness (it is little coincidence that these chosen ancestors, Vikings, were looters), might suggest that the whole affair was comical, goonish, vaudevillian. A favourite joke these days is that Chansley looks like he just left Burning Man. Linking the Burning Man festival to the historical festivities of burning a Black man might be too smart by half, but the larger truth holds: that white revelry absolutely brims with the threat of violence.
The unbridled fun that Johnson is having, coupled with Chansley’s buffoonery, makes it easy to downplay the gravity of the situation. Their joy deflects attention from the anti-democratic violence at hand. This might not be surprising, given that humour has long been bedfellows with – and provided cover for – fascism. Trump, after all, has gotten away with so much violence precisely because it is so difficult to take him seriously. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he is “just” a clown.
The clownishness of the mob, however, brings the stakes of Munchel’s participation into relief. One of the few masked insurrectionists (and equipped with military-grade gear), he promises to make good on the violence.
While some rioters used cosplay to perform their alleged patriotism – scaling walls when they could have used the side door, needlessly jumping onto an empty Senate floor – Munchel signals that, in fact, this is not “just for show”. His figure is all the more sinister because he permits a theatre of misrule – where the likes of Johnson, Chansley and others frolic – that calls itself the rule of law.
We cannot forget who else has been on the receiving end of “the rule of law”, when only 15 years ago US soldiers made a spectacle of abusing Iraqi prisoners, flashing a smile and a “thumbs up” to the camera. This is fun! Munchel suggests not chaos but a horrifyingly narrow interpretation and violent implementation of “law and order”, where white people are entitled to the crime of taking what they want (an election, a lectern, a life) and calling it justice.
The twisted line from 19th-century lynching to insurrection
The braiding of entertainment and violence that occurs when white people riot is the twisted line that leads from 19th-century lynching to the insurrection. Lynching photographs teach us that today’s images of the failed coup – on the one hand clownish, on the other terrifying – are not dissonant; in reality, they go hand-in-hand. Enjoyment is not a by-product but a central feature of white people’s violence towards Black people and, more broadly, Black political power.
Riot and revelry are conjoined twins, sharing a common organ: white supremacy. When we look at these photographs through the lens of white mob violence in the US, they start to collapse into each other, becoming indistinguishable.
In the US, spectacles of racial violence make fun and terror mutually constitutive: they are not opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. In lynching photographs, the horrific murder of a Black man and the electric gayety of the white murderers reinforce each other. Likewise, Johnson and Munchel – the clown and the militiaman – exist for each other. They are the same rioter, just dressed in different clothes. Jouissance is central to the operations of white supremacist violence.
Lynching helps us make sense of the conviviality of the militia, of how carnival crowd and mob violence frequently come as a “package deal” in the US.
That insurrectionists had erected a gallows and were calling to hang Vice President Mike Pence makes the connection between lynching and the coup clear enough. It is important to underscore that similar violence is at play: wresting political power away from African Americans.
Lynchings worked with segregation to curtail Black people’s ability to freely vote, while the failed coup aimed to punish anyone – white people included – threatening the supremacy of white people’s vote over everyone else’s. To America’s ethno-nationalists, “free and fair” means unfree and unfair to white people, who can only see human and civil rights as a zero-sum game.
US history teaches us, over and over again, that the carnival is a fundamental part of (not apart from) white mob violence. When white people gather to harm and/or kill, they want to be entertained while doing it. Because of its festive atmosphere, the coup calls us back in time to a century of murdered Black men and women at the hands of white mobs. That this is not all fun and games, as evidenced by Munchell’s flex cuffs, is precisely why it is fun.