World Upside Down

A frame from Take the Money and Run, (Woody Allen, dir.), 1969.

“I have a gub”

Almost a week out and nobody knows what to call the thing that happened at the Capital. Was it a coup, putsch, insurrection, revolt, riot or robbery? The one certain fact is that a few thousand Trump supporters stormed past a handful of flimsy barriers, evaded surprised police, broke windows and doors and entered the Capital, eventually making their way to the House and Senate chambers. Their purpose was to stop or delay the certification of electors – and that they quickly accomplished when Senators and Representatives were forced to evacuate to safety. “So far so good,” the putschists must have thought.

But what then? Steal the electoral college ballots? If that was their plan, it was foiled when Senate staffers secured the documents on their way out of the chamber. (I assume that on their trip to Washington, the electors stopped at a Kinkos and made copies!) At this point, the uncertain Trumpists, like Woody Allen’s character with the illegible robbery note in Take the Money and Run, must have been at a loss. They needed direction from Mr. Big, but he was nowhere to be found, despite his pledge that morning: “I’ll be there with you!” And having broken into the capital and shut down the vote, they wondered, how would they now get out without being arrested? They were marooned, like robbers in a heist movie where the getaway car is nowhere in sight. In the end of course, the ever considerate Capital police simply guided them to the exits like guards in a museum at closing time. Some even took the arms of the more elderly rebels, helping them down some tricky steps.

Jacquerie

But between the storming of the congressional chambers and closing time, more than three hours elapsed, and that was the most remarkable part of the whole siege. During that period, the motley crowd – dressed in flags, furs, horns, face paint, confederate regalia and MAGA caps, like the audience in a Nazi version of Let’s Make a Deal – wandered from room to room and office to office, gawking, looting, smoking, urinating, and mostly taking incriminating videos and selfies. They were behaving like peasants, laborers and outlaws in a medieval or early modern jacquerie.

The term jacquerie derives from a specific uprising that occurred in Beauvoisis, Brie in Northern France in June 1358. More particularly, the word designates the costume worn by the rebels: the Jacque, a padded jacket or robe with a tall collar and attached head covering – a sort of medieval hoodie. The 14th century court historian Jean Froissart wrote that “these wicked people plundered and burnt all the houses they came to, murdered every gentleman, and violated every lady and damsel they could find.” Froissart was a biased reporter, part of the fake news media of the day, but he was probably right that the Jacques as they were called, were violent and rapacious and that their political goals were unclear. Given their lack of armor and primitive weaponry – mostly limited to sharpened sticks – they were routed in a few months. Thousands were killed and some were tortured first.

The causes of this uprising (the term jacquerie was later used for other poplar revolts) included resentment at the payment of elevated tithes (paid in produce or money) and tailles (land taxes), and excessive demands for corvee (unpaid) labor. The rebels also protested the lack of protection against bandits and mercenaries who roamed the countryside and attacked and robbed them at will. That was part of the deal – you worked for the lord, and in return, he protected you. In addition, the recently ended plague (Black Death) played a role in the uprising. Because of the resulting labor shortage, surviving peasants and laborers had more bargaining power than before, and good reason to expect their needs would be met by nobles and kings. When they weren’t, as was the case in 1358, they rose up. And wherever they did, and however briefly, they instigated a world-upside down, a carnivalesque regime where paupers were called kings, and where knights and nobles were disparaged, abused and sometimes killed with no more regard than if they were paupers. During the jacquerie, men and women were dominated by primary process emotions — fear, fury, excitement, and desire. Consciousness of time and space as well as law was suspended and bodily appetites prevailed.

Carnival in the Capital

That seems to me roughly what transpired at the U.S. Capital during the several hours between the mob’s invasion and its quiet departure at sundown. For that interregnum, the world was turned upside down and the suckers who follow Trump felt like kings. Veritable Lords of Misrule, they sat in the thrones belonging to Mike Pence, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. One notable Jacques, Richard Barnett of Gravette, Arkansas, a white nationalist and gun enthusiast, found his way to Pelosi’s office (he later claimed he was looking for a toilet) and manspread across her chair and desk. Signs and expression of the carnivalesque were apparent elsewhere too. Some of the crowd vandalized furniture and art, or got stoned. “Look at all this fancy furniture they have,” said one man gazing through a congressional window from the outside. Several other men, according to the NYTimes, searched for the offices of Chuck Schumer. “He’s slimey,” one said, “You can just see it.” Despite helpful directions from a police officer, they failed to find the senator’s suite. Frustrated, they lounged, smoked and laughed. One joked that he had “gone to the bathroom and not flushed.” Nearby, a man pulled down a Chinese scroll from a wall: “We don’t want Chinese bullshit,” said a woman who watched the iconoclasm.

The disruption of the electoral vote count at the Capital on June 6 was a mini-putsch, engineered by Trump and his congressional Republican enablers, and carried out by fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists. Their actions were quickly countered by the reconvening of Congress that night and confirmation of Biden’s election early the next morning. What was more important – and potentially more dangerous – was the jacquerie or carnival that followed the invasion of the Capital. During those three or so hours, the rebels experienced the sense of power and impunity that occurs during times when the world is turned upside down. Intoxication from that brief triumph may encourage still more anti-democratic, racist and other far-right outrages leading to even greater political damage. We don’t need to mete out to the putschists the grotesque punishments that medieval lords and kings did to the Jacques, but we should at least make sure their political enables are drummed out of office, shunned and shamed.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.