TV Daze

What should we call what happened January 6?

Was it a failed coup? That seems right, but how can a government overthrow itself? This is why some fastidious political scientists and many South Americans would more likely call it an “autogolpe,” literally a “self-coup.” In the Weimar Republic, they would have called it a “putsch.”

Just as Eskimos have words that denote different types of “snow,” peoples living in places where coups happen often have words that denote different kinds.

There were coup participants who shouted slogans about 1776. But, like their Dear Leader, Donald Trump, these were not people who could be accused of being knowledgeable or well-informed.

The word “revolution” has become degraded in recent decades. Thus, we have, for example, “the Reagan Revolution” and the Sanders campaign’s “political revolution.”

But, even in a highly attenuated sense, there was nothing revolutionary about January 6 – especially, but not only, if the word is used to describe much less than efforts to build new political, social, and economic institutions on the ashes of the old.

Outside the Capitol itself, the January 6 events were experienced through a TV daze. But this hardly puts Gil Scott-Heron’s claim that “the revolution will not be televised” in doubt.

It may be in doubt for other reasons, but not because, where Donald Trump goes, a reality TV aesthetic follows; or, for that matter, because, as Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed decades ago, the medium is the message.

Indeed, I would venture that, for the most part, TV coverage of what we might as well call “the Trump Insurrection” wasn’t half bad.

Had events taken a more autogolpe-like or revolutionary turn, the TV audience would have been right there, on top of it all because it was all there to be seen — not always clearly, more like “through a glass darkly,” but seen nevertheless.

What was seeable at first conjured up that “this can’t be happening” feeling that I recall from long ago – when Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. Needless to say, there was nothing like a Jack Ruby moment this time around, but, while in process, the spectacle in its entirety evoked that vibe.

There was a deeper respect too in which History was not quite repeating itself. The Kennedy assassination was widely experienced as a tragedy. There was very little sense of that last Wednesday, and, although the perpetrators often seemed like parodies of themselves, there was nothing farcical about it either.

There was plenty of irony, however.

In retrospect, it is hard to account for how venerated Kennedy and his band of New Frontiersmen were “to the best minds of my generation.” How could that have happened after the Bay of Pigs and after all JFK did to get the Vietnam War up and running? How could Camelot have come out of that?

Six decades later, this is still inexplicable; perhaps it always will be. But there is no denying that JFK’s death did indeed seem tragic. I still vividly recall a conference at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where a speaker caught the mood exactly. Citing Aeschylus, he began: “He is slain, the first of men.”

It did not take long, however, for the best minds to sour en masse – not exactly on JFK, that somehow still hasn’t happened, but on what the New Frontier wrought. The Vietnam War saw to that.

The consensus view nowadays is that the sixties (actually, the late sixties and early seventies) were about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There is some truth in that. But, to use a word that the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC disparage, the radicalization of the civil rights and student movements had a lot more to do with it.

Thus, by the end of the decade, the best minds were won over to visions of an American version of the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace. This was, for the most part, an exercise in self-indulgent romanticism.

But for at least some of the very best of the best minds some of the time, it betokened thoughtful support for a political, social and economic revolution that would make Freedom real and put Reason in charge. By “revolution” here, I mean revolution, the real deal.

The talking heads on the cable networks, hardly the best minds of any generation, seem unable to tell the difference between individuals moved by aspirations of that kind and the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. It is not just that they know not of what they speak or that they are obliged to go out of their way to show “both sides”; dumbing down is what they do for a living.

The Trumpians’ penchant for sedition has nothing to do with changing the world radically for the better, and everything to do with the cult-like mentality of millions of Trump supporters, and with the fact that those numbskulls and knuckleheads are unstable enough easily to go berserk. It doesn’t help either that rightwing propagandists, bankrolled by ruling class miscreants, bombard them with nonsense, or that, to the extent that they are only following orders,“ they are led by idiots.

Be that as it may, it took only a few hours for the worst of the mayhem to subside and for the Capitol to be secured. Then the sense of things that the TV conveyed took a turn reminiscent of CNN and other corporate media after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

For a while, viewers could watch the same film clips, picturing the same excruciatingly jaw-dropping incendiary events, over and over again, just as they could in September 2001. They might as well have hooked up a playback loop.

But then they wouldn’t have been able to inundate viewers with commentaries reeking of pious cant and mindless inanities about the glories of the besieged “American experiment” and the sanctity of the Capitol itself, the very citadel of, apologies to Superman, “truth, justice, and the American way.”

This too didn’t last long, however, because, ironically, Trump’s thugs were a godsend for the anti-Trump wing of the ruling class.

They realized this right away. With corporate media in the lead, they knew just what to do and how to do it; how, that is, to turn the assault on Congress and Republicans not towing the Trumpian line into an irrefutable demonstration of the need to dispatch Trump and his minions as soon as constitutionally possible.

Figuring that out wasn’t, as they say, rocket science, but then rocket science isn’t exactly rocket science either.

Trump and his flunkies, and Joseph Goebbels and his, are not the only ones who appreciate the power of endless, mindless repetition. After 9/11, CNN showed that it did too; and January 6 showed that they haven’t lost their touch.

For once, they’re using their propaganda skills against Trump, not just by occasionally bad mouthing him, but by going after him hard. And, at last, they are going after white supremacists and other moronized (they say “radicalized”) white folks. It’s about time!

The irony here too is palpable.

Corporate media are now deploying the skills they have been honing for years, since even before 9/11 but relentlessly since then. That was when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, his éminence grise, let loose a full court press, intended to prep Americans for the perpetual war regime they aimed to establish.

But, for now, thanks to Trump’s monumental incapacity to accept defeat, it is directed not against “the other,” but against the very nativists and white supremacists who weaponized Islamophobia and demonized immigrants and asylum seekers from “south of the border.”

Bush, by the way, has become almost a hero on MSNBC and CNN nowadays, thanks in part to the many anti-Trump Republicans that those ostensibly liberal networks have brought on board.

Poor Bush. He was the worst president in modern times for only eight short years. In pre-pandemic times, he was arguably more lethal than Trump; he certainly caused a lot of murder and mayhem, as he and his advisors destabilized large swathes of the planet. However, it has now become clear that, in the final analysis, his perfidiousness is no match for Trump’s.

Bush and Cheney started America’s twenty-first century off on a bad track with their still-raging war of revenge on Afghanistan. Then they launched their gratuitous war of choice against Iraq, a war that also continues, in one form or another, to this day.

Bush and Cheney called it a Global War on Terror. Nobel laureate Barack Obama dropped the name but, with varying degrees of intensity, continued the idea behind it, expanding its scope far beyond the borders of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama also added to the jibber-jabber about American exceptionalism and the glories of American democracy. One might have expected more from a president with some grey matter beneath his skull and some understanding of how our politics got to its present sorry state, but that never happened. As they say, it is what it is.

What is needed desperately now, if we are ever to achieve a soft landing as the era of American world domination sputters apart, is a less deluded view of America’s actual past and possible futures. What breaks through the TV daze seldom gets any of this right.

Ronald Reagan’s “City on a Hill” nonsense was risible. But, to the extent that there is a still intact American civil religion, talk about the Trumpian mob breaching and violating its “sacred” precincts actually does make a kind of sense.

But ours is now a house divided. It is hard to bring about a schism in a civil religion of which most people know little and care less, but through sheer inadvertence and narcissistic inattention, Trump somehow pulled it off. In doing so, as he often has, he made a bad situation a whole lot worse.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the bad situation Trump thrust himself into a whole lot better. However, for now, the more immediate task is to undo the harm he has done. Until that happens, there is no clear path forward.

From my vantage point, when the cable channels started showing mobs breaking into the Capitol, leaving destruction in their wake, the commentary on those channels that rang most true came from witnesses who described the situation as “surreal.”

I’m not sure what they were thinking, but, having watched or re-watched a number of classic surrealist movies while waiting the seemingly never-ending pandemic out, I could not help but think of two Luis Buñuel masterpieces, “Viridiana” and “The Exterminating Angel.”

Buñuel and the other great surrealist authors, poets, and film makers, especially those in Catholic countries, were unstintingly anti-clerical and, for the most part, militantly atheistic. But they had a sense of radical human insufficiency – in other words, of Original Sin – that was far more substantively Christian than anything Trump’s Christian-Zionist evangelical nincompoops are equipped to understand.

The Trump insurrectionists descent into the darkest regions seemed, at first, like something Buñuel or another likeminded surrealist might have scripted.

But that impression too faded quickly, not because the insurrectionists took a more enlightened, less hardcore Christian, turn, but because it became clear that what was coming through on television was not just a rabble roused, but a sinister plot, organized perhaps at the highest levels, against the little that actually is democratic and decent in our political scene.

As troops move in en masse to defend Washington and the fifty state capitols on and around Inauguration Day, it should become clearer just how far-reaching that plot was and, in all likelihood, still is.

This time, federal and state governments are taking nothing for granted, preparing for the worst. They may be fighting the last war, however.

It is tempting to take solace in the fact that the enemy this time is stupendously moronic and may therefore not be capable of realizing that doing the same thing over again may be, to put it mildly, unwise. After all, these are people who take QAnon, perhaps the dopiest of all “conspiracy theories” ever, seriously.

Unfortunately, though, this is not how the world works. Even idiots can be cunning. Look at Trump, QED.

There is no point in trying to predict what will happen long term; that will depend on more than just what happens to Trump; and, at this point, even that remains unclear.

But the nature and extent of the immediate, short term danger should become clear soon enough.

I write these words on Thursday afternoon; perhaps by the time they are posted, the clarification will be underway. In the world of Donald Trump, all is flux.

Whatever happens, one sure thing is that it will be televised, and that, like the news today and yesterday, what is going on will be at least somewhat discernible through the TV daze. Stay tuned.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).