As news of the chaos engulfing the Capitol was emerging yesterday, my feed was filling up with images of supporters of Donald Trump that bordered on the absurd. Photos of a man putting his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, or a man carrying a Senate podium, or a man in… I don’t know what the hell this is.
My endless scroll came to a halt suddenly, when I landed on a video of two men gleefully arranging themselves on the set of the steps for the National City Christian Church. One lies down on his front, pretending to be unconscious. The other carefully kneels down and hovers his knee above the other man’s neck. The kneeling man checks to see if a third friend is recording: They were reenacting the police maneuver that, eight months ago, killed George Floyd, sparking a national outcry. Above them, a massive Black Lives Matter banner flaps in the wind.
It was the subtle confirmation that this was “content” that got me. I replayed the video again and again and again. The men in the video almost seem to be saying, “Are you getting this? You got the shot?” while the man lying down and playing dead adjusts his hat just so.
As a coup, the actions of the mob were a failure. In the wee hours of the morning, Joe Biden was once again declared the winner of the 2020 election. They didn’t stop shit. But as a fodder for content, Jan. 6 was a resounding success.
The siege was no doubt terrifying to watch, and doubly so especially for the legislators and staff trapped in the building by raging QAnon followers and Trump dead-enders. Rioters wore shirts glorifying the Holocaust; some shouted what sounded like racial epithets and paraded Confederate flags. Guns were drawn. A woman was shot to death by police. It was a tense, perilous, violent assault on democracy.
But it was also quickly apparent that this was a very dumb coup. A coup with no plot, no end to achieve, no plan but to pose. Thousands invaded the highest centers of power, and the first thing they did was take selfies and videos. They were making content as spoils to take back to the digital empires where they dwell, where that content is currency.
You can see this most clearly in this photo, where the man in the god-knows-what costume, Jake Angeli, the so-called QAnon Shaman, is posing on the dais of the Senate, his friends carefully framing him to get the perfect shot. It is the Trump supporter equivalent of an Instagram influencer getting a photo beside a perfect mural.
In other words, it was a coup for the ‘gram. It was all for trophies, or stories to tell. Far-right social media personalities like Baked Alaska (a former BuzzFeed employee whose real name is Tim Gionet) and Nick Fuentes made a show out of the siege, streaming themselves inside Pelosi’s office on DLive. The man who put his feet up on Pelosi’s desk? He soon was posing for photos with a personalized envelope he had stolen and regaling his friends with how he had “scratched his balls” in her office.
Wednesday’s events are frequently described as “shocking.” That elected officials and media commentators didn’t see this coming is a reflection of a deeper crisis — after all, the rioters planned all of this online, in full view of everyone. As Charlie Warzel lays out in the New York Times, the mob’s escalation is par for the course for people watching the pro-Trump and extreme-right universes. Very little of yesterday’s events were a surprise, coming from people that Warzel describes as “cocooned in Facebook groups and fed a steady diet of lies from election-denial outlets like Newsmax and One America News.”
It was a coup for the ‘gram.
In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that a medium does not act as an innocent conduit to information. Rather, a medium changes how we receive information until we are overly shaped by the rhythms of the medium itself.
It is no secret that social media algorithms have reframed how we think, and how we conduct ourselves online. Through promoting certain kinds of content, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have nurtured an environment where more extreme and partisan content is elevated and travels farther. It’s a dunking world. And many of these folks have spent so much time in the dank recesses of algorithmically ranked content that their brains saw yesterday’s “revolution” as an opportunity for meme-making. I’m just owning the libs by vaping in the Capitol, what are you up to?
If you exist in the real world, Trump and his allies have lost 62 election fights in court, and lost every opportunity to reverse the results of the election. The election of Joe Biden as the next president has been a settled matter for weeks. It’s comically absurd that anyone would think otherwise. But the real world is only a part of the story.
For Trump supporters who occupy those extreme-right universes, anyone who believes that Trump lost the election is the delusional one. What’s more: they experience this narrative entirely online, safe from facts, where stars of this alternate universe emerge to cement it for them. And there is reward to be found in that stardom: After all, why would anyone don a costume like the QAnon Shaman, if not as a play for the cameras?
But if the stardom is the reward, what of their revolution? Don’t they have work to do, a vote to stop? For many in the mob that showed up in DC, the posing is the work. They have been so influenced by experiencing the world on social media that when they go out into physical space they seemingly think foremost of this, a revolution as a branding exercise — the photos of the QAnon Shaman, the photos of the vaping riotier, the photos of the man with his feet on Pelosi’s desk, the ricochet in the far-right internet as proof of victory. Yes, there is no power to be found in simply standing at the dais of the Senate. It is meaningless. It draws its power from the symbolism it conjures: Interrupt the vote to own the libs.
In the middle of his livestream, Baked Alaska wondered whether, should the insurrectionists make it to the Senate chamber, it would “count” if they started passing the laws. He was kidding, but it’s the perfect joke for the moment: The rioters have made it this far, and now there’s nothing left to do but cosplay politicians for the thousands watching online.
He knew, as I’m sure others knew, that riots would not rewrite the Constitution. They aren’t meant to. But on the platforms, where these images will be shared and reshared as evidence of victory, the figures with the big followings will amass a bigger audience and greater influence. It will not matter that the mob did not directly change the results of the election. “We were there,” they will say, recounting a version of events that puts them at the center of the action. Like any good influencer knows, it’s all in the framing.