Notes on the American Siege: Epiphany at the Capitol

By Ben Prostine

Wednesday, January 6 was Epiphany, a Christian feast day commemorating the revelation of Jesus as God incarnate. In Western traditions, it is sometimes called Three Kings Day, referring to the magi who visited the Christ child bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In Greek traditions, Epiphany has been called The Day of the Lights, suggesting the astronomical dimensions of the holy day: January 6 is the day after the latest sunrise of the year. In the northern hemisphere, the solstice marks the shortest day, but sunrises continue to stretch onward until January 5. 

Now, in this long decline of the US empire, the day bears new brandings after an attempted siege on the Capitol. Compared to the revolution of 1776 by some participants (or a “coup klux klan” by some outside the US), the pro-Trump rebellion overwhelmed police barricades, broke into the Capitol halls, injured numerous police officers, and caused both the Senate and the House to evacuate as they began the ritual of certifying the electoral vote. But by the next day, Trump failed to rise again as the authoritarian messiah.  

As the reports rolled in, it appeared that we were not spotting the mythical “white working class” that has been evoked as the monolith of Trump’s base, nor the rural proletariat or the clandestine work of antifa (a favorite conspiracy of the rightwing media). Attendees included a tech company CEO from the suburbs of Chicago, a woman who flew in on a private jet from Texas, the son of a prominent Brooklyn judge, an elected state politician from West Virginia, and a small crowd in Trump merch relaxing in the lobby of the four-star Grand Hyatt after the day’s events. 

And it was not the magi who journeyed into the austere temples of democracy, but a mob of patriots, Confederate flag bearers, neo-Nazis (“Camp Auschwitz” read the sweatshirt of one), and Qanon mystics – most notably, the actor in a fur headdress and horns, patriotic face paint, and Valknut and Thor tattoos. Was he “playing Indian”? White nationalist Norse pagan? In Trump’s theater of the absurd, there are no simple explanations, and these shades of fascism will only continue to blur and re-emerge after he departs the executive stage. 

Since this was a Trump backed coup and not a CIA backed coup (which have been successfully and violently implemented around the world), its failure didn’t need to be forecast in the stars. Trump, like other world leaders of today’s fascist cult, is a master at deepening division and spawning conflict, but he cannot achieve anything that resembles the hegemony of historic fascist regimes. 

For some, storming the capitol may have amounted to a fun performance of a failed coup, an opportunity to shoot some top notch selfies and loot (one man proudly displayed a letter he had nabbed from Pelosi’s office; another was photographed with a massive grin as he carried out the Senate podium). But if it was partly theater, it was also deadly real. For some attending the “Save America March,” the intentions were far more serious – and planned. There were pipe bombs dismantled outside the buildings of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, a rifle and Molotov cocktails seized from a truck, and a man photographed with zip-ties to presumably take hostages.

New configurations on the right may be born out of the failed insurrection. The supposedly rock hard coalition under Trump is in a process of splitting and reconfiguration. Those who certified the vote will be considered “traitors,” while other Republican politicians seek to distance themselves from the domestic invaders. And as this coalition crumbles apart, more violence will likely ensue. “We now have a situation in which millions of people are experiencing this process,” writes Shane Burley, “they have been radicalized through conspiracy theories that filtered into the mainstream and are now being inundated with the message that aboveground activism is impossible.”

One woman, interviewed after getting maced inside the Capitol, told the reporter, “It’s a revolution!” But a “revolution” towards what end? It was not a revolution for a new social mode of existence that ensures the necessities of life and therefore real freedom, not a revolution to overthrow a system that plunders laborers and earth, nor anything like the uprisings against racist injustice that spread across the world last year (which overwhelmingly dwarf Wednesday’s revolt in size and space). Instead, it was a “revolution” to keep a New York real estate elite in office for another four years. 

But if this teetering status quo holds, the US under Biden will likely mean – as Biden told donors in the early days of his candidacy – that nothing will “fundamentally change.” That is, the fundamentals of the US empire will continue to be – not a secret cabal of elites planning a new global order – but what it has been for centuries: the rule of capital and all its racial and ecologically destructive components, its long crisis of stagnation and its surpluses of the underemployed and alienated.  As Mike Davis writes, “[T]he only future that we can reliably foresee – a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence – renders political crystal balls useless.”

For now, January 6 may offer no epiphanies, no grand revelations that can be easily boiled down for the headlines. In one sense, what was revealed was the latest event in a long lineage of American violence: from colonial dispossessions to chattel slavery to capitalist class and imperial wars – and a harbinger of what to come? Hold on: this ride isn’t landing and the nights are still long. 

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Ben Prostine lives in southwest Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in The New Farmer’s Almanac and Contours: A Literary Anthology. He is a regular contributor to The La Crosse Independent. Top image credit: Tyler Merbler/CC BY 2.0.