The Mob Stops to Take a Selfie

Will the majority of Americans see these images as a historically dark day?

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the most deeply unnerving part of Wednesday’s insurrectionist spectacle in Washington, D.C., was the posing. Having breached the Capitol building, the mob proceeded to lounge and loot. They kicked back in the Senate chamber. They put their feet up in the speaker’s office. They held the Confederate flag aloft. They screamed from the gallery and hauled away whatever wasn’t bolted down, smiling like some extremist Waldos wandering through bizarro chaos. Of the entire sad event, these were among the most ghoulish moments and the photos of them the most macabre images of democracy’s (near) death.

But the most troublesome end to all of this is knowing that, for many, these images and countless more will mean exactly the opposite. For those who believe a violent, patriotic revolt is necessary to undo November’s election, these images will further validate their beliefs—and perspective counts for a lot. It can even prompt someone to break into a government building in an attempt to upend democracy. As one rioter put it to the U.K.’s ITV News when asked why they were storming the Capitol: The politicians inside “don’t get to tell us we didn’t see what we saw.”

What did he see? So many conspiracies seeking to undermine the election results hinge on what people claim to have seen with their own two eyes. Perhaps the Trump supporter was lured by a video of workers picking up mail-in ballots from drop boxes, which were falsely said to have been cast after the election. Or maybe it was the various erroneous claims of suspicious activity at polling stations. Whatever it was he thought he saw, it was enough to inspire him and his compatriots to attempt to invalidate an election with violence.

Time and again, we’ve heard there are no longer simply two parties or ideological umbrellas in U.S. politics and society, but two different — or alternaterealities, each one making different assumptions about control.

One version of reality rests on the idea that the world is complex and nuanced, where forums like Congress are still places to work through collective issues. In this reality, there is a shared assumption that problems must be debated and discussed, and that certain compromises are necessary for creating progress, which is a never-ending endeavor. In this reality, control is something we share with our fellow citizens.

In the other version of reality, it’s not. In the other story, there is no shared power because there is no such thing as a common good. Instead, there are winners and losers, and these are decided along moral lines. It’s also a story that has an end, either apocalyptic (in the most extreme case) or when a winner has been declared, thus nullifying anyone else’s remaining grievances.

What we see, or what we think we see, frequently dictates which version of reality we believe gives structure to the world.

Trump and his adherents, like those who invaded the Capitol on Wednesday, subscribe to this latter version of reality. As was suggested Wednesday evening, they don’t see the real source of power in the United States as residing in a forum where discourse and debate assume compromise and progress. Instead, they see it as a zero-sum game of right and wrong, of victors and vanquished. Their forum is social media. This might also explain the casual disregard we saw from the rioters. If they see their agency originating from online channels, why would they care that they destroy the Capitol?

The thing about both of these versions of reality is that, unfortunately, they’re both based on the same source material: images. What we see, or what we think we see, frequently dictates which version of reality we believe gives structure to the world and to our lives. This is perhaps what’s most unsettling about the photos of the rioters and of the photos they took of themselves. They will validate both versions of reality, but I find myself uncertain about which they will ultimately validate more. Will the majority of Americans see these images like I do, as a historically dark day? Or will the majority see them like ITV’s interviewee, as a justifiable attempt to overturn an allegedly stolen election? In other words, which version of reality is now in control?

This division of reality now influences how I perceive the photos and videos of the Capitol invasion that flicker past on my social feed. I see what’s in front of me, but I don’t know what I’m looking at anymore. Or if what I see today will change in meaning tomorrow. Or, even if I do still know what I saw, will anyone else as well? And, maybe fittingly, I find myself in a similar, if opposite, place to ITV’s interviewee: I worry about who will ultimately get to tell me which story I’m in.


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