The Most Terrifying Threat to America Is Middle-Class White Guys Cosplaying a Fascist Uprising
By now, you’ve seen the “QAnon Shaman.” He’s the man who stormed the U.S. Capitol, bare-chested and sporting a set of horns last seen on Hagar the Horrible, and climbed atop the vice president’s seat on the Senate floor to accuse Mike Pence of participating in an imaginary conspiracy to abduct children and drink their blood.
His real name is Jacob Chansley, and he has become the most apt symbol of Trump supporters’ attempted — and likely ongoing — insurrection against the lawful government of the United States. Details about Chansley keep surfacing in the press, each one both hilariously pathetic and deeply horrifying. Consider, for example, the prosecutorial filing stating that Chansley stashed his most prized coup possessions — including a furry coyote-tail headdress and a six-foot spear — in his 2003 Hyundai, or the fact that cops figured out he was lying about not being on drugs because he has a podcast (of course he does) on which he discusses his habitual use of psychedelic drugs (you don’t say). After his arrest, Chansley’s mother told reporters that he was refusing to eat because the detention center didn’t serve organic food.
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As Trump prepares to exit the White House, Chansley stands as the most vivid symbol of our outgoing president’s legacy. After years of hearing journalists frame Trump as the candidate of “the white working class,” a would-be dictator somehow accidentally bolstered by innocent blue-collar farmers and factory workers, it was validating to see who actually went to battle for him: middle-class white people, often middle-class white men who fantasize about being action heroes. These are guys with midlist foreign cars and podcasts and real estate jobs — weekend warriors who think they’re ready to die for the cause and are unprepared for the taste of prison food. They’re well off enough to buy expensive weapons or elaborate costumes — a coyote-fur headdress like Chansley’s costs between $360 and $500 from online retailers — and so fantasy-prone that they believe wearing a costume is the same as being a soldier. We have seen the enemy, and he is Greg from Accounting.
Yet Greg, pathetic though he might be, is perhaps the single most dangerous threat we face in the coming years. The insurrection at the Capitol was, at least in the minds of the people responsible, the first shot fired in a civil war. That violence looks likely to bubble up again during Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony and will likely continue throughout Biden’s presidency, just as the increasingly far-right politicians elected by the GOP will make it their business to block any of Biden’s legislative goals. As dopey as the foot soldiers of this movement are, they are being mobilized by serious fascist and white nationalist groups. Their wealth gives them the means to afford the $1,000-plus price tag of an AR-15 rifle and the self-importance and childish obliviousness to other people’s suffering required to fire it into a crowd. It is both saddening and sobering to realize that our deepest problems as a nation are going to stem not from “economic anxiety” or any real experience of deprivation or oppression, but from bored, comfortable white people getting restless that they’re no longer the center of attention.
It’s attention, excitement, and specialness that fascists promise their converts. Contemporary white nationalism often it uses frat-boy entertainment or nerd culture as recruiting tools: Fight Club, The Matrix, TV shows about Vikings, the Joker (both the Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix versions). Fascists often treat pop culture and politics as equally important, and their battles can look remarkably trivial unless you understand the stakes: Gamergate, the harassment campaign that did more to solidify and align these factions than anything other than Trump himself, looked to outsiders like a fight against female representation in video games.
These are guys with midlist foreign cars and podcasts and real estate jobs — weekend warriors who think they’re ready to die for the cause and are unprepared for the taste of prison food.
It makes sense. Control people’s imaginations and you control the people. Some of the recruitment texts, like Fight Club, arguably do contain fascist messages. Others seem to be the victim of misreadings. The Matrix, for example, is about a conspiracy, but it’s also an allegory for gender identity made by two trans women. Either way, the language of pop culture makes white supremacy feel exciting, providing a fantasy of action and danger and glamour that followers might not find in their comfortable suburban lives. It’s depressing to think of yourself as a somewhat racist account manager for a small car insurance company. It’s much more appealing to fantasize that you are the Joker or Tyler Durden.
That power fantasy can completely take over real life. For QAnon believers, like Chansley, “conspiracy” provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to feel special: The believer perceives himself as the hero of a vast, mythic drama, battling villains who happen to be the most famous celebrities and powerful politicians of his age. He stages an all-star movie and casts himself in the lead role. Other Trump loyalists maintain a slightly firmer distinction between truth and fiction, but in them, too, one senses an element of LARP and cosplay — they wear camouflage to stand out from their surroundings, not to blend in. They invoke Viking warriors or Marvel movies to denote readiness for combat, though in many cases their only experience of war comes from playing Call of Duty. They, too, are dangerously out of touch with reality, waging race war with the same spirit they might once have played a weekend game of laser tag.
Pop culture didn’t cause this. White people — white men especially — are susceptible to fantasies of power because those fantasies are the basis of whiteness and masculinity. We raise boys on stories of soldiers and superheroes, telling them that conflict and battle are what makes someone a hero. We tell young men that dominance and violence are key to masculinity. White people of every gender are raised with massive, swollen senses of entitlement; we teach white children that they deserve the world, and if their success is not automatic and spectacular, that must mean someone, somewhere, is taking away what is rightfully theirs.
It was inevitable that some people would take these stories literally. It was just as inevitable that they would take them too far. Fascists were able to gain a foothold in America because they understood the stories America tells about itself — the white rage and violence that we have always honored and glorified, the way every man is taught to long for war. They were able to convince white people threatened by progress that the discomfort and unhappiness they felt were not simply entitlement or ignorance, but the righteous rage felt by an action hero just before he takes his bloody revenge.
White people — white men especially — are susceptible to fantasies of power because those fantasies are the basis of whiteness and masculinity.
Now, Biden is inheriting a nation where many people may simply refuse to recognize him as president; he is facing down an army of spoiled, well-off white people so convinced of their own importance that even a lawful government or the peaceful transfer of power matters less to them than getting their own way. When those people see Biden sworn in as president, they are seeing many things: the humiliation of Trump, the rising threat of “woke” culture, an impermissible ascent to power for Black or female or LGBTQ+ or Jewish people (though Biden is none of those things), or a conspiracy to eat babies. Most importantly, though, they are seeing that someone told them no. They are not used to hearing that word. They will not let it go unavenged.
Some of those people will die in service to the smarter fascists who are using them to advance their cause. Few of them will take this into account before they open fire. Greg from Accounting is our enemy now — but then, for many Americans, he always was. Now we can see him for what he is, horns and face paint and all.