Is everybody seated? Professor-approved-and-authored books open? Pencils sharpened? Pens plumped with ink? Notebooks at the ready? Most importantly, semester bills paid up? Yes? Good. Let the pop psychology class begin!
(And don’t worry about my lack of academic investiture. I’ll cite some scholars, including the big kahuna of the connectome himself, Dr. Sigmund Freud.)
With the tear gas smoke cleared, Nancy Pelosi’s new gavel freshly lathed, and hot emotions simmered somewhat down, culpability for the recent calamity at the Capitol can be assigned in a more rational manner. Cooler heads, one hopes, can prevail in our pin-the-responsibility-on-the-right-party game. The reactive blame splaying (“It’s Trump’s fault! No, it’s the crazy QAnon conspiracy! It’s actually white supremacy! No, no, the Capitol Police were in seditious cahoots with the rioters and let them waltz in!”) was understandable, but muddied otherwise prudential judgment of what really occurred. So put on your favorite Festivus sweater, because there’s an awful lot of blame to go around.
To start, the Capitol Hill play insurrection didn’t occur in a Hoover WindTunnel. Yes, Trump egged it on—no two opinions about it. Bad, Mr. President, bad! *Swipes at Trump’s thinning nacarat mop with a rolled-up New York Post.* But even the President’s rambling, unexplicit instructions were heeded within the context of a long-building resentment felt by the mass GOP voter. Trump didn’t directly call for a ransacking, but the idiom he used was the universal socket wrench in the Republican toolbox. Phrases like “take back our country,” “we will not take it anymore,” and “we’re going to have to fight” are as frequent out of elephant pol mouths as unqualified approbation for Ronald Reagan. The audience, unfortunately, took Trump literally—actually, no-joking literally—not seriously, for once.
That gets to the crowd: the undoubted perpetrators of the mayhem. Pace the febrile phantasms of QAnon fundamentalists, the paramilitary pretenders who breached Capitol security and tore around Congress’s marmoreal halls were thoroughly Trumpian, seeking to somehow reverse the bygone conclusion of a Biden Administration. They deserve heaps of blame and scorn, with carceral time for the worst intruders so they can lie awake at night in their cell bunk dwelling on the uselessness of their crime. Forced boredom and self-crimination can be worse punishment than denailing by heated pliers.
The public seems to agree on the liability of the mob.
A recent poll found 55% of respondents upholding a retrograde principle: individuals with agency are accountable for their actions. Golly gee! What a concept! Next thing you know, Americans might start believing that hard work brings success. Can you even imagine? Such wrongthink might put the grifting victimizers at the SPLC out of business, and we shan’t have that, shall we?
But we shouldn’t just rest on individual responsibility and call it a day. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated person to search for the same kind of clarity in each topic to the extent that the nature of the matter accepts it.” And while I’m admittedly poorly educated, and find it difficult to juggle ideas simultaneously while parsing their meaning (please don’t hold either against your poor instructor on the class rating card at the end), it’s worth considering the motivation behind the mobbers. To put yourself in their military-surplus boots and Carthart jackets. And to imagine the motivational energies that coursed through a crowd and hijacked rational decision-making, suggesting, “Hey, being photographed boosting this congressional dais is a fine idea with no downside!”
Freud was contemptuous of the Gemeingest—that is, the public spirit that lumps individual desire into a “herd instinct.” In the mob, the unruly person puts a common object above their “ego ideal” and “have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego.” To the less cerebrally hung up, this can also be quaintely referred to as sacrificing for the common good, if done right. Freud saw it as mental regression to child-like dependency. Pasty twentysomethings skittering through the Capitol like lost mice demonstrated as much.
Benjamin Franklin got more to the point: “A Mob’s a Monster; Heads enough, but no Brains.” Supplanting your own will with that of the general will can, it would seem, sap mental faculty from both. Grown men hanging from Capitol balustrades like lice-ridden orangutans would seem to confirm it.
Mob mentality by no means absolves personal responsibility, but it helps explain it.
Which brings us to the reader-favorite of any political commentary: conjecture! And all its attendant aleatory pitfalls. The Jan. 6th MAGA ruckus is no end to our domestic acrimony. The besieged mentality that lit the tempers of Trumpers and ordinary Republican rank-and-filers didn’t appear ex nihilo. Democrats have been mocking the right as rubes and dim-witted everythingphobes for years. The left openly cheers on the unpersoning of conservatives, either through digital memory-holing or restricting employment opportunities. Elected Democrats never accepted Trump’s presidency from the get-go, slagging him as a Ruskie intriguer before he took office.
With a new impeachment effort afoot—this time on more justifiable grounds—and Joe Biden’s recent likening of the right to entranced goose-steppers, Democrats are giving Trump voters one last shot in the arm. It’s a reminder that politics was always a thimblerigged sport: Trump was never allowed to win and he won’t go unpunished for doing so.
The great factioning of the country will continue, despite the paeans to unity the left flatly sings. The proverbial worm will keep turning when the powerful try to tramp out the powerless.
To conclude the lesson, blame for the brawl on the Potomac isn’t unidirectional. As Mick Jagger sang, it was you and me and every American who helped kill civility. Our acceptance of the social-media-rage-industrial complex that pits us against each other for ample profit, and our parochial one-sideism, has brought us here. If that seems like mealy-mouthed moralism, then you can request a refund at the office of the registrar. What? There was a no-refund stipulation in the application’s fine print? Perhaps our institutions of higher learning bear some blame for inculcating the citizenry with grievance complexes instead of proper reasoning skills. No, no, that can’t be. Class dismissed! *Beats a hasty retreat to the door carrying an attaché full of newspaper shreddings.*