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The Horror of the Howling Mob

1/6/2021 is a date that no American will ever forget. Not even during the Civil War – not since the War of 1812 – did any foe or force manage to penetrate the capital of the United States. Where Robert E. Lee, Adolf Hitler, and Nikita Khrushchev failed, Donald J. Trump succeeded. Like many, I watched events in Washington D.C. unfold that day live on my screen. First there were the machinations of democracy, boring but not as boring as they should have been. Without much in the way of warning, a recess was declared and then NPR’s feed of the proceedings was immediately cut off. I switched to a live news feed and watched as a mob of howling cultists and Confederate-flag-waving white supremacists stormed my country’s seat of government. They met little in the way of resistance. “The capital has fallen!” was how this was ecstatically reported by Harrison H. Smith, fill-in anchor at the loathsome Alex Jones’ InfioWars. While Smith’s enthusiastic exclamation would prove to be a premature ejaculation, for that brief moment he was correct.

As all of this transpired, I felt a deep and very real sense of horror. I am not “patriotic” in most senses of the world; I don’t believe in American exceptionalism or “the American dream,” and think that America’s transgressions are many, especially against people who are not white, male, and/or Christian. That said, I am an astute enough observer of history to know a fascist putsch when I see one. I am also well-schooled in right wing thought, and vastly prefer American democracy – with all its warts – to what Trumpists have in mind. While this first Trump putsch has proved to be unsuccessful, the paramilitary getups of many of the intruders in Congress (along with their favored accessory of the day: zip-ties) were proof enough to me that they meant business. Frankly, that scares me. The bellows of fury and directionless, feral aggression of other members of the mob were frightening as well, if in a different (and more primal) way.

I’ve written about political horror a few times for Madness Heart Press. I think of “political horror “as the landscape of dark imagination that authors and filmmakers have used to address antisocial social forces ranging from economic inequality to racial injustice to the depravity of power. The real-life horror that we witnessed on Wednesday was a different variety entirely. While it was political – a force directed and unleashed by a failed tyrant desperately trying to cling to power – it held a more basic terror, one that I would argue is in essence pre-political or anti-political. A mob is the antithesis of the project of politics, which is to build or to engage in a common project whereby our individual efforts and ideas as humans can be combined to create something greater and better for all of us than we could accomplish on our own. A mob combines the failures and weaknesses of individual humans to engage in a common project of mindless destruction, a much greater vortex of entropy than could ever be generated by individual actors in isolation.

The history of mobs in America – from the 17th century all the way to the Proud Boys – has always been a history of white male violence against Native communities and communities of color. We also have a history of antisemitism, imported from the spirit of the unspeakable pogroms of Western and Eastern Europe. That history means that to intentionally unleash a mob is to wield a weapon that is difficult to effectively aim, and which is more likely than not to victimize vulnerable communities. In America, the horror of the mob has – to be perfectly honest – usually worn a white man’s face, twisted with rage and hatred, teeth bared, eyes flashing, bloodthirsty and hungry for death.

These are the faces – human faces, as horrible as that is – that would gladly gaze, baying, into my face as I was stoned to death or bunt alive. The ludicrous, murderous QAnon cult was well-represented in the 1/6 mob, after all, and one of their core delusions is the demented notion that the world is run by Satanists who drink the blood of human children. I am a Satanist, and while I neither control the world nor drink the blood of children, I have the feeling that I would have a hard time convincing a right-wing mob of those facts.

It is long past time that we take this mob – and the mad king who sent it – seriously. That means more than a few token arrests and charges of breaking and entering. That means treating these networks of right-wing terrorists as what they are: a domestic insurrection. Otherwise, I fear that the horror of the howling mob will become a reality for more and more of us. That horror, which exists outside of and on a level beneath the political, could rise from the primordial soup of human entropy and drag us all down into blood and chaos.

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