The first sign that something may have been a bit amiss about last week’s MAGA insurrection at the Capitol arrived in a viral video on Twitter, amid the unfolding chaos. A distressed, red-eyed woman identifying herself as Elizabeth from Knoxville, Tennessee, cried to Yahoo News reporter Hunter Walker that she had just been maced inside the Capitol. “I got maced, yeah, I made it like a foot inside, and they pushed me out, and they maced me,” she complained in the video, while wiping her face with a towel. When Walker asked what she was doing there in the first place, she exclaimed, “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”
Upon closer inspection, you can see that this woman is cradling a raw, sliced onion in the folds of the towel that she’s assiduously rubbing into her eyes, presumably to give herself real tears and that freshly maced-in-the-face look. (Though it should be said there is a persistent theory that she may have been told onions were a mace remedy.)* She was nevertheless camera-ready; the care she took to engineer her mise-en-scène suggested that she had an inkling that the moment had viral potential. As it happened, it did: Walker’s video, with a caption saying that Elizabeth had actually been maced, racked up two million Twitter views.
Inside the Capitol were just more versions of this bizarre kayfabe—people storming a federal building in pursuit of an opportunity to create viral content and chase clout on social media, like the residents of some kind of fascist Hype House. Men dressed up in furs and horns and cosplaying in Braveheart-style makeup posed for photos in the House chamber and took selfies with cops. People literally livestreamed their own crimes. One man took a video of himself inside the Capitol showing off the police riot shield he had stolen, his face fully visible, and uploaded it to Parler, presumably having calculated that the LOLs and shares and notoriety he got would be worth the inevitable jail time.
This has been the defining feature of the Trump movement—the belief that true power does not lie in the Capitol but on social media. It’s long been an article of faith in MAGA Nation that Trump won the presidency, on the wings of viral memes and disinformation. Trump himself more or less ruled as if his online avatar had been sworn in, primarily governing via his personal Twitter account, using it to fire people, communicate directly with his base, and pressure lawmakers to pass his agenda.
Some of the president’s most ardent fans in Congress, too, now seem to believe that governing is just a series of escalating stunts engineered for social media virality. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Congress’s newly elected QAnon supporters, bizarrely wore a Covid mask during impeachment proceedings Wednesday night that said “CENSORED” on it—while giving a televised speech into a microphone on the floor of the House of Representatives. She’s protesting the fact that Twitter put a misinformation warning on several of her tweets, while seemingly oblivious to the actual platform she has and power she could be wielding if she were a functional member of Congress.
Among other spectacles the same day, a handful of Republican lawmakers made a campy show of refusing to go through the newly installed metal detectors at the Capitol, which were made necessary by the armed insurrection that their last set of social media stunts had enabled. The ostensible purpose of the unnecessary display was to complain about the added security measures on Twitter and titillate the far right. “I am legally permitted to carry my firearm in Washington, D.C., and within the Capitol complex,” tweeted Representative Lauren Boebert, a newly elected Republican from Colorado, after she refused to let officers look inside her bag and dramatically shooshed past security. “Metal detectors outside of the House would not have stopped the violence we saw last week—it’s just another political stunt by Speaker Pelosi.”
All of politics is performative, on some level—members of Congress often give speeches to empty rooms for use in a campaign video; there’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to the deep consideration of “optics” and consultants who are tasked with granular matters such as wardrobe. But these efforts are often taken with an eye toward making these powerful lawmakers seem normal and accessible. The problem with this particular breed of social media stunt is that the performance amplifies the aberrant motives and tendencies of these members of Congress, and this can cause real, serious harm.
Boebert, for instance, tweeted during the insurrection about the specific location of Democratic lawmakers who were hiding, putting their lives in danger. The Republican lawmakers in lockdown who refused to wear masks, concerned about the optics of appearing weak, ended up spreading the deadly virus among their mask-wearing Democratic colleagues. The insurrectionists trampled a woman to death, and their revolution killed four others, leading to a Civil War–like scene in the Capitol this week with soldiers sleeping on the ground everywhere. This wasn’t playing dress-up as a violent coup: It was one.
The MAGA crowd’s pursuit of viral dunks seems to be having a dissociating effect, especially as the fact of Joe Biden’s election threatens the world they’d imagined had been durably constructed. Trapped in the lens of their mobile phones, they can’t see how porous the line between performance and reality has become. Many of the people who posted content of themselves invading a federal building seemed to think they were just going to go have a beer afterward, hit up the continental breakfast at their hotel, and then return to their normal lives. One man said, while exiting the Capitol through a door on which a rioter had written “Murder the Media,” “Let’s go get a beer and come back.”
Some seemed confused when they returned home and rioters started getting arrested. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” said QAnon-supporting YouTuber Jake Angeli, who was arrested after wearing face paint and horns into the Capitol during the riot and posing for photos. “I walked through an open door, dude.”
Others seemed to believe that they were having some sort of out-of-body experience. Leo Kelly of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he didn’t feel like he was part of a coup attempt while breaking into the Capitol. “This is not who I am,” he told LifeSiteNews this week. Josiah Colt of Boise, Idaho, who was pictured dangling by one arm from the Senate balcony in a helmet, later said he “got caught up in the moment” and deleted his social media accounts. “I realize now that my actions were inappropriate,” he told a local news station, “and I beg for forgiveness from America and my home state of Idaho.”
Ironically, part of the fallout of this built-for-social-media revolution is that it got Trump banned from Twitter, his favorite platform. He’s now been stripped of the megaphone he believes to be the biggest source of his power. He stands effectively silent and alone in the waning days of his presidency. But perhaps this is how all of Trumpism views itself: as a tree that falls noiselessly in an empty forest unless it’s documented online.
* This article originally did not include one of the widespread theories about a Capitol riot video