Violence is not a show of strength. It is not a demonstration of power. Violence is what happens in the absence of power. When Donald Trump sent thousands of his loyalists to sack the US capitol, there was undoubtedly a thought somewhere in the desiccated circus peanut of his brain that a show of force would be enough to cower those who refused to give him what he wanted.
The guy who threw a tantrum the first week he was in the White House because he couldn’t get the Gorilla Channel* on TV believed as a matter of faith that, confronted by the eight hundred pound gorilla of his angry mob demanding he be crowned king, most Republicans would fold. They just needed a push.
After all, that spittle wasn’t gonna lick itself.
It was fashioned as a power play, brutish and autocratic…
… but the insurgent army of the deranged, the misled, the mouth-breathingly stupid and a whole bunch of straight-up white supremacist douche-nazis were not the heralds of power. They were the chaos agents that boil up from the wreckage whenever power structures collapse.
Hannah Arendt wrote about this phenomenon in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Explaining the difference between power and violence she pointed out that it was insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same.
Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.
That’s a bit thinky for a Friday afternoon, but we’re all galaxy brain genius types here, so let’s unpack it anyway. In all human societies, be they absolute monarchies or anarcho-syndicalist communes, power flows from the consent—or at least the grudging acceptance—of the governed. It emerges whenever punters come together to act in concert. Even in the gnarliest dictatorships, the maximum leader needs somebody he can trust to pull a trigger for him. Not many, for sure. But enough trigger pullers to consent to their secondary place to keep him in the high chair. Power, in that sense is ephemeral and even abstract. Violence is not. It’s kinetic and immediate.
Trump had a sick sort of interest in violence, but he was not good at wielding power. The discovery overnight that the US had no vaccine distribution plan is just the latest evidence of that. He was on the other hand the Orange God King of enjoying power, or at least its trappings and privileges. He loved the parades and the flyovers and the deference. He really liked the deference. He also appreciated the immunity high office seemed to provide against folly and consequence. He had plenty of experience with former and what he wanted most in the world was to totes avoid the later.
When his power—the consent to or acceptance of his years of gross criminality and malfeasance—was imperilled by… you know, reality, he retreated into the fantasy of maintaining his hold on that power by means of violence because he’s too fucking dumb to have ever read Arendt or Passerin d’Entrèves or, to be honest, the lesser works of Dr Seuss.
He was not alone in this of course. The slow, pants-filling terror of the last four years was not so much Trump as it was the number of Trump’s willing enablers. Everyone from the street level thugs in the Proud Boy’s all American Sturmabteilung to the hundred-plus collaborators in the Republican House conference - men and women so bereft of any personal valor that they voted to support the insurrection after the insurrectionists had come to drag them to their executions. These are the people a tyrant needs to effect a tyranny. Not the batshit crazy trolls and orcs storming the Capitol, but the polished collaborators inviting them in.
Trump is gone now because he didn’t really understand that. He watched too much Gorilla Channel and not enough of A French Village.
He imagined a tsunami of melodramatic violence sweeping him back into the White House. Instead his last hours were an evaporating cuntpuddle of impotence, venality and that strange, contrary spirit which always filled the hollow spaces of his heart; a weak man’s yearning for the strongman’s agency.
*Yes I know Gorilla Channel is made up. But truthiness!