Costumes at the Capitol can't disguise the ugly truth of far-right violence

Imagination is vital to politics – but the attack in Washington DC showed how easily dangerous fantasy can become reality

Trump supporters inside the US Capitol on 6 January.
Trump supporters inside the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Photograph: Mike Theiler/Reuters
Trump supporters inside the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Photograph: Mike Theiler/Reuters

Last modified on Wed 13 Jan 2021 13.08 EST

A common refrain one hears from both the left and right is that their foes are just “cosplaying”. The word is a Japanese portmanteau of “costume” and “play”, and originally referred to people dressing up as characters at comic book conventions. Now it’s used, more or less metaphorically, to mock anybody who seems lost in a fantasy world. Its cousin, “performative”, has become similarly popular as a word to dismiss actions being carried out purely for appearance’s sake.

This strikes me as strange, because the “cosplay” label is often applied precisely to the kinds of people who clearly are no longer playing around, and who are willing to make good on their pretensions. As we learn more about last week’s attack on the Capitol, the intensity of the violence and the seriousness of the participants’ murderous intent becomes ever clearer. This was not people “cosplaying” a violent mob – it was a violent mob. One wonders who is really off in fantasy land: the people cracking skulls, or those insisting that the skull crackers aren’t really doing it, for some reason? It is time to acknowledge that fancy and imagination are doing serious political work for the far right.

There is some truth in the idea that these latter-day fascists are playing out an imaginary game. Some of them even wore outlandish costumes to storm the Capitol, determined to look the part of the marauding barbarian horde. This is not a new or minor part of political history. Karl Marx wrote in 1852 in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, reflecting on the coup that brought Napoleon III to power, that in “epochs of revolutionary crisis” men “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”.

With his deflating wit, Marx describes how the French revolutionaries of 1789 used Roman costume to invoke an air of historical tragedy; then their heirs in 1848 modelled themselves after their revolutionary forefathers, essentially cosplaying the cosplayers. For Marx, imagination supported the work of politics by transferring actions to a grander and more exciting scene. Once their revolution was accomplished, the bourgeoisie took off their togas and returned to their offices. Napoleon Bonaparte wrote in his diary: “Imagination rules the world. The defect of our modern institutions is that they do not speak to the imagination.”

A superficial glance at the movement that stormed the Capitol last week discovers the predominance of fantasy over reality. Many were adherents of the bizarre online cult of QAnon, which has concocted an increasingly baroque metaphysical world, totally impervious to empirical fact, around Trump’s infallibility and ultimate victory. The imaginary basis of the storming of the Capitol comes straight from the pages of The Turner Diaries, a vile neo-Nazi novel written by the late William Luther Pierce, which envisions the mass lynching of journalists and politicians.

This is not a recent trend for the extreme right, either. In his 1985 book The Occult Roots of Nazism, the historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke traces the mystical dreams of Aryan superiority and ultimate world conquest to crackpots and tiny millenarian sects in turn-of-the-century Germany and Austria who were disenchanted with the modern world. Many of the symbols and ideas they cooked up later became the basis for the pomp and pageantry of the SS. Like many of the weekend militia members and QAnon acolytes who showed up at the Capitol, what begins as mere eccentric hobbyism can turn sinister.

It must be admitted that the people Goodrick-Clarke describes in his book – stealing off to the woods in outlandish druid outfits, performing made-up rituals – are in fact quite silly. But perhaps it’s this very unseriousness, this retreat from the disappointments and defeats of real life, that provides the appeal of political fantasy. A similar process takes place in the extreme right’s use of “ironic” memes and jokes that revel in their own absurdity: irony suspends the rules that usually govern people’s lives, allowing them to say and do things without “really saying them”, to engage in a kind of camp play-acting, until, of course, they feel comfortable really believing it, and drop the pretence. Online accounts with cartoon frog avatars traffic in racist or sexist memes that are nasty in content but also playful in spirit. It is possible to reassure oneself that mischief is meant rather than real harm.

The left and liberal reaction to this type of “playing around” is to get (justifiably) upset and insist on seriousness – which unfortunately makes the “playing around” all the more fun and satisfying, because now it actually shocks the lame, hypocritical libs. The other response is to refuse to take this behaviour seriously, and to call it “cosplay”. A balance must be struck between penetrating the pathetic core of these fancies, and the way they are meant to create an air of mystery, grandeur and superiority, and taking seriously what their emergence means as both the symptom and cause of dangerous politics.

Perhaps Napoleon was right when he said that “imagination rules the world”. For some people, it seems like realisation of the fantasy of “greatness”, rather than anything lying behind the fantasy, is the entire point. The left should exercise imagination a little, too – not to engage in similar delusions of grandeur, but to expand their horizons of what is possible. While keeping sight of the facts on the ground, this should be a reminder that reality is more mutable than it seems. If the right has fantasised itself into almost realising a dystopia, perhaps the left can stand to be a little more utopian, and imagine the kind of world where these forces would finally be vanquished.

  • John Ganz is a writer living in Brooklyn