Sunday, February 7, 2021

Storming the Capitol: The Predictable Efficacy of (Hyper)Mimesis

Nidesh Lawtoo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at KU Leuven, PI of an ERC project titled Homo Mimeticus, and author of, most recently, (New) Fascism: Contagion, Community, Myth.

The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was a harrowing moment in U.S. political history that cast a shadow on democracy more generally. It confirmed what a minor tradition in political theory had been warning against for some time in theory yet left dominant institutions surprisingly unprepared in practice. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a number of dissenting theoretical voices had been consistently warning that Donald Trump should not simply be dismissed as populist, conservative, or right-wing. He should rather be seen as a leader inclined toward “tyranny,” “neo-fascism,” “aspirational fascism,” or “(new) fascism,” with all the differences from historical fascism these concepts entail.
If Trump’s “fascist aspirations” (Connolly’s phrase) were made manifest on January 6, his contagious, mimetic, or as I call them, hypermimetic powers on his crowd of supporters had been operative all along his presidency. It is in fact becoming increasingly clear that (new) fascist leaders in the digital age rely on new media and the simulations they entail not only to blur the distinction between truth and lies, facts and alternative facts—though they do that repeatedly. (New) fascist simulations are hypermimetic for they operate on digital users’ affective, embodied, and immanent actions and reactions that are most manifest in a violent mob but are equally at play in conspiracy theories that go viral online before triggering contagious insurrections offline.
The conspiracy theory of “election fraud” that went viral on social media asserting that Joseph R. Biden “stole the election” was not based on the simple logic of mimesis understood as realistic “representation” or mirror of reality (Plato). And yet, this conspiracy should neither be dismissed as a “hyperreal simulation” that has nothing to do with imitation (Baudrillard). Rather, a recent mimetic turn, or re-turn of attention to mimesis in political theory strongly suggests that conspiracies retroact performatively on the immanent materiality political life, generating contagious actions and intoxicating reactions that emerge from the interplay between hyperreal simulations online and all-too-real mimetic behavior offline. I call this spiraling process, hypermimesis.
Following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat and refusal to concede to Joseph Biden as the 46th president-elect of the United States, the mob assault on the U. S. Capitol concluded

four years of Trump’s catastrophic presidency amplified by a global pandemic with a violent insurrection qua domestic terrorist attack that led to five casualties including a police officer.
Unexpected by politicians and police alike who left the Capitol disarmingly open to the assault, the insurrection did not surprise political theorists attentive to the contagious powers of (hyper)mimesis. The efficacy of these powers can be schematically diagnosed on the shoulders of a Janus-faced genealogy of collective intoxications that looks back to crowd behavior in the past century to better diagnose hypermimetic behavior in the present century. I consider four points.


First, the insurrection required the organized assemblage of a crowd of supporters at a rally primarily composted of white supremacists and right-wing extremists whose unconditional adherence to the outgoing president and refusal to accept the nominated president-elect provided a shared consensus (con-sensus, feeling with) injected with violent anti-democratic potential. Promoted under the dramatic hypernationalist banner of “Save America March” with the explicit intent of gathering a highly mimetic, suggestible, and potentially violent crowd that could be put to (new) fascist use contra the Capitol and the democratic process it symbolizes, the organizers of the rally demonstrated good insights in the contagious and mimetic dynamic of what a marginalized tradition in the social sciences called “crowd psychology.”
Despite their differences, figures like Sigmund Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, and Elias Canetti agreed that individuals behave radically differently in a crowd than individually. In particular, they are prone to fall under the irrational spell or suggestive authority of a charismatic leader (meneur is Le Bon’s term, which Freud translates as Führer) who can use a theatrical rhetoric to trigger contagious and violent emotions that spread unconsciously from self to others, turning the I, or ego, into another, more powerful and collective ego. Le Bon, anticipating Freud, puts it as follows:

He [the man of the crowd] possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images—which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd—and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. (8)Crowds under the spell of fascist leaders have indeed been known to commit violent acts contrary to their own interests in the past century; there is no reason to believe that such spells are not effective among (new) fascist leaders in the present century. Violent affects are suggested directly by the leader’s inflammatory rhetoric itself that operates vertically, from the top down, and whose mimetic efficacy is amplified horizontally, from within the crowd, as the violent intoxicating pathos becomes a shared pathos. Tied both horizontally and vertically in this mimetic double bind, the man of the crowd no longer feels lonely and isolated but heroic and empowered, delegates conscious responsibility to the leader, and turns into a phantom ego ready to commit irresponsible political actions against his/her own “obvious interests.”
This also means that the crowd is vulnerable to what a pre-Freudian psychological tradition that had mimesis more than dreams as a via regia to the unconscious called, “imitation,” “contagion” or “suggestion”—the latter being a concept that specifically designated the hypnotic power to turn an idea into an action, including violent actions. 


Second, the insurrection was catalyzed by the presence of a presidential leader who relied on theatrical strategies to cast a suggestive spell on the crowd. The crowd’s affective identification with the meneur was already established due to Trump’s double role as media personality and political leader who, throughout his presidency, consistently relied on a violent rhetoric to continuously generate mass-contagion in the collective soul of his base. This rhetoric should not be derided for its linguistic simplicity but studied for its contagious efficacy. Its distinctive characteristics are well-known to crowd psychology and include aggressive affirmations rather than rational explanations, repetitions rather than arguments, use of images rather than thought, and a general awareness that violent emotions (anger, fear, resentment, etc.) work best to galvanize a crowd.
In the speech that incited the crowd to storm the Capitol, Trump’s implementation of the strategies of crowd psychology were obvious and manifold. In particular, he relied on the repetition of the Big Lie constitutive of his conspiracy theory (“rigged election”), an unproven and hyperbolic affirmation of victory (“we won by a landslide”), an emotional appeal to patriotism and love (“American patriots”), the direction of violence against scapegoats (“the weak Republicans,” the “fake media”), a stubborn refusal of facts (“we will never concede”), among other well-tested strategies constitutive of his rhetoric.
Strong of this affective support and of the resentment that animated it, Trump and his closest associates whipped up the crowd to the culminating point of suggesting a violent anti-democratic action contra the U.S. Capitol. They did so explicitly by inciting the mob not to be “zeros but heroes” (Donald Trump Jr.), promise “trial by combat” (Rudolph Giuliani), and suggest a violent insurrection that had performative effects: “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore” (Donald Trump)
The crowd of white supremacists driven by real material deprivations, grievances, and resentment amplified by an ongoing pandemic crisis was at this point galvanized and ready to turn the leader’s suggestion into a (new) fascist action. Members of the mob, which in addition to white supremacists, included far-right extremists (Proud Boys), followers of online cults (QAnon), as well as armed veterans, including former federal agents (FBI), were also ready to put themselves on the line by physically fighting for Trump—against themselves.


Third, this paradoxical turn of events cannot be dissociated from the proliferation of recordings of the storming that redoubled the event online, where the galvanization had initially started in the first place. Trump’s speech, riot, and subsequent insurrection was in fact planned and announced well in advance via new media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that effectively disseminated the conspiracy theory about “election fraud” by relying on what “conspiracism” does best: namely, promoting the idea that especially when it comes to big historical events (say, an election) but not only, official explanations inevitably hide a more occult, false, yet truly-believed plot that posits the conspiracy believer as a victim of an evil plan. Summarizing the main features of conspiracy theories under the heading of “nothing happens by accident; nothing is at it seems; and everything is connected,” in their informed overview of this growing heterogeneous phenomenon, Michael Butter and Pieter Knight confirm historically what we have all seen on January 6, 2021: namely, that “the leaders of populist parties and movements frequently draw on conspiracy tropes, and their followers appear to be particularly receptive to them,” specifying that “extremist violence” often ensues.
If this lesson applies to populist leaders is the dangers of insurrections are amplified by (new) fascist leaders. Gaining momentum by the proliferation of new platforms of dissemination online, conspiracy theories can no longer be considered a marginal phenomenon confined to few pathological cases, for they play an increasingly important role in influencing public opinion in the digital age, amplifying the hypermimetic powers of authoritarian figures.


Last but not least: the powers of conspiracy theories to erode the epistemic foundations of longstanding democratic practices are complex and manifold, but the assault on the Capitol could not have succeeded without a simpler, yet not less violent, racist supplement. While the U. S. police force is traditionally overprepared to violently counter peaceful protests among ethnic minorities (from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter),
in a mirroring inversion of perspectives, it underestimated an announced violent insurrection among white majorities (from White supremacists to far-right extremists). For reasons that are still emerging and are currently revealing Republican officials’ complicity with the assault, although the Capitol police force was warned of the danger of insurrection in advance, it remained understaffed, and unprepared, allowing an intoxicated mob to invade the Capitol, loot parts of the building, and take possession of the Senate chamber. In an eerie confirmation of the genealogy we have been tracing, a figure dressed as a shaman and member of the far-right conspiracy cult QAnon, only made visible the underlying link between ancient ritual cults and contemporary conspiracy cults.
Importantly, the feedback loop between online and offline violence continued during the storming of the Capitol itself as the insurrectionists not only filmed Trump’s speech but also their own terrorist attack, re-doubling the event in the digital world. This digitized recording of a (new) fascist suggestion turned into terrorist action generated a parallel reality that, once again, did not simply represent reality according to the laws of imitation; it also generated performative hypermimetic effects that cut both ways, both with and contra democracy: on the democratic side, the recordings online were instrumental in helping the police identify insurrectionists, track them down, and inflict severe penalties; on the insurrectionist side, these videos went viral and contributed to disseminating violent anti-democratic feelings that are not limited to the U.S. but are operative transnationally via a growing cosmopolitan network that connects (new) fascist movements across the world. To be sure, the insurrection eventually failed, and a lawful (though heavily policed) transition of power ensued. And yet, as the Biden Administration is currently restoring basic democratic accords (Paris Accord, WHO membership etc.) disrupted by the previous Administration, let us not forget that (new) fascist sentiments will not magically disappear as the crowd momentarily disperses offline to reconnect online. The example of how conspiracy theories can easily lead to a violent insurrection that reveals the fragility of democratic institutions will leave lasting traces in the history of democracy, both in the U.S. and around the world. Conspiracies are also leaving lasting traces online that can serve as possible models for future insurrections to imitate offline, in an hypermimetic spiral of endless regress.
In the end, the assault on the Capitol left many politicians shocked, caught security forces unprepared, and was considered unprecedented within the sphere of U. S. politics; and yet, a minor tradition in mimetic theory consistently showed that its contagious dynamic has a long genealogy that should be taken seriously in political theory. It has been my contention that looking back to the powers of mimesis in the past century is a necessary step to foresee and counter (new) fascist insurrections to come in the present century.

*This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No 716181: HOM):


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