Pushing back against Trumpism by contesting the gendered mythology that gives it life is an essential part of protecting and defending democracy.
With the final episode of the U.S. House Select Committee’s January 6 insurrection hearings scheduled to air on Thursday, July 21, two popular theories have emerged among pro-democracy Americans about why the hearings have been so important.
The first is that the committee’s masterfully constructed timeline about the events of that day, and the months leading up to it, has generated growing public pressure on the Justice Department to indict Donald Trump and some of his close associates for criminal acts of sedition and other serious offenses.
The second rationale for the hearings is that regardless of whether or not Trump is charged and held criminally responsible for disrupting the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in American history, the committee has established unequivocally—for the historical record—that the events of January 6, 2021, were a disgraceful attempt to overthrow democratic processes and must never again be allowed to happen.
These are worthy explanations, but the committee’s work is also invaluable in the realm of story and myth. At a time of growing authoritarianism here in the U.S. and around the world, it is crucial to understand the ways in which right-wing demagogues tap into existing mythology—as well as create new myths—as a means to convince their followers that they are part of something redemptive and heroic.
It is also crucial to understand that gender is at the heart of our national mythology. More specifically, one of the foundational myths of this country is that armed white men, fortified by rugged individualist ideology and backed by Divine Providence, were able to subdue the “savage” Indigenous peoples, tame the wilderness, and then revolt against the tyranny of British monarchal rule.
Such is the durability of this mythical story that right-wing rallies in the 21st century routinely invoke the memory of “1776” and feature flags and banners that recycle popular Revolutionary War era slogans like “Don’t Tread on Me,” or “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.”
It should also be abundantly clear by now that reclaiming white men’s cultural centrality and unquestioned position at the top of American society is one of the animating themes of Trumpism as a sociocultural and political force.
And that violence is not only an acceptable means to that end; it might be the only way to preserve the old hierarchies.
The January 6 insurrection is a case in point. On that day, a mob that was both overwhelmingly white and male broke through the blue wall of police and stormed the Capitol. As congressional and journalistic investigations have shown, the crowd was led by members of right-wing extremist organizations including the Proud Boys, whose explicit mission is to “defend Western civilization” from the corrosive forces of multiculturalism and feminism, largely through the tactic of street fighting and displays of violent intimidation.
As copious documentary evidence demonstrates, the goal of the insurrectionists was to take—through force—the power they were unable to achieve through the democratic process. At the heart of the Select Committee’s investigation is the degree to which their violent actions were guided, or incited, by more powerful actors in the Trump administration—up to and including the former president himself.
The idea of Trump as the (unindicted) leader of the insurrection, while not yet proven in a court of law, is hardly inconceivable. Recall that a central theme of the Trumpian myth is one of the “strongman” leader who rises up to take on a weak and corrupt establishment, and through the power of his will mobilizes an invigorated citizenry to “take back” their culture from the forces of liberal degeneracy—through violent means if necessary.
The leader’s followers are prepared to do almost anything to please him, including committing acts of violence, and find great personal validation and moral purpose in the process, as well as a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.
A malignantly narcissistic authoritarian leader couldn’t admit he was defeated, managed to convince millions of people to go along with his Big Lie, and was able to assemble an angry mob that was willing to use violent force to reverse the results of a democratic election.Jackson Katz
As historians and philosophers such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Jason Stanley have continually reminded us, this story has many disastrous antecedents in the 20th century.
Thus pushing back against Trumpism by contesting the mythology that gives it life is an essential part of protecting and defending democracy. And an important part of that pushback is to contest—in real time—the right-wing attempt to turn January 6 into a defining item in the iconography of a revitalized, authoritarian America.
As the cultural historian Richard Slotkin explained in his magisterial trilogy about the role of the frontier myth in American history:
“Myths are stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness…Over time, through frequent retellings and deployments … The original mythic story is increasingly conventionalized and abstracted until it is reduced to a deeply encoded and resonant set of symbols, icons, keywords, or historical cliches…(becoming part of the process) of both personal and social ‘remembering.’”
Through this process, according to Slotkin, a single word or phrase comes to evoke an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario that belongs to the event, such as “the Alamo,” “Pearl Harbor” or “Custer’s Last Stand.” The question for us today is what the “Capitol Insurrection” will mean, not only in the 2024 elections, but to future generations.
That is why the Select Committee’s work is so vital. With the help of the seasoned TV storyteller James Goldston, former head of ABC News who ran Good Morning America and Nightline, they have provided a powerful counter-narrative to the right-wing efforts to frame the events of January 6 in heroic terms—as an uprising of “patriots” determined to rescue their country from decline and ruin.
Because of their work, Jan. 6 is less likely to be seen as a credible rallying cry for a reinvigorated ‘America First’ movement and more likely to live on in historical memory as a debacle, in which a malignantly narcissistic authoritarian leader couldn’t admit he was defeated, managed to convince millions of people to go along with his Big Lie, and was able to assemble an angry mob that was willing to use violent force to reverse the results of a democratic election.
The committee has achieved this, in part, by featuring the live and recorded testimony of numerous ordinary Americans who either took part in the melee, as attackers or law enforcement officers, or those people—overwhelmingly Republicans—who had vantage points from inside the White House.
Some of the more noteworthy testimony came from Capitol police officers that were on duty on January 6, and were the literal protectors of American democracy. Their presence as frontline defenders not only provided viewers people with whom they could identify, but also called attention to the rank hypocrisy of right-wing ideologues who claim to support “law and order” as a matter of principle, when in fact they only choose to apply the concept selectively.
The testimony of the Ohioan Stephen Ayres was also notable, although he didn’t play a special role in the insurrection. He was chosen instead as a stand-in for the legions of white men who support Trump, including the ones who stormed through the barricades on January 6 intent on “stopping the steal,” because they saw themselves as patriots and were urged to do so by the President of the United States himself.
Ayres represents Trump’s strongest demographic: white men with a high school education, who voted for Trump over Biden by a margin of 70 percent to 28 percent.
Ayres said he was angry about Trump’s promotion of the Big Lie because his life has been so negatively affected. “I was hanging on every word he was saying,” he said about his following Trump. “I felt like I had horse blinders on.”
You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.Donald Trump
Among the most compelling explanations for Trump’s popularity with white men—across the educational and socioeconomic spectrum—is their belief that he is a “strong” man. And if you support and identify with him, you must be, too. Trump reinforces this virtuous circle repeatedly in his speeches and public pronouncements, like in 2019 when he told an interviewer, ”I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
At the January 6 rally on the Ellipse, Trump used this tried and true rhetorical trick to energize the crowd. After mocking “weak Republicans,” he said: “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
Thus was born one of the central myths of the Trumpian narrative about January 6: that the mob of mostly white men who attacked the symbolic and operational heart of this democracy to enact the will of their delusional leader were somehow displaying “strength,” a conceit that continues to crumble with each successive revelation the committee uncovers about what actually happened that day.
White men played important roles in this blockbuster miniseries, but the star member of Congress, as well as the star witness, were both white women.
In the former role, the conservative Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney showed more fortitude than the vast majority of her fellow Republicans in the Time of Trump with her unwavering efforts to hold Trump and his minions accountable for defiling American democracy. Decades from now—if democracy survives the contemporary period —historians will note that while the Republican Party of the early 21st century has sought openly to reverse feminist gains, the highest ranking member of the party willing to risk their political career by summoning the courage to stand up to Donald Trump was … a woman.
The Trump base has a particular hatred of a disobedient woman who happens to be young and pretty.Amanda Marcotte
The breakout star of the hearings was Cassidy Hutchinson, the 26-year-old former advisor to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. In addition to providing the panel with new incriminating information about Trump’s actions on that day, Hutchinson’s brave testimony served to humanize and thus deflate Donald Trump’s image as a virile and decisive commander-in-chief. At one point she described wiping ketchup off the wall where Trump had thrown food.
Hutchinson’s scheduled appearance before the committee was first kept quiet and then reportedly fast-tracked due to concerns about her safety—yet another reminder that people who discredit favored myths (especially women) often pay a steep price for it.
In an article describing the online campaign of threats and lies directed at Hutchinson after her testimony, journalist Amanda Marcotte wrote:
“Now the whole country has been told about the petulant, violent, and fascistic behavior that Trump’s inner circle goes to great pains to conceal. And Trump is reacting with the same strategy he used to sic the mob on the Capitol: Winking at his violent followers, providing them a target for their rage, and trusting that they know what he wants from them. Not that Trump needs to be a rocket scientist to know his biggest fans happen to be the same people who fly into an incandescent rage when a woman speaks out against injustice. The heightened concerns about her safety, compared to the older white men who have largely been witnesses to Trump’s behavior, is also a reminder that the Trump base has a particular hatred of a disobedient woman who happens to be young and pretty…”
In a time of gender, racial, and sexual backlash, the struggle for justice and progress continues in the material realm: at the ballot box, in the courthouse, and out in the streets. But also in the consequential contests we wage over our myths, and the meanings we make of them.
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