“Protesters are in the building”: Irony, Race, and Democracy

The whitewashing of the violence that took place on January 6 marks a greater threat to our democracy than the riot itself

The violent mob that forcefully breached the halls of Congress on January 6 — assaulting officers of the law, trespassing on and destroying government property, and literally obstructing the process of democracy — consisted of more than just “protesters.”

(Protester, n. someone who shows that they disagree with something by standing somewhere, shouting, carrying signs, etc. — Cambridge English Dictionary)

And yet the initial instinct of many Americans, even when explicitly acknowledging the violence perpetrated that day, was to characterize the members of the largely white, Trumpish mob as mere demonstrators.

Hoisted up by rioters, this Confederate flag features a machine gun superimposed on the stars and bars

Thus the statement made to interrupt Senator Lankford (R-OK) and so halt the electoral college count as rioters broke into the Capitol: “Protesters are in the building” (see 6:40 on the impeachment managers’ video).

The paradox articulated here reveals the lengths to which we will go to whitewash a certain type of violence. The irony (in the sense of coincidental but contrary signification or representation) of the comment marks a parabasis or contradicting disruption, too, of Lankford’s already duplicitous claims about the election: “In America we settle our differences with elections, but what happens,” the Republican Senator had just asked his colleagues rhetorically, “when you don’t trust the election count?” Minutes later he was running for cover, a victim of the very skepticism he had pretended not to have fueled.

Two observations may be made here:

First: while Lankford’s evidence-free insistence on massive electoral fraud defies belief, so should the fact that the rioters of January 6 were ever characterized, including by the military and police at the time, as anything other than violent insurrectionists — members of an armed, aggressive mob that ought to have prompted a forceful response by the state.

Second: the ironic dissonance evident in the reference to “protesters” “in the building” extends to the rhetoric of those who began calling the violent perpetrators “rioters,” “insurrectionists,” or “domestic terrorists”: even as many Americans, especially on the left, adopted such terms, only 5% to 8% in an open-ended poll volunteered that the police responded too slowly to the rioters or that the latter should face severe criminal penalties.

Rioters in battle gear breach the Capitol

The ironic notion that mere “protesters” could interrupt the electoral college and empty the halls of Congress thus instantiates, I suggest, a general phenomenon: when it comes to racialist entitlement, our society’s capacity for straight-faced double-speak mirrors that of the Republican leadership.

The forked-tongued discourse on the right with respect to race, of course, no longer surprises: Republican politicians have become, essentially, nihilists leading the ignorant. And yet a more insidious impetus to duplicity characterizes our democracy at its core — one epitomized by the lengths to which we will go to accept, rationalize, and, through unconscious paradox, downplay or re-frame the violence of white actors. (The presence of non-whites among the Confederate-flag waving mob can be largely explained through a complementary psychological phenomenon famously studied by Fanon: the unconsciously paradoxical desire of those with dark skin to don “white masks”). Whites’ entitlement to law-breaking or violence is, of course, a media commonplace: heroes like James Bond, Jack Bauer, or Ethan Hunt are literally licensed to play by different rules. Others, from Martin Riggs to Jake Peralta, are simply too talented for the rules to apply.

The inability to recognize and, indeed, unmask the racially hierarchizing elements of our social and political discourse — pervasive throughout our culture, from Hollywood productions to educational curricula centered on an autonomous, self-originated “Western” intellectual tradition — marks the limits of current attempts to define or challenge whites’ superior station in the social imaginary.

Hence the general dissonance between discourse and reality when it comes to race: notwithstanding the sway of certain norms at the level of language (even on the right, almost no one will brook being called a “racist”), employers in our society will still hire a white felon over a Black man with the same qualifications and no criminal record. For all the diversity officers in schools and companies, Blacks represent only 3% of the executives in the Fortune 500 — a percentage that has not changed in 40 years.

The blindness to such ironic incongruities, in other words, precedes Trumpism. How many on the left — including those willing to label the rioters of January 6 as “insurrectionists” — would support a parallel impeachment of George W. Bush for the lies and doublespeak through which he led us to destroy Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands and ruining millions of Arab and Muslim lives? How many of those horrified by Trump’s mealymouthed promises to release his tax returns would call out Obama for classifying all men over the age 18 in Pakistan as “militants” to minimize the official number of innocent “civilians” our country killed through drone strikes?

This reiterated duplicity, largely unknowing, infects the consciousness even of mass death.

What is alarming about the ascendance of unconscious irony in a democracy is the increasing resistance of political discourse to legibility: as a sophistical tool, doublespeak will eschew detection, opening the door to demagoguery. For this reason Hegel argues that irony marks the downfall of civic life in ancient Greece: reducing to a “bad infinity” and endlessly overturning meaning, irony as a dominant mode of subjectivity effects a certain detachment from or unconsciousness of reality.

It is thus no surprise that Donald Trump grounded his demagoguery on racialist rhetoric that could be dismissed as both sincere (“he says what he thinks”) and disingenuous (“he didn’t mean it”). This slippery irony of his discourse, deploying such forms as hyperbole (“I was exaggerating to make a point”), equivocation (“stand down and stand by”), and apophasis (“I wouldn’t, but some people say…”) indeed offended half the country. But we were all fascinated, not least because, with the most adroit of forked tongues, he spoke our language.

Shockingly — excessively — well.

Whether we recognize it or not, we are, most of us, in thrall to the equivocating representational regimes that, insidiously justifying racialist power and even violence, pervade our culture and politics. We are full of prejudices, unconsciously so — not least those of us comforted by the deceptive otherness of Trumpism. Those who still deny our core racialism, ignoring overwhelming social, economic, political, and cultural evidence, merely prove the point.

Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.

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