January 6th is quite a date. Biblically, it is the Epiphany, the last day of Christmas, when the baby Jesus was presented to the three Magi. In Italy it is the day that Santa Claus’s more ancient, more down-to-earth, female counterpart, La Blefana, brings good children their presents. And in more secular, but still superstitious, Britain the day on which you take down the Christmas tree and decorations – failure to do which will bring bad luck for the rest of the new year.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that, under the 1887 Electoral Count Act, this is the date set aside under US Federal Law for the formal counting of presidential and vice-presidential ballots by the Congress and Senate, but it is certainly apt. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a day more laden with symbolism than the Epiphany for yesterday’s storming of the Capital by those so enraged, yet so entitled, Trump supporters, watched around the world with who knows what combination of schadenfreude, fear, horror, sadness, bemusement and I-told-you-soism.
Like many others, I suspect, I spent the locked-down day with too many windows open on my PC, toggling between emails, research-related reading, writing in progress, social media and the news. Interested in the outcome of the nail-bitingly close senate election in Georgia (one democrat candidate had been declared; the other was leading the republican by 50.2 to 49.8 – too close to call) I had CNN open in one window, and was checking it periodically, as part of that 21st century way of punctuating the rhythm of work (a substitute for the cigarette breaks I used to take back in the 1970s when I got to the end of a difficult paragraph). Since I last looked, the scene had been transformed. The static image of unchanging numbers and talking heads had given way to an incoherent lurching between shots of crowds in red MAGA hats wielding US flags on the steps of the capitol building, people scaling walls, windows being smashed, masked security guards pointing guns and senators huddled under desks on the floor. In some, men, and a few women, looking like strays from a biker rally, were nonchalantly wandering around among the pompous dark wood trappings of the official rooms, treading the blue carpets with their quite possibly muddy boots.
It is clear that this violation touched a symbolic nerve in the American psyche that has failed to respond to so many other outrages associated with the Trump presidency over the past four years. I was astonished how often the word ‘sacred’ came up in connection with democratic institutions, spoken both by media commentators and the politicians they began to interview as the scale of what was happening became apparent. Not least in Biden’s statesmanlike speech. This, after all, is a man who himself had to preside over a similar congress session as vice president, graciously conceding defeat to Trump, as others, including Gore and Nixon, had done before him and his outrage was apparent. (This being 2021, as I watched his call to Trump to address the nation from the White House to ask his supporters to desist in one window on my PC, I was able to open twitter in another, to see Trumps’ immediate response – a tweet telling his supporters that he agreed with them and loved them but that they should – for the time being, it was implied – ‘remain peaceful’).
This reaction draws attention to the enormous value that is placed on the ceremonial quality of how democratic processes are enacted in the USA. Their legitimacy seems to depend crucially on the very precise following of formal rules, carried out with reverence – so like a religion that the word ‘sacred’ does indeed seem to be the appropriate one.
Early this morning, I watched the now reconvened senators being called, one by one, to declare their acceptance of the votes in their states, answering the ritualistic questions with a ‘yea’ or a ‘nay’. The oral rhythm reminded me irresistibly of one of those litanies of the saints recited in the Catholic churches of my childhood, where all that was required was to utter ‘pray for us’ after the naming of each saint (with an occasional switch to ‘intercede for us’ or ‘have mercy on us’ just to keep you on your toes). Visually too the formality was, on the one hand moving and touching and, on the other, just plain weird, made all the more bizarre by the additional accoutrements of pandemic behavioural norms: the wearing of masks; the use of hand sanitiser before touching a piece of paper. I wondered what future anthropologists will make of it all when they see the videos.
It only takes a suspension of disbelief for any ceremony to become suddenly laughable. Virginia Woolf memorably did this when she showed us the powerful procession of judges, generals, priests and professors as just men wearing silly hats and sometimes frocks. Of course we should be careful not to mock this seriousness. Without these clothes the emperor really is naked. And, in a world where some people have powerful weapons and others have none, we are not equipped to deal with the consequences of such a realisation. These rituals are the best defence we’ve got. An all-too-fragile barrier to the complete breakdown of democracy and gun law on the streets. But neither should we minimise the extent to which this whole event represents a triumph of white supremacy and ruling class entitlement. Black protestors, for example, would not have been allowed within several blocks of the Capitol building. They would most likely have been tear-gassed, intimidated and their leaders arrested, with minimal media coverage. And certainly no equivalent sense of outrage.
But perhaps this moment will nevertheless go down in history as a real turning point. The end not just of a festive season, a year, or, indeed, a presidency, but of a particular conception of democratic institutions and their inviolability. A real Epiphany.