In the assault on the Capitol, the distinction between faith, nation, and godhead finally and completely broke down.
By Philip Perdue
That painting behind him is called Battle of Lake Erie. It is William Henry Powell’s depiction of the last time the US Capitol building was breached, in 1813. As far as framing devices go, it puts some historical perspective on the mayhem of January 6, 2021.
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry is the focal point in that painting, which has hung inside the Capitol since 1873. But the star of the show in this photograph, made by Getty’s Win McNamee is a flag-waving MAGA terrorist striking a pose on the staircase in front. In the visual echo of flags unfurled — one the Stars and Stripes, the other Trump for President — there is a similar pledge of allegiance and loyalty to the cause.
It’s not so much that last week’s Capitol riots mark a clean break from the past — they don’t. But it is a national insult to see the edifice of patriotic symbolism get steamrolled by right-wing terrorists roleplaying their way through a delusional fantasy. Built up over the last four years by Trump and his enablers in the Republican Party, the fantasy of saving the Republic from who knows what has pushed so many people over the edge, each lie and every grievance one more step in the same direction.
The Capitol uprising was not a re-founding of the Republic, just to be clear about that. It was a premeditated desecration of the democratic process that left six people dead. (And now that we know how US Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick was killed, the photo includes a second figure who is armed and dangerous, gripping the potentially lethal red fire extinguisher).
One other detail in this photograph pinpoints why Trump’s followers erupted last week. Look closely again at the ragtag figure waving his flag on the Capitol steps. In the whites of his eyes — small but still pronounced — we see glints of diehard Trump loyalism. Left unchecked, it leads all the way across the Rubicon, where a dull sense of stupor consummates your total devotion to the cult.
This way of seeing things is consistent with the cult of personality that has arisen around Trump. As experts in political persuasion understand, Trump is a demagogue who promises protection in exchange for fealty. So it is that Nina Berman’s photograph of the Jumbotron from the rally that launched the attack compresses all the signs of cult worship. The photo underscores not only the symbolic terminus of a reality TV president, it also documents how the core bond of MAGA world is based on seeing Trump as the dominant national symbol. Stars and stripes are just window dressing at this point.
Berman’s photo also suggests that MAGA’s white power terrorism is being supported by the emotional scaffolding of religious intensity. With Trump basking in the gross idolatry of a people desperate for a strong leader, the photo re-enacts an Old Testament motif where Israelites in exile, having grown restless and impatient, clamor for a strong king to smite their enemies and deliver them.
These were the same people whose God, a self-described jealous God, prohibited worship of anyone besides him, and outlawed the crafting of graven images. As the story goes, both prohibitions were etched in stone as commandments not long after the people pooled their resources to forge an idol made of gold.
Craig Ruttle’s photo accentuates the Old Testament reference, and rounds it out with a post-apocalyptic reminder that for so many in Trump’s orbit, this really is the end game.
Photographs such as these depict the cult of Trump in its last throes. They speak to well-documented associations between Christian nationalism and support for Trump’s presidency, where the lines between religious nationalism and Trump loyalism have become so blurred in recent years, and emphatically so in the chaotic crush on the Capitol, that it is hard to delineate where faith, nation, and godhead diverge.
This photograph by Chris Jones offers a case in point.
It is not merely in the way it couples religious identity and nation. Grafting the cross onto the flag has long been the functional logo of Christian nationalism. Beyond that, Jones’s composition focuses our attention on the big payoff for conflating God and country: the obliteration of any practical or performative distinction between voicing a political preference and casting righteous indignation down upon the wicked.
It is a jarring image, but Joseph Rushmore’s photo from January 6 is symbolically coherent to the extent that the Capitol uprising materialized from within the framework of holy war.
On his Instagram feed, Rushmore correctly cites the book of Revelation as the way to make sense of what we’re seeing. The apocalypse of St. John, with its vision of authority “to kill with sword and famine,” prefigures the angel of death clutching the word of the Lord. Terror is the sixth seal and the wrath of God is righteous. He shall inflict judgment on thine enemies.
And all God’s people said Amen.