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Perspective | Performance and protest, from the hippies to MAGA

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The executive summary of the House select committee’s report on the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack begins with an apology from a member of the Oath Keepers militant group named Graydon Young: “Today I feel extremely ashamed and embarrassed” to have participated in the storming of the Capitol, he says. There follows a litany of apologies from other members of the mob, about a dozen of them. They were misled, they say. They were only following the apparent orders of President Donald Trump. One rioter, Ronald Sandlin, said before the attack that his purpose was to “stand behind Trump when he decides to cross the rubicon. If you are a patriot I believe it’s your duty to be there. I see it as my civic responsibility.”

The obvious intent of the Jan. 6 committee’s final report is to blame Trump for the mayhem. It succeeds in that, over 845 lawyerly pages — although I’m not sure there’s enough to make an airtight legal case against the former president. He’s a pretty shifty guy. There is no smoking gun. No “cross the Rubicon” moment where Trump actually says he wants to overturn the Constitution and become a dictator. Indeed, if that was his intention, he was remarkably inept at it. There was no point when a successful coup was a plausible possibility. The military, a necessary component in any real attempt to overthrow a government, was never a party to the chaos. Trump’s modus, as ever, was to playact; his game has always been improv.

The report, now available in book form from several publishers, is an attempt to assess the culpability of those in power. But a deeper question remains, and it involves the mob that gathered on that wretched day. Who were those people? Why were they so angry? How was it possible for them to conflate American patriotism with autocracy, to turn the purpose of the Constitution — a document they say they adore — upside down? What led them to believe a flagrant huckster’s “big lie”? Do they represent a clear and present and continuing danger to the republic? This question was at the periphery of the House committee’s purview, and no real effort was made to answer it. The apologies that open the executive summary seem more convenient than convincing.

Take another look at the mob. There is something familiar about it. There are the flags, yes — the wonderful Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” snake and the less-artful Trumpist paraphernalia. But there is nothing orderly about the throng. There is a disheveled quality to it: Army surplus camo wear and denim; long hair, especially facial hair; extravagant tattoos. The most memorable mobster is Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” wearing a horned bison headdress, furs, bare chest and a spear. “The sight of these troops, this army with a thousand costumes. . . . The dress ball was going into battle.”

Wait a minute. That last quotation: That was Norman Mailer, describing the hippie army that surrounded and sought to levitate the Pentagon — 300 feet! — in October 1967, as a protest against the war in Vietnam. It was the image that came to mind when I saw the mob of Jan. 6, 2021: They were part of a continuum, a reverse Sisyphus in which we, the privileged children of the upper middle class, started the boulder of solipsistic indulgence rolling downhill with no plans for braking it until the alt-right crashed it into the Capitol. “Their radicalism was in their hate for authority,” Mailer wrote. It was “a revolution which preceded ideology.” Since the advent of television, style has played a far more important role than substance in the armies of the right and the left.

The political spectrum is not a straight line. It is more like the Greek letter omega, with the left and right extremes bending toward each other. The common denominators of the hippies and the MAGA militias are a delusional pessimism about our country and a warped emphasis on individual expression — on freedom, that most seductive and dangerous of democratic principles — with no corresponding regard for responsibilities.

There is a parallel structure to the New Left and the MAGA right, both massive movements surrounding a kernel of crazy. The New Left overwhelmed the Democratic Party in the early 1970s; the MAGA right now controls the Republicans. The hippies gave birth to groups like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped the heiress Patricia Hearst and robbed banks. There were an astounding 4,300 anti-“establishment” bombings from January 1969 to April 1970 (most of the bombs were detonated at night, to avoid injuring civilians). The MAGA right provided boon times and a lot of publicity for the militia movement, which in itself is minuscule. In “The Storm Is Here,” the New Yorker’s war correspondent Luke Mogelson travels around the country interviewing “patriots” like the Proud Boys — famously ordered by Trump to “stand back and stand by” — and compares them with the terrorists he covered overseas, like the Islamic State. But there is no comparison: The Islamic State toppled governments, murdered thousands. According to the Jan. 6 committee report, there were no more than 300 Proud Boys in the crowd at the Capitol. And according to a University of Chicago study, 86 percent of the people who were arrested that day were unaffiliated with extremist groups.

Who were they? This is where the two movements diverge: “Of the 501 [arrested on Jan. 6] for which we have employment data,” one of the Chicago study’s authors wrote, “more than half are business owners, including CEOs, or from white-collar occupations, including doctors, lawyers, architects, and accountants.” The archetype of this type of protester is Karl Manke, a small-town barber in Michigan, interviewed months earlier by Mogelson, who refused to close his shop when the governor ordered pandemic lockdowns.

The protesters in the 1960s were mostly students, of course, and their cause was just: The war in Vietnam was an abomination, a foolishness that began America’s 60-year slide toward civic dereliction. They were the spiritual heirs of the civil rights movement, which produced the most dignified and consequential protest of the era, the 1963 March on Washington featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — and which led to a cascade of civil rights and social policy legislation. But Vietnam killed all that. The 1963 crowd had come on church buses and in union delegations; some of those elements were still there in 1967 — Mailer was impressed by the pacifists led by David Dellinger, but he was smitten by the hippies.

This was the beginning of a new wave: Vietnam and its draft-card burning, and the other progressive protests that followed, carried a sniff of privilege. The students were rebelling against their parents and the triumphantly secure life that had been built after the Depression and World War II. A popular song of the 1960s railed against suburban development: “little boxes on the hillside … and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.” What a remarkable notion: The emergence of blue-collar workers from urban slums into homes of their own was something to be disdained. In “The Hardhat Riot,” an account of New York construction workers’ revolt against hippies in 1970, David Paul Kuhn recounts a previous confrontation between New York intellectual Irving Howe and a Stanford University student radical: “You know what you’re going to be?” Howe spluttered. “You’re going to be a dentist.”

More likely, the Stanford student became one of the burgeoning army of civil liberties lawyers and sociologists and environmental policymakers and social engineers whose distaste for racial segregation, foul water and foul air — and for all the other excesses of capitalism — came to dominate the federal government in the 1970s. It was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, and it was Nixon who created the first federal affirmative-action program, the Philadelphia Plan for the construction trades. It was the generation of student protesters turned academics who made important — and then, excessive — reforms in the teaching of history and sexuality. It was the New Left and its offspring that schooled America in victimology, a cornucopia of otherness, a nation shattered into identity-shards. (At present, the California Democratic Party alone lists 19 different identity or issue-based caucuses.) This became a national creed in the 21st century. “We’re all victims,” Trump said in Valdosta, Ga., on Dec. 5, 2020, after he lost the election. “Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims. Every one of you.”

And the crowd at the Capitol on Jan. 6 saw themselves as victims too, even though they were there at the behest of the president. They were not protesting something real, like a war; they had fantasized a chimera. They were victims with flat-screen televisions, man caves, cellphones and heavy-metal pickup trucks that are more fashion statements than working vehicles. Progressives argue that middle-class anomie is located in economics, the class stagnation since industrial America started closing down in the 1970s, but that seems insufficient. The MAGA movement’s anger is cultural. It is an amorphous antagonism inflated by the right-wing media-entertainment complex and directed against Blacks who get advantages their children don’t in college admissions, and immigrants crashing the borders, and elitist college professors who want them to reform their pronouns and impose clunky new monikers like Latinx, and one-sex-fits-all bathrooms. It is anger directed against the authorities who tell them when to open or close their barber shops — and who created a liberal orthodoxy so powerful that only a reality-TV demagogue could take an ax to it.

Mailer saw this — the gringos’ last stand — coming in the 1960s, but he had an advantage. Unlike most of the left-proselytizers, he had seen action in World War II. He had been an Army grunt, slogging through the Philippines. When he looked at the federal marshals and National Guard members standing between the protesters and the Pentagon in 1967, and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, he saw the men in his platoon, the men of rural America: “The face of all too many had a low cunning mixed with a stroke of rectitude. . . . It was his impression that people in small towns had eyes which were generally livelier or emptier than the more concentrated look of city vision.”

As a survivor of boot camp and battle, Mailer also saw the fecklessness of the antiwar protesters in Chicago: “They were young men who were not going to Vietnam. So they would show … that the reason they did not go was not for lack of the courage to fight.” Mogelson saw much the same in the eyes of the militia leaders: “Neither Fox, Rhodes, George, nor Pierce had ever experienced war, which might explain their lust for it. . . . The only real thing about their war is their own belligerence, their own fear.”

In the end, the one thing the armies of the American left and right may have most in common is a weakness for performance art. We are the luckiest people in human history. The overwhelming majority of us — even many of those who have suffered the scourge of bigotry — have never experienced war or privation. And so we invent our demons. According to Mogelson, 23 percent of Republicans believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex-trafficking operation.” That could happen only in a country with too much leisure time on its hands.

The recommendations of the Jan. 6 committee’s final report are numerous and worthy — such as reform of the Electoral Count Act (since passed) and the criminal referrals of Trump and others to the Justice Department — but incomplete. There is nothing to address the nation’s viral playacting, the elitist posturing of the left and the nativism of the right. There is nothing to encourage the rigor and unity that Mailer’s generation experienced in the U.S. Army. So I wonder: Would it be too much to suggest the need for a universal boot camp as a coming-of-age experience where, under muscular duress, we might get to know each other again, followed by a requisite period of national service that is not necessarily military? Democracy demands effort and sacrifice, as well as freedom within limits, especially in a multifarious society. In our affluence, we ask nothing of substance from one another, and nothing of significance from ourselves. It is hard to imagine how a republic can be maintained under those circumstances.

Joe Klein is the author of seven books, including “Primary Colors” and, most recently, “Charlie Mike.”

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