Flags are an important part of fascism. I never realized how important until I was enveloped by them. Red Trump flags, and blue Trump flags. Red, white and blue American flags. Red Confederate flags. Blue police flags. Yellow “Come And Take It” flags, and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Flags on sticks, and flags on jackets, and flags wrapped around shoulders like shawls. Big flags, and bigger flags, and multiple flags stacked atop one another. The young man toting six full-sized flags on a towering, bending pole as he rode on an electric unicycle was impressive, until you saw the other young man standing atop the roof of his monster truck waving a gargantuan Trump flag as his sound system played pro-Trump rap music, framed by the backdrop of the sunset over the U.S. Capitol building. The back of the truck was full of more flags.
The Million MAGA March in Washington, DC on Saturday did not have a million people, but it had a million flags. You couldn’t take two steps without one of them smacking you in the face. Freedom Plaza, the block-sized elevated space where the faithful gathered, had the quality of a funhouse maze, with flags taking the place of mirrors. It was disorienting. A flash of red, a flash of blue, and in every direction, a sea of coronavirus. It was a situation built to instill the sort of overwhelming patriotism you feel right before you go to war and die.
On Saturday morning, downtown DC was even more deserted than usual, save for the knots of red-hatted tourists gravitating towards the White House, bustling through the empty, echoing blocks. As gangsters say during dangerous times, “Only cops and fools were on the streets.” As it grew closer to noon, the plaza took on the atmosphere of a county fair written by Stephen King, where all the barbecue stands were replaced with MAGA vendors and the square dance tent was an endless loop of Lee Greenwood. Women sang along to “I’m Proud to Be an American” as they waited in lines for the Port-o-lets. People shouted through megaphones about Joe Biden being a pedophile, to widespread acclaim. It was a big revival, a place for believers to bond. “My sister said her kids are gonna be ridiculed at school, and have to fight for their morals and values,” one middle-aged woman confided to her neighbor. “Oh honey,” the younger blonde woman in a red Trump beanie standing next to her commiserated, “We live in Delaware. It’s scarier there.”
The men all seemed to look like they hoped something violent would happen. America is a land that encourages martial fantasies, and here they all converged. There were lots of helmets and body armor and tactical vests and tactical gloves and tactical pants with lots of pockets and carabiners. Some of these men looked like they used to be in the military and missed the action, and others looked like they played a lot of Call of Duty and had elaborate war fantasies, but all of them seemed like the kind of person who would take a job as a jail guard in order to get the opportunity to beat someone. There were the Oath Keepers, hulking soldier types, and Proud Boys, the yellow-and-black-wearing celebs of the far-right, who people kept asking for selfies with; and there were little huddles of lesser gangs, the skinny “American Guard” guys carrying homemade shields, and the old men with “Sheepdog Nation” hoodies advertising itchy trigger fingers, and the bikers whose vests read “Born To Ride For 45” and whose patches read “Hillary Clinton American Traitor Bitch.” There were young tattooed guys walking around with boxing mouthguards in, and middle-aged men in “Q” shirts ranting on sidewalks, and countless thousands of men wearing baseball hats, beards, wraparound shades, and camo, the uniform of the delusional Protector class. There was a couple walking a Doberman wearing a harness that said “SECURITY.” The dog was clearly not Security. But it was part of the fantasy.
These were the shitkickers of America, and those that worshiped them. Nothing about them is hard to understand. If you have seen a high school bully and his crew of friends goading him on, you have encountered this type. What I cannot explain is why this juvenile sort of action movie mentality exerts such a strong hold on so many Americans. Maybe we have a crisis of masculinity, or maybe we are a damaged nation coping poorly with trauma, or maybe this is just our nature, dating back to the early explorers who sailed in to massacre the natives because they could. Maybe all of the above. What I do know is that there is a very powerful undercurrent running just below the surface of mainstream politics right now that can best be described as an overwhelming desire to have a reason to kill everyone on the other side. Perhaps it has been too long since we had a big war that required a draft, and all of that bloodlust is pouring into America itself, like an infection. We had the Communists as enemies, and then we had the terrorists, and now, lacking a distinct boogieman to soak up our aggression, we have thousands and thousands of people who dress up as soldiers and roam the streets of American cities, waiting to attack… whoever. Trump’s achievement has been to remove any real political pretext from our national political feud, leaving only a pile of hate that can be directed at any enemy that’s convenient. Antifascists? Black Lives Matter? Democrats, judges, the FBI, the Board of Elections? All can fit the description of “Enemies who don’t want America to be Great Again.” We left rationality behind a long time ago. Trump has succeeded in building his lunatic army. That was who this day was for.
The good news is that his army is not big enough. Tens of thousands of people showed up for the MAGA march, but most of them were just regular families whose brains have been poisoned by Facebook, or old people whose brains have been poisoned by Fox News. That so many of these people would feel it necessary to travel across the country to march up Constitution Avenue and inform the world that “I’d Rather Get Covid-19 Than Biden 20” is disturbing on a human level, but not cause for undue alarm. They wanted to parade past the Dear Leader’s barricaded hotel and genuflect to its facade, to grovel rather than to fight. The real shitkickers were a minority. If this was Trump’s rallying call for soldiers to rescue him from his electoral fate, it was not a success. The size of the Women’s March held the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017 made this march look like an intimate gathering of friends, at a mental hospital.
By late afternoon, the MAGA people all trickled away, some of them making the mistake of walking through Black Lives Matter Plaza, where they were jeered at ruthlessly. They jeered right back. As darkness fell, a line of police took up positions across that Plaza, and two more lines of bike cops stood on K Street, keeping a small group of antifa people a full block away from the Trump people who were milling around by McPherson Square. A block north, at the Capital Hilton, more cops stood guard, as a group of MAGA people peered out the lobby window at the scene on the streets like visitors at the zoo. I stood around for an hour or so and saw nothing more violent than a college girl taunting a very embarrassed-looking riot cop for having something that looked like coke in his nose. Shortly after I left, bands of Proud Boys started marauding through downtown, beating people up. Someone got stabbed. All of this was amplified frantically on Twitter, and then amplified again by the President himself, but it was not out of the ordinary by the grim standards of 2020 street politics. Trying to understand an entire protest via Twitter is like trying to understand Moby Dick by repeating the phrase “Call me Ishmael” at higher and higher volumes until you are deaf. If you cede the totality of its meaning to the shitkickers, you are not trying to learn very much.
What people want, more than food and water and sex and drugs, is a purpose. They will attach themselves to all sorts of deranged things in order to feel like they are fulfilling that purpose — that they are a part of something meaningful. Donald Trump provided that for a very large number of people, and that fact alone should make all of us disappointed in this country. America has always seen its people as a means to an end, the end being money or war. It has never bothered to provide a mass purpose beyond that. Into that void stepped MAGA world, just the latest religion promising an explanation for our confused existence.
On the side of a street in downtown DC on Saturday morning sat a tiny woman wrapped in a TRUMP 2020 flag that was bigger than she was. She had stuck up hand-lettered cardboard signs on the bus shelter where she was laying. One of them read, “How in the Hell do undocumented people get Housing in the USA and Americans are homeless.” None of the MAGA people paid her any attention, and neither did anyone else.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.