Broken Symbols: Display and Destruction during the Attack on the Capitol

Almost two weeks later, recordings and photographs of the attack on the Capitol are still making newspaper headlines, flicker across screens, and fill the feeds on social media. Countless commentators described the attack as an extraordinary event in the history of the United States. Joe Biden called it ‘unprecedented’; The New York Times described it as a threat to ‘the heart of American democracy’. But the shock and anger in response to the attack were not just fuelled by its attempt to interfere with the election of a new president or the fact that several people died as a result. They were also fuelled by acts of destruction, which were chronicled and communicated by observers and actors alike. As Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer deplored:

[W]e can now add January 6th, 2021 to that very short list of dates in American history that will live, forever, in infamy. This temple to democracy was desecrated. Its windows smashed, our offices vandalized.

Historians have been quick to point out that the attacks were, in fact, not so unprecedented in the history of the United States by citing the Wilmington coup of 1898, for example, in which White supremacists overthrew the government of Wilmington in North Carolina.1 Another, broader look quickly shows just how common such scenes have been throughout history. As a mediaevalist, I was instantly reminded of revolts in the Middle Ages, when countless similar gatherings attempted to bring about some kind of change—not least the removal of unwanted rulers and officials. Like the attack on the Capitol, medieval protests and revolts abounded with provocative chants, gestures, and slogans, along with attempts to seize control of central government buildings and the use of violence against people, as written records and surviving images vividly tell us.2 Justine Firnhaber-Baker, an expert in all matters of medieval revolt, has already written a brilliant take on the similarities between the Middle Ages and the behaviour of the Capitol insurgents as broadcast on modern TV:

There were many carnivalesque elements to yesterday’s violence, in a way familiar to historians of some medieval uprisings. Inversion of the normal order of things—a half-naked cosplayer in a senator’s chair, a prince in plebeian garb—is a characteristic of rebellion. These acts are fun for the rebels, of course (if rather less so for those of us concerned for the Republic’s future). That’s part of why they do them. But they are also symbolically and performatively transgressive. They breach not only written laws and rules, but also unspoken social norms and boundaries. Rebels are aware of this.

This deliberate subversion was also at play in the conspicuous displays of signs and objects during the Capitol attack. Though reminiscent of premodern and modern protests and revolutions in their forms,3 these displays were threatening, discriminatory, and shockingly racist in their semantics. The presence of a hoodie with the slogan ‘Camp Auschwitz’ and an English translation of the infamous sentence Arbeit macht frei—apparently unchallenged by other participants—was photographed and shared widely as evidence of antisemitism among Trump supporters. A makeshift gallows erected outside the Capitol has been interpreted along the same lines, as an allusion to the 1978 racist and antisemitic dystopian novel The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce, in which ‘so-called betrayers of their race were lynched’ on ‘the day of the rope’. But as a menacing shorthand for lynching, the gallows perhaps even more strongly evoke gruesome historical connotations of the murder of Black people at the hands of White supremacist mobs:

Today, racist symbolism more often appears as an empty noose carrying the memory of past violence and the threat of future aggression.4

Makeshift gallows with noose displayed outside the Capitol building on 6 January 2021. Not visible in this picture is a poster declaring ‘This is Art’ at the bottom of the construction. Photograph by Tyler Merbler, provided via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY 2.0 license.

A sea of flags reinforced this impression. Alongside the unsurprisingly ubiquitous Stars and Stripes, there was also a wide range of flags adopted by and associated with conservative, right-wing, and White supremacist groups—including the flag of South Vietnam as a symbol of ‘anti-Communism’, the bizarre flag of the imaginary nation of ‘Kekistan’ as ‘a kind of tribal marker of the alt-right’, and Confederate flags. The latter’s prominence at Trump events has been condemned (and excused) for a long time, with a YouGov poll last January finding that, on average, Americans associated the flag most strongly with racism. During the American Civil War, and even more so afterwards, it came to be seen as the symbol of the Confederate States and their ‘lost cause’: the preservation of slavery and White supremacy, cloaked in an insistence on state over federal rights.5 Its presence inside the Capitol was perceived as particularly disgraceful. By waving ‘the flag of self-righteous insurrection’, as Arnold Schwarzenegger called it in a video message, the attackers seemed to suggest that the Confederacy had triumphed over the United States after all. In response to a photograph of the Confederate flag being paraded past portraits of Union figures such as Charles Sumner, Civil War historian Judith Giesberg notes:

It’s striking to see [Sumner] juxtaposed with this person who represents what he most was offended by and what he stood against . . .

Since I have an academic interest in violence towards objects and images, I was also struck by a whole range of seemingly deliberate acts of destruction at the Capitol that appeared hostile both to values of modern democracy and to the United States as an entity. Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have thought much about such ‘secular iconoclasms’ as part of protests, revolts, and revolutions throughout history.6 Defacing and destroying images and symbols provided a collective identity for groups engaging with and supporting anti-visual behaviour: ‘the activity of iconoclasts (both in the physical attack on images and in their verbal assaults and accounts of such attacks)’, Jaś Elsner observes, ‘is actually, or at least usually, a discursive act of self-affirmation through the negation of a material symbol of what is rejected.’7 The destruction of portraits or statues was a popular means of giving expression to the alleged fall from grace of leading figures and the rejection of their policies. In larger crises, these attacks on individuals gave expressions to a sentiment that felt ‘that by damaging the symbols of a power …. one somehow diminishes that power itself’, as David Freedberg puts it.8 Dario Gamboni likewise argues that ‘The literal fall of a monument seems to be predestined to symbolize the metaphorical fall of the regime that had ordered its erection.’9 But the motivations of iconoclasts were not always so ambitious, Freedberg reminds us. Many image-breakers simply wanted to put the spotlight on themselves and on statements that might be entirely unrelated to the symbols under attack, which were chosen merely for their likelihood to incite a response:

All iconoclasts are aware of the greater or lesser publicity that will accrue from their acts . . . More long-lasting and more immediately clamorous is the publicity that attaches to a cause when a well-known image, one which has become totemic in one sense or another, is attacked, mutilated, or even stolen.10

Motivations also often remain ambiguous, Bruno Latour warns, because the intentions of attackers can differ from the interpretations of observers, just as attackers and observers may not even agree among themselves on the meaning of a specific iconoclastic act.11 The desire of most iconoclasts for publicity is partly to blame for this ambivalence: even if they do not seek out public places with large audiences right away, they still aim for maximum visibility and promote the wide circulation of documentation and knowledge of their destructive actions for maximum effect.12

A prime example of the creation of identity, the ambiguity of meaning, and the need for publicity, are the Taliban’s attacks on the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and those of the Islamic State on Palmyra, among others. A deluge of press coverage in Western media condemned these attacks as misguided religious zeal that felt the fanatical but erroneous need to destroy false gods at the expense of harmless, irreplaceable cultural heritage. However, others pointed out that this media fallout was the precise objective of the attacks, which had been deliberately orchestrated to maximize the terrorist organizations’ publicity and recruitment efforts by offending a ‘Western’ ideal that held art to be worthy of conservation for its own sake.13

Although this taboo around the destruction of art has been hailed as an Enlightenment achievement that set modernity apart from earlier cultures and marked a break in Western history, in reality ‘the West’ continued to engage in iconoclasm on a regular basis, with interpretations of and sympathies for the destruction varying from group to group and from incident to incident.14 To name but a few: like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution attacked symbols of the monarchy and nobility in order to mark the definitive end of the Tsar’s empire;15 the Allies purged Nazi symbols after the Second World War;16 Soviet successor states toppled Communist monuments;17 and more recently, the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements have pushed against racial injustices in the past and present by defacing and destroying statues of proponents and profiteers of imperialism and slavery.18

What, then, if anything, did the attackers of the Capitol want to say with their destruction? Did they seek to establish an altogether new order? Or was it merely a cry for attention, at best meant to voice criticism of specific persons or policies?

Unless we gain access to the attackers’ interpretation of the events—by analysing the data harvested from the Parler platform in more detail, for example—we can only hypothesize about their motivations by looking at Trump supporters’ political views and drawing on the communicative repertoire of historical protests and revolts. In any case, the chanting of ‘1776’ during the Capitol attack suggests that many attackers fancied themselves in the tradition of the American Revolution and so might have been conscious of the iconographic and iconoclastic traditions of revolutionary movements as well.

Protesters outside the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 in the run-up to the attack and forced entry, displaying flags of the United States, the Trump campaign, and South Vietnam. Photograph by Kerstie Bush, provided via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Broken windows and doors can be dismissed as the price of unsolicited entry into the Capitol, a symbolically significant government building restored to the supposed will of the people. The taking of a lectern belonging to Speaker of the House of Representatives might have been part of efforts to disrupt normal proceedings—in particular, the confirmation of the next president. But attacks on specific objects and images may have been prompted by personal and political criticisms, too. For example, the defacement of a bust of nineteenth-century president Zachary Taylor can be read as an accusation of treason against the South (and perhaps his race) due to his political position in the run-up to the Civil War: although Taylor was a slave-holding Southerner, he was against the expansion of slavery and fiercely supported the Union.19 Similarly derogatory treatment was meted out to Nancy Pelosi, whose office was left with ‘overturned desks and smashed photos, and at least one person ripped a piece of a wooden plaque that marked the entrance to the speaker’s office off a wall.’ Given the misogynist nature of the abuse Pelosi faces from many of her opponents, and in the context of the kidnapping plot against Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, it is perhaps not accidental that the predominantly male mob happened to destroy a book case dedicated to works on women in politics.

These defacements and destructions inside the Capitol made specific points about the insurgents’ desired direction of politics in the United States, and were in line with Trump supporters’ previous attitudes and behaviour. But outside the building, some protesters crossed red lines they had ferociously defended in the past. In stark contrast to the fervour with which Republicans and other Trump supporters had insisted on the need for respect and obedience towards the police force, an observer described how ‘[a] man on the back Capitol steps ripped up a Thin Blue Line flag, the torn stripes fluttering down over a crowd briefly chanting “fuck the police.”’ Like President Taylor, perhaps, the police fell from the attackers’ grace as soon as they stood in the way of their attempts to seize the Capitol rather than joining the cause (though some police officers have been accused of the latter).

Another attack on a flag in the same context gave the impression that some attackers dreamt of ending United States altogether. Although US flags were unsurprisingly ubiquitous—with the ‘half-naked cosplayer’ in pseudo-Viking horns sporting star-spangled face paint, for example—in a breakneck stunt, Trump supporters were captured on video removing one of the American flags atop the Capitol from its mast and ‘dropping it several stories to the ground’. This action is significant, given the zeal with which many Trump supporters and Trump himself decried athletes taking the knee before football games in solidarity with Black victims of police violence as an insult to the flag of the United States. In stark contrast to the reverence demanded towards the star-spangled banner20along with popular American iconography that focuses on its raising, such as the Iwo Jima memorial—its removal is reminiscent of the fate of flags during changes of power such as the withdrawal of British influence over Hong Kong. Yet just as the Soviet flag was famously raised above the Reichstag at the expense of Nazi swastikas in Berlin in 1945, the Capitol’s mast was not left empty for long—though it was not a Confederate flag that was raised in its stead, but a Trump flag.

Nonetheless, scholarship on historical iconoclasms reminds us not to take it for granted that the attackers held revolutionary ambitions. Maybe these various gestures of display and destruction were not meant to create a larger, coherent picture; maybe they were just calculated to call attention to people who nurtured a vague sense of not being seen or heard. But maybe these gestures, even those contradicting previous policies and loyalties, are also indicative of an emerging identity that Republicans and other Trump supporters have embraced within the MAGA movement. Granted, as the criticism and dissociation of some Republicans suggest, these provocative displays and iconoclastic attacks highlight the difficulties in defining the ‘America’ in ‘Make America Great Again’ at the heart of this identity. For now, they expose fault-lines between those who merely seek to depose specific persons and halt or reverse specific socio-political developments in the United States—especially developments that undermine established foundations of power and status, from capitalism and patriarchy to White supremacy—and those who long for the revolutionary replacement of the United States with something else entirely, be it the late triumph of the Confederate States or an entirely new nation of Trumpism.

Problematically, the extensive media coverage of these events, which constantly forces us to pick a side of the divide, risks perpetuating and intensifying the divisions that have been laid bare by the attack on the Capitol. The events in Washington and their ongoing discussion continue to show just how successful violence against symbols can be in generating attention and unease. If the worst comes to the worst, the events will become an inspiration for those who still seek to make their voices heard, for those who want to push their policies—whatever they may be—and for those who continue to dream of the downfall of the United States.

  1. LeRae Umfleet, ‘1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report (from the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission)’ (Wilmington, 2006). []
  2. Justine Firnhaber-Baker and Dirk Schoenard, The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt (London, 2017); Samuel Kline Cohn, Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200–1425 (Cambridge, Mass., 2006); Jelle Haemers, ‘A Moody Community? Emotion and Ritual in Late Medieval Urban Revolts’, in Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardin and Anne-Laure Van Bruaene (eds.), Emotions in the Heart of the City (14th–16th Century) (Turnhout, 2005). []
  3. Jim Aulich, ‘Conclusions: Reflections on Protest and Political Transformation since 1789’, in Umut Korkut et al. (eds.), The Aesthetics of Global Protest: Visual Culture and Communication (Amsterdam, 2019), 269–91; Peter J. Arnade, ‘Crowds, Banners and the Marketplace: Symbols of Defiance and Defeat during the Ghent War of 1452–1453’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 24/3 (1994), 471–97. []
  4. Ursula McTaggart, ‘The Empty Noose: The Trouble with Removing Spectacle from Lynching Iconography’, Journal of Black Studies, 45/8 (2014), 792–811. []
  5. Ryan D. Talbert, ‘Culture and the Confederate Flag: Attitudes toward a Divisive Symbol’, Sociology Compass, 11/2 (2017). See also Robert E. Bonner, Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South (Princeton, 2002). []
  6. E.g. Stacy Boldrick and Richard Clay (eds.), Iconoclasm: Contested Objects, Contested Terms (London, 2017); Kristine Kolrud and Marina Prusac (eds.), Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity (Farnham, 2014); Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker, and Richard Clay (eds.), Striking Images: Iconoclasms Past and Present (Farnham, 2013); James Simpson, Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, Clarendon Lectures in English (Oxford, 2010); Anne L. McClannan and Jeffrey Johnson (eds.), Negating the Image: Case Studies of Past Iconoclasms (Aldershot, 2005). []
  7. Jaś Elsner, ‘Breaking and Talking: Some Thoughts on Iconoclasm from Antiquity to the Current Moment’, Religion and Society, 7 (2016), 127–38, 134. []
  8. David Freedberg, Iconoclasts and Their Motives (Maarssen, 1985), 25. []
  9. Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution (London, 1997), 62. []
  10. David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago, 1989), 409. []
  11. Bruno Latour, ‘What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World beyond the Image Wars?’, in id. and Peter Weibel (eds.), Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), 12–37. []
  12. Koenraad Jonckheere, ‘The Power of Iconic Memory: Iconoclasm as a Mental Marker’, BMGN—Low Countries Historical Review, 131/1 (2016), 141; Dario Gamboni, ‘Preservation and Destruction, Oblivion and Memory’, in McClannan and Johnson (eds.), Negating the Image, 163–74; Jaś Elsner, ‘Iconoclasm and the Preservation of Memory’, in Robert S. Nelson and Margaret R. Olin (eds.), Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade (Chicago, 2003), 209–31. []
  13. Lamia Balafrej, ‘Islamic Iconoclasm, Visual Communication and the Persistence of the Image’, Interiors, 6/3 (2015), 351–66, 359; Finbarr Barry Flood, ‘Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum’, Art Bulletin, 84/4 (2002), 641–59, 651–653. []
  14. James Simpson, ‘Iconoclasm and the Enlightenment Museum’, in Boldrick, Brubaker, and Clay (eds.), Striking Images, 113–28. See also Dominique Poulot, ‘Revolutionary “Vandalism” and the Birth of the Museum: The Effects of a Representation of Modern Cultural Terror’, in Susan Pearce (ed.), Art in Museums (London, 1995), 192–214. []
  15. Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: The Transformation of Signs (Oxford, 2012); Richard Stites, ‘Iconoclastic Currents in the Russian Revolution: Destroying and Preserving the Past’, in id., Abbott Gleason, and Peter Kenez (eds.), Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution (Bloomington, 1989), 1–24. []
  16. Cora Sol Goldstein, ‘Power and the Visual Domain: Images, Iconoclasm and Indoctrination in American-Occupied Germany, 1945–1949’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 2002). []
  17. Kristine Nielsen, ‘Gestures of Iconoclasm: East Berlin’s Political Monuments, from the Late German Democratic Republic to Postunified Berlin’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 2010). []
  18. Anna Brus, Michi Knecht, and Martin Zillinger, ‘Iconoclasm and the Restitution Debate’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 10/3 (2020), 919–27; Abdul Kayum Ahmed, ‘The Rise of Fallism: #RhodesMustFall and the Movement to Decolonize the University’ (Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 2019), accessed 15 Jan. 2021. []
  19. See e.g. John S. D. Eisenhower, Zachary Taylor (New York, 2008), ch. 12. []
  20. E.g. Evan Charney, ‘Flag Desecration’, in Roger Chapman and James Ciment (eds.), Culture Wars in America: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices, 2nd edn. (Routledge, 2013), 180–1; Michael Welch, Flag Burning: Moral Panic and the Criminalization of Protest (Somerset, NJ, 2005). []

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Marcus Meer

Research fellow in late medieval history at the German Historical Institute London.

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