by Peter W. Wood
Jacob Anthony Chansley, who also goes by the name Jake Angeli, was one of the people who made their way into the chamber of the U.S. Senate in the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to protest the Senate’s impending certification of state electors who would install Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. His name may not register, but his image will: he was the fellow bizarrely attired in a coyote-fur hat sprouting black buffalo horns; shirtless, showing his muscular but heavily tattooed torso; sporting black gloves and a red knapsack; face painted in vertical red, white, and blue stripes; and carrying an American flag on a spear.
The disorderly intrusion of several hundred protesters into the Capitol was quickly characterized by the media, and by many politicians, as an “insurrection.” Moreover, the accusation of insurrection was applied to the many thousands of Trump supporters in Washington that day who had nothing to do with the intrusion into the Capitol. And that characterization became the basis for the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump for supposedly inciting the “insurrection” and the impetus for Joe Biden to order 26,000 National Guard troops to defend Washington during his inauguration on January 20.
As it happened, there was no insurrection.
Images of Chansley in his costume—arguing with a police officer; posing with other protesters in a foyer; standing behind the Senate dais with his fist raised in triumph; outside holding a sign that declared “Q Sent Me!” and speaking into a microphone while clutching the obverse of the sign, “Hold the Line Patriots God Wins”; and, in several shots, chin raised as he apparently sings—stand out among the handful of photos of the Capitol protest that have become iconic. They helped cement the reputation of the protesters as crazy extremists.
Chansley was never photographed committing or threatening violence against person or property. In several of the images, he is calm and—if one can see past his strange garb—even dignified. But he was charged with “violent entry and disorderly conduct” on the Capitol grounds. Details of his life soon came spilling out. A 33-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona, who had been living with his mother since January 2019, Chansley refused to eat in jail because he was denied organic food. He had attended other Trump rallies in his odd costume, where he had gained the nickname “the QAnon Shaman.
At least some of his tattoos have esoteric meanings. The rectangular blocks on his arms are said to represent the wall President Trump was building at the Mexican border. “One of his tattoos is said to show the symbol of Wotanism, an acronym for “Will of the Aryan Nation.”
“Wotan” is the German name for the god known as Odin in Norse mythology. QAnon is a fringe network of believers in a sinister global conspiracy that engages in sex trafficking of children and other heinous crimes. Some of its participants saw Trump as their champion.
From almost any perspective, Chansley must be understood as a strange and disturbed individual. As “the QAnon Shaman,” he may have attracted a certain following within this cult-like group, but he stands on the far fringes of Trump’s supporters and American politics generally. His elevation by the media and Trump opponents as a symbol of the angry Right does deserve attention. But Chansley’s depiction in the media as an out-of-control rioter has proven to be a fabrication. In May 2021, video footage of Chansley came to light in which Capitol Hill police officer Keith Robishaw instructs the leaders of the crowd, “Show us no attacking, no assault, remain calm”; Chansley then turns to his followers and loudly declares: “This has to be peaceful. We have the right to peacefully assemble.”
The costumes of madmen often reveal something. Chansley offered a mash-up of Wild West frontiersman, Mandan Indian buffalo dancer, and European barbarian. The buffalo horns may have owed something to George Catlin’s famous images of the “Buffalo Dance, Mandan” (1835–1837). The shirtless, spear-carrying look derived from popular images of Germanic tribesmen descending on Roman troops. His facial decoration may have been an homage to the war paint used by the ancient Picts and Celtic tribes—revived (without historical warrant) in the 1995 Mel Gibson movie “Braveheart,” about the 14th-century Scottish hero William Wallace.
If we consider the pieces, it all makes a crazy kind of sense. Chansley adorned himself in references to heroic rebellion: the man standing apart from the established order to call it to account, ready to invoke mystical powers on behalf of his righteous war.
Chansley was dressed to play his part in a fantasy game, in which he was an angry avenger of injustices against the American people. Dressing the part of a character endowed with extraordinary powers has, of course, gained a degree of ordinariness. It is called “cosplay,” short for “costume play,” and many thousands of people attend conventions and enter competitions where they can win prizes for their imaginative impersonations of figures from science fiction, fable, and romance. Cosplay has its own magazines, a documentary, a movie or two, and what might be summed up as a subculture, which provides innocent recreation for many and delusional obsession for a few.
“The QAnon Shaman” is a figure from that world of self-delusion, which on occasion intersects reality. Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, imagined himself a tyrant-killing hero when he leaped onto the stage at Ford’s Theater, held up a knife and proclaimed, “Sic semper tyrannis”—thus always to tyrants—legendarily Brutus’ words on his participation in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Booth, like Chansley, was filled with political rage.
In Booth’s case, that eventually took the form of orchestrating a plot to kill not only Lincoln but also General Ulysses Grant, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson. QAnon, or at least some of its members, likewise seemed intent on assassinating several senators and perhaps Vice President Mike Pence. The details are murky, and there is no evidence that Chansley sought to injure anyone. The analogy, however, holds in a crucial way: Chansley, like Booth, saw himself as an agent of wrath against unjust authority, and, like Booth, he invented a persona to embody his desperate design.
Booth will forever remain in history for his contemptible act. Chansley will be remembered, if at all, as a buffoon, but one who was quickly elevated by opponents of President Trump into a defining image of his preposterous supporters. Charged with civil disorder, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an official proceeding, Chansley offered through his lawyer to testify at the Senate impeachment trial of Trump. He was reportedly upset that Trump had not issued him a presidential pardon.
“The QAnon Shaman” became a figure to reckon with because he summed up the farcical, if still dangerous, side of the angry mob that persisted in denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election.
Not long after my book A Bee in the Mouth came out, I published a short article, “I Paid for This Microphone,” in which I summarized the concept of new anger and alluded to what struck me as a nice example of how new anger was forcing its way onto the public stage:
The sort of sneer-fest that we saw earlier this year with [comedienne] Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump had no equivalent in the Reagan years. Reagan himself could stage an angry moment, as in 1980 when he told debate moderator Jon Breen, who had tried to get a techie to turn off Reagan’s microphone, ‘I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.’ The quip, which Reagan took from the 1948 Spencer Tracy movie, ‘State of the Union,’ left his opponent, George H. W. Bush, looking lame.
As far as I can remember, that was the first time I ever mentioned Trump in print. The second time was in August 2015, when I wrote an essay taking disapproving notice of his “bursting the confines of civility to say aggressively rude and obnoxious things.” My views of Trump’s presidency were transformed by his time in office, but my views of his temperament were not.
I noted that Trump was among those who put “authenticity to oneself” above “respect for others” and that he played to the public’s love of “the spectacle of other people’s anger.” In so doing, he “found a responsive chord in a significant segment of Republican primary voters.” I concluded that “new anger is a performance, and for every performance there is eventually a curtain, if not a final bow.” I returned to the topic of Trump’s anger again in October 2019, but this time weighing his new anger against that of his foes.
When did Americans lose their cool?
The two most popular answers are Donald Trump and ‘the Resistance.’ Both are superficially plausible. The Tweeter-in-Chief has made a performance art of his own anger and enjoys publicly humiliating his foes. His pussyhat wearing, impeachment-obsessed, and Antifa-admiring antagonists, however, have sustained an equally long display of indignation.
In that article, I also went back to the Rosie O’Donnell saga and recounted it in more detail:
One of the swiftest paths to celebrity these days is a public spat in which the parties attempt to top each other in calumny. Part of Trump’s rise to national prominence was his insult-slinging feud with the comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, 2006–07. After Trump had decided not to fire Miss USA for drug use, O’Donnell, speaking on The View, described him as a ‘snake-oil salesman on Little House on the Prairie.’ Trump responded by calling O’Donnell a ‘real loser’ and ‘a woman out of control.’ In the years that followed the two continued at intervals to revile one another, often gleefully. In 2014, Trump tweeted, ‘Rosie is crude, rude, obnoxious and dumb—other than that I like her very much!’
O’Donnell probably got the worst of this long-term feud because she ended up appealing for public sympathy. In 2014, she declared, ‘Probably the Trump stuff was the most bullying I ever experienced in my life, including as a child. It was national, and it was sanctioned societally. Whether I deserved it is up to your own interpretation.’ And after Trump had derided her in an August 2015 presidential debate, O’Donnell tweeted: ‘Try explaining that 2 ur kids.’
The contretemps continues, each side showering contempt on the other. But is this really anger? It is performative anger: a show meant to entertain, not all that different from a World Wrestling Entertainment match, which not so incidentally has its own Trump connection going back to 1998 when he hosted Wrestlemania in Atlantic City. In 2006, wrestlers wearing Trump and O’Donnell disguises faced off in a WWE match.
Curiously, I addressed the question of who Trump’s core opponents and supporters really were, and I noted that their reciprocal anger seemed “to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ with ‘I’m someone enraged at Trump and everything he stands for,’ or ‘I’m enraged at the criminals who have undermined our democracy by trying to undermine a duly elected president.’”
It took the 2020 presidential election for me to put aside, once and for all, my ambivalence about Trump and about the seeming equivalence of the rage of his critics and rage of his supporters. I didn’t approve of the self-indulgent anger of either side, but I judge the behavior of Trump’s opponents in that election to be unconscionable at a level far beyond Trump’s faults as an individual and as a president.
This book is not about how the election was decided. I acknowledge my own stand only because not to do so would be to handicap readers for whom the decisive question is “Whose side are you on?” I am on Trump’s side—but, more importantly, I am on the side of traditional American values for which Trump is an imperfect but important advocate. In Wrath, I fault one and all who have led our nation into the often exciting but ultimately dispiriting and destructive sport of histrionic anger.
As Jacob Chansley, “the QAnon Shaman,” understands, anger feels empowering. As he may also realize, anger can prompt some poor choices that turn out to be significantly disempowering. Anger provokes reprisal, which of course provokes more reprisals, until we reach a point at which outrage leaps out in every direction. In such a situation, calls for unity and pleas for civility seem hapless. I don’t want to make light of those calls. Groups such as Braver Angels and the Institute for Civility in Government articulate commendable ideals, and there is perhaps no better time to give those ideals voice than when we are in the midst of strife. Yet to summon people to listen to one another respectfully assumes that mutual trust is possible and mutual tolerance is desirable.
Those are not safe assumptions in America right now. Trust and tolerance do not thrive in the midst of wrath. In the spheres of culture and politics, trust has been displaced by deep suspicion of the other side’s motives. And why should you think it worthwhile to tolerate an enemy who means to destroy you? If he says he doesn’t mean to destroy you, you distrust what he says. If he tolerates you for the moment, is it not because he is waiting for a better opportunity to attack? This is the psychology of wrath, compounded of hatred and doubt, and not especially amenable to the balm of “communicating across political differences.”
When wrath has exhausted itself, the counsels of unity and civility may prevail—but, until then, we should expect to be immersed in vitriolic denunciation and worse. How much worse is not clear—but, plainly, illegal violence, the deployment of military force, wanton riot, and occasional murder are already part of the picture, as are efforts by the progressive side to deny the populist side access to the means of mass communication. Those efforts to silence the populists are, more than anything else, the obstacle to any rapprochement.
The Age of Rage
But not the only obstacle. “The QAnon Shaman” was pushed forward as the personification of pro-Trump lawlessness and sedition. But long before Chansley donned his horns and climbed the Capitol steps, Americans who liked Trump were faced with provocations for which they had no recourse. Where was “civility” on February 4, 2020, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood up at the end of Trump’s State of the Union Address and tore her printed copy of it in half? Where was “unity” when, with violent riots raging in towns and cities across the country in the summer of 2020, the national media in chorus described the events as “mostly peaceful protests”?
How were Trump supporters to deal with the manufacture and endless repetition in the mass media of false stories about Trump? The claim that Trump colluded with Russian president Vladimir Putin in the 2016 presidential election turned out to be baseless, but for more than three years it was treated as an article of faith by his opponents. When Trump spoke publicly about the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 15, 2017, he praised the restraint of parties who peacefully disagree with one another (“very fine people on both sides”) and condemned the rioters: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and White nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” With dishonest editing, news outlets made it appear that Trump had called neo-Nazis “very fine people.” This has sufficient durability that Joe Biden referred to it when he announced his presidential candidacy, saying that Trump had “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.” The slander continues to be repeated ad nauseam by journalists, politicians, and ordinary people who are unlikely ever to check the actual video.
Adjectives intended to leapfrog the facts and impose a biased judgment on events have become standard practice in journalism. Claims about voter fraud were nearly always described without further ado as “false” or “baseless”—presumably because, in the minds of the journalists, any possibility that such a claim was factual or supported by strong evidence had to be extinguished. The same automatic negation is applied to any mention of doubts about the prevailing theory of global warming; assertions that humans have only two sexes; ideas that COVID-19 is only a little more deadly than the flu; arguments that women are treated advantageously in the workforce; and demonstrations that police, in general, treat blacks with dignity and respect. Such views are seldom mentioned—but, when they are mentioned, they are reliably accompanied by an editorializing adjective that asserts they are patently untrue.
When Trump was still protesting the results of the election in January, the Washington Post ran a major story, based on an anonymous source, claiming that Trump had told Georgia’s lead elections investigator to “find the fraud” and that she would be “a national hero” if she did. The story received widespread attention, and its claims—that Trump was illegally interfering with the election—were widely repeated. In March, the Post ran a correction, based on a recording of Trump’s actual conversation with the investigator. The paper acknowledged that important claims made in the original article were false:
Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find ‘dishonesty’ there. He also told her that she had ‘the most important job in the country right now.’
Trump supporters were, once again, confronted with a damaging falsehood retracted only at the point where the retraction could make no material difference.
Epithets of a different kind are written into stories favored by the Left. Riots by BLM or Antifa remained in the category of “mostly peaceful protest” no matter the level of destruction, while the Capitol riot by Trump supporters was “domestic terrorism” and “insurrection,” no matter the absence of firearms among the protesters and significant injuries to law enforcement. The one-sided vocabulary is buttressed by the silencing of those who objected. Ordinary citizens who disputed the tendentious terms could find themselves banned from Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.
Some of these examples will surely have faded from memory by now, but the stoking of public anger by the media will just as surely continue. That’s because the media have transformed themselves from their old configuration as a source of news, information, argument, and entertainment into a device for affirming identity-group solidarity. That’s the thesis of a recent book by Andrey Mir (Andrey Miroshnichenko), Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers: The Media after Trump: Manufacturing Anger and Polarization.
Mir argues that newspapers, having lost their monopoly over determining what events count as “news” and therefore deserve in-depth reporting, have flipped to a new kind of product. They now focus on stoking the prejudices of a core readership who are willing to pay to have their favored opinions validated, day after day. Mir’s book caught the attention of Martin Gurri, who amplified Mir’s thesis in a widely read article in City Journal, in which he observed, “The old media had needed happy customers. The goal of post-journalism, according to Mir, is to ‘produce angry citizens.’” Gurri added that the exemplar of this new type of journalism is the New York Times, which serves as “the Vatican of liberal political furor.”
That the media strive to intensify anger as a way of securing a market niche seems likely enough, but it is important to add that the public addiction to anger and the angrification of identity groups began long before newspapers and network TV threw objective journalism overboard. My 2003 book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, dealt with the roots of identitarianism in the United States, and my 2020 book, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, tracked the descent of “diversity” into a world of historical fantasy and contrivance.
Rallying people to hate Trump, or rallying people who hate Trump’s supporters, add up to only a fraction of the fervor that now grips the progressive Left. Another substantial fraction is racial animus. The “1619 Project,” the post-George Floyd riots, and the pervasive idea that blacks are only victims and whites are only oppressors are the staple diet of the anti-American wrath of the Left. Other dishes are served as well—among them climate change, transphobia, and immigration. But the angry tribalism of our time is based primarily on the vaporous idea that America is systemically racist.
If, Then, and In Between
Wrath entails more than a sense of deep alienation, at least if it is to go beyond a single act of self-destructive madness. To be more than that, it needs the endorsement of others. It has to have its own mob, a crowd of people who share a sense of outrage. And, for it to become true wrath, that crowd must believe that all of its ordinary avenues of redress have been barricaded: it has a just grievance and no place to turn for justice.
Wrath is a matter of the crowd taking things into its own hands. It might do that by stealing an election, or it might do that by marching on the Capitol. Whichever direction it goes, it will do so in a spirit that, in the interests of true justice, the old rules have to be discarded. A higher justice calls for action that would ordinarily be out of bounds.
If Donald Trump were a tyrant about to impose his personal dictatorship on the United States, or install a fascist regime, or destroy the world via the unbridled use of fossil fuels, or destroy the Constitution via his defiance of the rule of law, or unleash vicious racism into our national life, or bring an end to all sense of dignity and decency in America—or do all these things—then launching FBI investigations on spurious evidence, staging riots, suppressing news stories, conjuring impeachments, and manipulating elections would be fair and honorable.
“We’ve got to do something,” say the proponents of these measures. “Otherwise, this terrible man and his army of deluded deplorables will destroy our country. This is war, and the only rule is we must win.” Thus, it is not enough to remove Trump from office. He must be obliterated. The latest step, as I write, is a congressional bill, H.R. 484, the “No Glory for Hate Act,” which would prohibit the burial of Trump’s body in Arlington National Cemetery or the erecting of other memorials in his honor.
But if Donald Trump were a tribune of the people who was successfully empowering ordinary Americans who had been marginalized by the “deep state”; or restoring jobs and prosperity to Americans who had lost ground because the government had colluded with global business; or standing against a tide of illegal immigrants who undercut wages and usurped job opportunities; or opposing the race hustlers and their efforts to impose racial propaganda, such as critical race theory, on students; or standing up to the bullies who manufacture fake news, or who corrupt elections and steal votes; then gathering in mass protests, questioning the validity of the electoral results, and marching on the Capitol would be entirely warranted (and perhaps too little). “We’ve got to do something,” is what the people on this side also say. “Otherwise, this terrible band of progressive authoritarians will destroy our country, our freedom, and our future. This is war, and unless we learn how to fight back against a ruthless and unscrupulous enemy, we will certainly be crushed.”
While there are those who reject this stark set of alternatives, I believe they have thin popular support. The moderates—if that is a fair label for those who fear and reject both extremes—have no grip on public sentiment, and they are shunned by both sides, who see them as unprincipled, self-serving, or oblivious to the real dangers ahead. They have escaped the winepress of wrath only to end up as withered grapes.
Most of them are Republicans who reject Trump but who have only a sliver of support in their own party. The turncoat members of the Lincoln Project, formed in 2019, came apart after its cofounder John Weaver was revealed to have used his position to extract sexual favors from young men hoping to advance their careers. The NeverTrump publication, The Bulwark, founded in 2018 by Charlie Sykes, simply made it easier for conservatives to recognize the media figures who had detached themselves from the common interest of ordinary Americans. Whatever else the Lincoln Project and The Bulwark accomplished, they both made clear that the histrionics of new anger were not limited to Trump and his supporters or to the increasingly hysterical progressive Left. “Moderates,” too, could engage in wild accusation and vitriolic denunciation. The middle did not hold.
What then? One side or the other will have to prevail. Biden’s call for “unity” is spurious. He may like the sound of the word, but he has no intention of reaching out seriously to his opponents and no policy that moves an inch in their direction. The progressive Left, hurriedly institutionalizing its programs and seeking to lock in place the devious means by which it prevailed in the 2020 election, may well prevail further. Jacob Chansley and his compatriots will definitely lose. What we need is the righteous wrath of patriots who will not let their freedoms slip away.
On December 19, 1776, Thomas Paine published “The American Crisis.” General George Washington was on the verge of losing the Revolutionary War, as more than 11,000 of his volunteer troops had given up and left after a string of defeats. Paine rallied the remainder with his oft-quoted lines:
These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.
“Try,” in that sentence, is in the original meaning of “sift, examine, test, or scrutinize.” It survives when we say “He was tried for high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it is why we have “trials.” These are the times that try men’s souls. Some will be found wanting. Others will come through with a pure and noble wrath.
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Peter W. Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars. A former professor of anthropology and college provost, he is the author of Wrath: America Enraged (October 2021) and 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project (November 2020). He is also the author of several other books about American culture, including Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (Encounter Books, 2003); A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (Encounter Books, 2007); and Diversity Rules (2020). He is editor-in-chief of the journal Academic Questions. In 2019, he received the Jeane Kirkpatrick Prize for contributions to academic freedom.
Photo “DC Capitol Storming” by TapTheForwardAssist CC BY-SA 4.0.