There was a recent insurrection at the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. I won’t take any more time discussing whether this is hyperbole or real. In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant to the solution.
From the perspective of propaganda, it’s been an effective message. It’s gotten Trump haters and supporters to view Trump as a common enemy—some of them anyway. Some people and entities can’t performatively distance themselves fast enough or scapegoat him loudly enough.
Whilst I do feel that much of the hullabaloo is performative, I’m not going to focus on the performative aspect. This serves to amplify, but it’s not the central message. Instead, I’d like to frame this through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory of conflict and resolution.
Adopting Girard’s vantage, we can see each of mimetic desire, scapegoating, mimetic crisis, ritual, sacrifice, and culture.
In a social context, mimetic theory is about creating in-groups and out-groups—and intentionally so. Groups have rules, by which membership is governed. Symbols are employed to amplify belonging and compliance. At it’s core, mimetic desire employs mimesis—imitation. Monkey see, monkey do.
Here, society is the prevalent in-group. From their perspective, this is the us of the in-group versus the them of the out-group. Girard noted that us versus them is evident in many contexts—whether in the wild or otherwise—, and it can be exploited. It’s about creating a flag to rally around—in this case literally, figuratively speaking.
The mechanism of mimetic desire is to coalesce the focus on some object. From the positive dimension, the desire is to belong, but mimetic desire doesn’t have to be positive. As in this case, it can be negative. The masses have assembled for a common cause of vilifying one Donald J Trump.
The insurrection is the mimetic crisis. It broke the rules. It’s unclear how all of the many rules that were broken in the four preceding years were able to fly under the radar. To some extent, the US government is constructed of two nearly equal in-groups. They each belong to the institution of institutionalised government and so-called Republican ideal as an expression of modern Democracy. They share some common beliefs, but this sharing diverges dimensionally and methodologically. The telos are multi faceted, and each group prefers different facets—and the facets desired by the public are different still.
At first—to borrow from Kübler-Ross—, there was denial by the Trump-aligned party of sycophants. These Trump-aligned Republicans (read: Neoconservatives; UK: Tories) were also aligned with the outgroup, leaving them vulnerable to ostracism. Meanwhile, the Democrats (read: Liberal/Neoliberal; UK: Labour) secured the moral high-ground and control of the larger in-group. They painted themselves as the adults wearing big boy trousers (over their Pull-Ups).
Scapegoating is instrumental in mimetic theory. It’s a mechanism to build solidarity and cohesion through exclusion. Narratively, it operates to distinguish acceptable behaviour versus unacceptable. In almost all instances, scapegoating is an object to project blame.1 The remaining members have received the signal.
Here, we have two entities to scapegoat 2: the insurrectionists and the Instigator in Chief, soon to be ex-president, Donald Trump.
Ritualistically, scapegoats need to be bear the brunt of the anger of the in-group and associated friends and family. There are procedures to follow. These rituals play out in the House in the form of impeachment, and in the Senate in the form of conviction. For the uninvited guests, the traditional court system ritual
Part of the outrage is performative ritual. Certain entities are checking the boxes suggested by their PR teams. These same entities had nothing to say for the past four years as they’ve enriched themselves at the expense of the American public and world, but this was the last straw. They vowed to cut off support and funding —until they don’t, but by then no one will be any the wiser. People have both short attentions spans and memories.
There is no requirement whatsoever that rituals produce anything. As hard work is its own reward, ritual for the sake of ritual is all that’s necessary. Rituals needn’t be authentic or heartfelt. Simply mime the parts, and you’re all set. Plus, you get full credit—participation points just for playing.
One ritual is to sacrifice the goats, but we need only exile the offending members. In Christian lore 3, there are actually two goats—a sacrificial goat and an emissary goat—the scapegoat. The sacrificial goat is, obviously, sacrificed—burnt offerings—, but the emissary goat was released into the wilderness, taking with it all sins and impurities. This is the excommunicated, the shunned.
Where performatism really comes in, is cultural signalling. People and other entities work overtime to signal they are on the winning side. This includes everything from Oscar-winning performances to cringeworthy Razzie-candidates. Those in the public eye tend to go overboard. It’s good to remember that an empty vessel makes the most noise.
- The notable exception to this scapegoat-blame relationship is the Christian Christ myth, where Jesus acted as a scapegoat but was without blame.
- Trump and the Scapegoat Effect, The American Conservative, David Gornoski, September 1, 2016.
An interesting article discusses the Trump-scapegoating phenomenon that also mentions René Girard’s work.
- Leviticus 16:21–22