Somewhere in the United States, a White man stands before a state capitol holding an assault rifle. As an act of political speech, the too-familiar scene lays siege to institutions and aims to paralyze democratic accountability. It is a performance, a show of force that speaks symbolically, but to real effect. The state capitol stands here for its national counterpart, and the lone weapon for the millions of others across the country. The building is a stage, the rifle a prop. Playing the righteous insurgent, the actor threatens war. His threat is not a principled, defiant gesture; it is the aggrieved cry of emasculated power, weaponized — a cry from which he appears to derive existential meaning. And the war he threatens is a holy war, a deadly, all-out assault by one set of symbols on another.
The sham originalism of the campaign to ‘make federal architecture classical’ sets the cultural stage for a political drama that has only just concluded its opening act.
Incongruously, some combatants in this holy war are claiming as their own the architectural symbol of democracy standing in the background. The vast majority of state capitols in the U.S. are classical in style; the architectural language that most speak is distantly that of democratic Athens, repackaged via ancient Rome. Such harking after democracy is the putative mission of an organization called the National Civic Art Society — self-appointed defenders of “tradition” who led the recent campaign to require that all new federal buildings be draped in classical garb, as were many of those associated with the country’s founding. It is tempting to dismiss the NCAS as a hapless vanguard of opportunists taking advantage of the far-right resurgence to foist their cultural fundamentalism on an unwitting public. But this sham originalism, delivered with a knowing smirk, conceals a wholly serious demand that monuments to the civic order be sacred, not secular, in character. In itself, the project to Make America Classical Again is merely embarrassing; but in context, it can be understood as only the latest episode in a more organized anti-democratic performance. As such, it sets the cultural stage for a political drama that has only just concluded its opening act.
The actor with a gun is an understudy to the one recently retired to Mar-a-Lago, his formal credentials revoked by the Screen Actors Guild, his official emblems of state replaced with ersatz ones. The appearance of the understudy opens a new phase in the long rightward crusade, as the departed leader now plays the exiled despot. Like all leaders, he is ultimately expendable to the movement, whereas the righteous warrior is not. As one exits the stage, the other enters. That, in any case, is the threat.
A threat is a special kind of speech; to be effective it must be backed up by credible force.
A threat is a special kind of speech; to be effective it must be backed up by credible force. By current estimates, there are approximately 400 million privately owned guns in the United States. Of these, the number of assault-style weapons is conservatively put at around five to ten million. 1 When their owners brandish such weapons in public as political speech, they threaten organized violence. Though only a small minority might conceivably follow through, the indeterminate but vast number of assault weapons stored in basements, garages, recreation rooms, and closets around the country — the counting of which is mystified by the absence of a federal registry — renders these weapons an occult force that has, in effect, acquired a speaking role in public discourse.
An AR-15 is a semi-automatic assault rifle favored by right-wing militia groups. As a stage prop, it amplifies the actor’s voice. Contrary to the half-hearted claims of gun lobbyists, and as the colloquial designation “assault” attests, the weapon’s main purpose is offensive, not defensive. Those same lobbyists frequently proclaim: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Such a claim attributes to the weapon the character of a mere instrument, a means-to-an-end that is transparent to its bearer’s will. But like any other tool, a weapon is a force-multiplier that enables its bearer to achieve ends inconceivable without it. The weapon, in other words, grants the user real and imagined powers that can be communicated as a realizable threat.
The White man carrying an assault rifle does not merely say: ‘I disagree.’ His weapon says: ‘Silence.’
All gun owners are therefore really gun users, whether or not they ever pull the trigger. The use of assault-style weapons in this manner is a type of performative speech, or speech that enacts what it says. Standing in front of a civic building, the White man carrying an assault rifle does not merely say: “I disagree.” His weapon says: “Silence.” He rarely makes this threat in isolation; the gun represents — in the political sense of speaking on behalf of — countless others unseen and unheard. To describe such threats as chilling is to understate their effect, which is not only to reject the presumed norms of civil, disputatious politics. It is to affirm the power of the theater itself — that is, the stage on which the weapon-as-prop acquires meaning in the first place.
The architecture of that stage is expansive. In the scene above, it encompasses capitols and courthouses and the public spaces around them, all symbols and signifiers of democratic life. On January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C., the stage extended from the grounds of the White House to the deepest interiors of the U.S. Capitol. It included the speaker’s podium at the Ellipse where crowds gathered, the large and small screens on which propaganda videos flickered, and later, the Capitol steps, its hallways and its legislative chambers, and the Congressional offices into which the rioting mob spilled, repeating threats they had heard live or onscreen or read online along the way.
Investigations to date have shown that though some were armed, most in the mob who sacked the Capitol that day were content to weaponize their speech using improvised means, from flagpoles to fire extinguishers. For some the assault was planned, for others it was more spontaneous. If this was an insurrection, it was premature; the necessary forces had not yet come into alignment. Among the more telling scenes was one on the Capitol grounds in which a small, seemingly bemused group of rioters encircled a pile of television cameras and other equipment abandoned by the Associated Press, not sure what to do. A minor character gives a solemn speech. The camera pans dramatically to the neoclassical Capitol, popularly and piously known as democracy’s temple. 2
Had they looked up as they passed under the Capitol dome, would-be insurgents might have noticed scenography compatible with the nationalism, both white and Christian, by which many were inspired.
Like its archetype, the ancient Roman Pantheon, this temple is just one side of an imperial coin. Had they looked up as they passed under the Capitol dome, would-be insurgents might have noticed scenography compatible with the nationalism, both white and Christian, by which many were inspired. The Capitol was completed during the Civil War and while under construction served as a barracks for the Massachusetts Eighth Regiment; in the last year of war, the painter Constantino Brumidi, who had earlier restored frescoes at the Vatican, filled the eye of the dome with a dramatically side-lit composition called The Apotheosis of Washington. The painting features George Washington as Jesus Christ, ascending to the heavens flanked by allegorical female figures, with lesser gods relegated to a lower ring — a scene in which “apotheosis” should be understood literally as deification. The fresco’s political kitsch derives from a centuries-long process during which ancient polytheism — the Greco-Roman “pantheon” — was replaced with a monotheistic iconography undergirded by a cult-like fixation on patriarchs.
Most imperial patriarchs in the United States — in homage to the ex-cowboy Theodore Roosevelt and unable to conceal a symptomatic fear of emasculation — have preferred to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” 3 The mad bravado with which the Emperor of Mar-a-Lago swung that stick shocked only those unaccustomed to threats leveled in a cooler, more reasonable tone. Sticks of various types also made frequent appearances in Washington that January day, though mainly as amplifiers of the war cry rather than as signifiers of state power. Perhaps the most widely seen was the American flag-draped spear brandished by “QAnon shaman” Jake Angeli (a.k.a. Jacob Chansley) as he issued incantations from the dais of the U.S. Senate chamber. Shirtless and tattooed with white supremacist symbols, his red-white-and-blue face paint starkly set off against a horned fur headdress, Angeli/Chansley posed eagerly for the cameras as if auditioning for a role in the Capitol fresco. There was no question of rational belief in his garbled message; the only point was that there was a message to believe and a messenger to follow. Meanwhile the messenger’s generically cultish cipher — “Q” — testified that this was an off-the-shelf conspiracy myth, one that took its cues from organized anti-Semitism, a rehashed “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” that was also spliced implicitly into the scene.
In a video taken as the shaman and his motley colleagues drifted into the Senate, a lone guard can be heard pleading with the intruders to respect the chamber’s sanctity. Like the extras gathered around the sacrificial pyre of television cameras, Angeli/Chansley dutifully complied. His spear-as-flag, his costume, his gestures, and his chants did not desecrate the Senate chamber; rather, they re-sacralized it, like a conquered mosque converted into a Christian church, replacing one deified if timeworn “founding father” with another, more entertaining model. To consummate the deal, the shaman led his colleagues in prayer, amplified by megaphone. “Amen!” they shouted together. 4
At Charlottesville in August 2017, White men carrying flaming sticks, donned in National Socialist and Confederate regalia and re-enacting scenes from old Ku Klux Klan rallies laced with anti-Semitic slogans, marched around a monument to state reason that has occupied center stage in a seemingly unrelated performance of racial, nationalist rage. That monument, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson, is a distant architectural relative of the U.S. Capitol — the Pantheon looms over both. Jefferson’s Rotunda stands as Exhibit A for the astroturfed crusade to reconsecrate American architecture with sacred power that is now being spearheaded by the NCAS and its president, Justin Shubow, whom the Emperor of Mar-a-Lago appointed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2018. More recently and under a new president, Shubow was appointed the commission’s chair. In December 2020, Shubow and the NCAS solicited and secured from the “45th President” (as the exiled ruler prefers to be known) Executive Order 13967, “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” the early draft of which stated its political program more plainly: “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” 5
Jefferson’s Rotunda stands as Exhibit A for the astroturfed crusade to reconsecrate American architecture with sacred power.
It is a commonplace of critical scholarship to note the tendency of fascist regimes to treat politics as public art. This aestheticization of politics, as it is sometimes called, has found an apotheosis of its own in the years-long sequence of stage-managed political rallies that culminated in the one attended by the shaman and his comrades outside the White House on January 6th. By virtue of the plodding banality of its agenda (let alone the association of its director with conservative Jewish thought), the misleadingly named National Civic Art Society may seem a far cry from that riotous lot. Nevertheless, the organization was happy to seek and accept the patronage of the rally’s ringleader, a gesture shamelessly disguised as one of merely furthering the arts. Although Shubow seems to believe, without irony, that the role of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts is to serve as “aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C.,” his writings on art and politics reveal that this is a political project, not an aesthetic one, as plainly as does the executive order’s original title. 6 Writing in 2016 for the conservative religious journal First Things, for example, Shubow objected to listing the modernist Department of Education headquarters, known as the LBJ Building, on the National Register of Historic Places. “The building,” he wrote, “conveys the ethos of massive government and social engineering in which workers and citizens are cogs in a machine.” Notably, the motto of First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus, which greets online readers today, was: “Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture.” 7
It’s clear, then, that the real purpose of Executive Order 13967, which has since been revoked, was to enflame the culture wars for political purposes. After all, what other explanation could there be for such a quixotic project? Consider, for instance, that the members of the NCAS board of directors — White men one and all — are distinctly lacking in art-historical expertise, yet boast such backstage bona fides as affiliations with the Heritage Foundation, the Claremont Institute, The New Criterion, Hillsdale College, Christendom College, Inspire Brands, the Institute for Family Studies, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, and the American Business Defense Council. 8
The real purpose of Executive Order 13967, which has since been revoked, was to enflame the culture wars for political purposes.
Uncomfortable with the embarrassing company they have been forced to keep of late, conventional nationalists have sought institutional respectability for their project beyond the earshot of hard-right cable news. Yuval Levin, for instance, an alumnus of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, has acknowledged with some ambivalence that, with liberals and progressives allegedly controlling the nation’s elite cultural organizations and universities, conservatives have sought to cultivate counter-institutions like Levin’s platform, the American Enterprise Institute. 9 In architecture and the fine arts, the National Civic Art Society is among these counter-institutions. As such, the organization issues reports, of which the most relevant to Executive Order 13967 is Americans’ Preferred Architecture for Federal Buildings. Published in October 2020, this brief, heavily illustrated document summarizes the results of an online survey conducted by the Harris Poll, which presented 2,039 respondents with seven pairs of photographs of U.S. courthouses and federal buildings, one “traditional,” the other “modern.” The NCAS report proudly concludes that the data thus acquired show that “support for traditional design was bipartisan” in every case. 10
Classical architecture has been appropriated as an avatar of aristocratic-populist piety — a visual language capable of speaking to White evangelicals and an inter-religious intelligentsia alike.
Architects and scholars will recognize the report’s format from A. W. N. Pugin’s Contrasts. In this 1836 polemic, the British architect-critic sought to demonstrate the spiritual superiority of the Gothic over a secularized classicism; among his aims was to use the style as an instrument of cultural reform directed at the morally suspect denizens of England’s slums. Now, that usage is reversed. Once condemned by Christian moralists like Pugin for its associations with secular reason, classical architecture has been redeemed as a flexible, polymorphous avatar of aristocratic-populist piety — an architectural language capable of speaking to White evangelicals and an inter-religious intelligentsia alike. To be sure, the political message is communicated with a wink. There are no slums on view in the NCAS survey, and the definitions of “traditional” and “modern” styles are never articulated with precision. The report’s “traditional” examples are only loosely neoclassical; their symbolic tone is defined by what they are not. While we can also imagine, for example, that the Romanesque and neo-Gothic might vaguely qualify as “traditional” — think of the state capitol of New York, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and others — it is less likely that anything more legibly Byzantine or Islamic would be allowed. This finely calibrated stylistic imprecision is the report’s most direct statement. And when paired with the executive order, it is abundantly clear that the survey has little to do with an anachronistic battle of the styles, and everything to do with demonstrating the depravity of the “administrative state.”
This — the “administrative state” — is the respectable codename among conservative intellectuals for what its more boisterous opponents call the “deep state.” In the context of the moralizing architectural tradition exemplified by Pugin, the term’s implicit referent is less the brutalist FBI headquarters than modernist public housing. With neoclassicism as its architectural standard bearer and Black Lives Matter as its political foil, the avowed humanism of the National Civic Art Society is nothing but an attack on the state’s social democratic, redistributive function. The faceless bureaucrats sitting behind faceless windows in modernist courthouses administering parole are mere functionaries; the report’s real objects of contempt are welfare recipients and other so-called free riders of empire whose interests those bureaucrats theoretically represent. No “American” respondent, then, would have missed the unwritten question posed by the survey’s paired photographs: Which of these two looks more like public housing? That the implied question is racially coded goes without saying. Its companion, whispered straight from Pugin, is: Which of these looks holy, and which profane? Artfully, the survey’s pseudoscience masks these questions while nonetheless asking them with subtle clarity, gaining plausible deniability while wielding a threat that is clear as day.
With neoclassicism as its architectural standard bearer and Black Lives Matter as its political foil, the avowed humanism of the National Civic Art Society is nothing but an attack on social democracy.
The threat issued by the NCAS is not to overthrow the state but to take over the theater. Onscreen, the NCAS is a minor counterrevolutionary organization; offscreen, the eleventh-hour executive order was a show of force. Among the organization’s peers are the authors of the ill-fated 1776 Report, a slapdash, last-minute effort to guard the fragile “American mind” — an expression recycled from culture wars of the ‘80s over the alleged desecration of Western thought — against the critical revisionism compiled by the New York Times in its “1619 Project” on the history of slavery. Sponsored by the outgoing presidential administration and led by Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn, the 1776 Report peddles a version of high school history that features the same pseudo-classical, lost cause “tradition” peddled by the NCAS. Theirs is a politics of grievance, a politics of White entitlement that threatens to replace the teacher with a preacher and swap the civics classroom for a church, a politics disguised as a constitutional pact between “reason and revelation” governed by “faith-based virtues.” 11 For the time being, the White man with the assault rifle stands down and stands by, ready to be called upon when the forces align.
Of course, the NCAS apparatchiks would correctly deny all of this, just as they would deny any affiliation with the “QAnon shaman” and his ilk. There would be some merit to their claim, too, since they would probably be among the first to fall should the man with the rifle truly rise. In this respect, however, the efforts of that Senate guard who helplessly defended the “sacred” chamber during the sack of Washington remain more sincere than theirs. In seeking and securing the blessings of the Emperor, the NCAS has taken the side of the shaman rather than that of the democracy on behalf of which its hallowed traditions pretend to speak.
So goes another skirmish in the culture wars. The stage has been set. A White man with an assault rifle stands against a classical backdrop, threatening to perform a sacred ritual. Another with a spear chants from the Senate balcony, standing just above the words: “In God We Trust.” Those on the side of democracy underestimate the threat at their own peril. Meanwhile, the show goes on in the nation’s classrooms, town halls, television studios, and social media networks, its actors draped in the symbols of racial terror, cynically brandishing a myth disguised as history. Off camera, they warn the audience that others might claim a share of the riches their forebears have jealously guarded through the generations. The show’s script paraphrases a notorious line from the work of an ancestral warrior, the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, who did not quite write: “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun.” 12