Critics were quick to comment on the spectacle’s surreal atmosphere of cosplay. New York Times fashion correspondent Vanessa Friedman observed of the insurrectionists’ sartorial choices that they smacked of a “postponed Halloween parade,” treading a “fine line between comedy and horror.” That commentators felt compelled to borrow the language of literary genre to describe the insurrection — comedy and horror, tragedy and farce—is no accident. White supremacy has always relied upon the mixing and blending of popular literary conventions in order to secure its cultural relevance. Indeed, the long history of American white supremacy storytelling is rife with pastiche. In the nineteenth century, Black-face minstrelsy and the Ku Klux Klan wedded anti-Black violence, both physical and representational, to the genres of the picaresque and the vernacular tall tale. In the early twentieth century, Thomas Dixon cemented the Lost Cause narrative in the American imagination as sentimental romance/melodrama with his Clansmen trilogy, the white supremacist manifesto that served as a template for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster film, The Birth of a Nation.
To combine costumed prank with deadly violence is thus not aberration, but time-tested political strategy. Experts in right-wing extremism warn us not to be fooled by the veneer of fun-and-games: When faced with conflicting symbols, always focus on the gun. Still, it is important not to lose sight of the strained silliness of the symbols. Irony functions as a way for white power to evade responsibility by sowing confusion and doubt about its true motives. But it also serves another, deeper function, one with which Faulkner was intimate: counterweighing the buffoonish. For the actual dream behind a white ethno-state—one that involves white victimization, laments of white “replacement” by outsiders, a tragic sense of destiny and immolation on the altar of race purity—has all the trappings of a weepy Hallmark made-for-TV movie. White power’s dream is abhorrent; it is also, like all adolescent fantasies, profoundly silly.