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Watching video footage of the January 6th Capitol insurrectionists, the viewer faces a bewildering pageant of right-wing symbolism. Retired Texas Air Force officer Larry Randall Brock paces the Senate chamber floor in a costume of tactical gear and body armor, a trio of iron-on patches across his chest: the yellow fleur de lis of the 706th fighter squadron; the Texas state flag; and the red-white-and-blue skull logo of Marvel’s vigilante anti-hero, the Punisher. As the video continues, a new player enters the scene. Jacob Chansley, aka “The QAnon Shaman,” sports a horned fur headdress. He is naked from the waist up to showcase an impressive array of Nazi-adjacent Norse mythology tattoos.
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.
Heir to nineteenth-century white supremacy’s panoply of literary tropes is William Faulkner, who remains in many ways the chronicler par excellence of this, our national malady. He is unsurpassed because, while an unrepentant white supremacist himself, in his capacity as an artist he could not help but capture and critique the mix of pathos and horror at the heart of the Lost Cause myth. Mixing such “low” pop culture genres as minstrel theater, Dixonian melodrama, and pulp crime fiction with high Greek tragedy, Faulkner’s Lost Cause chronicles are prime examples of the genre conventions of the white supremacy narrative. The make-believe, and therefore always potentially buffoonish, quality of Lost Cause mythology was never far from Faulkner’s mind, no matter how sympathetic he may personally have been to it. His stories can help us situate this most recent re-enactment of the white supremacy script within a historical tradition.
Faulkner, who wrote both for a literary and a popular audience, was a master at genre blending in chronicling the “lost dream” of the Old South. In 1938 he published The Unvanquished, a cycle of seven linked stories, the first five of which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1934 and 1935. The early stories are plotted as picaresque boys’ tales on the model of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, narrating the coming-of-age adventures of Bayard Sartoris during the final years of the Civil War. A mood of make-believe hovers over the cycle. The first story, “Ambuscade,” opens quite literally on a scene of child’s play: twelve-year-old Bayard and his enslaved companion, Ringo, re-enact the battle of Vicksburg on a “living map” built of mud, water, and wood chips— as though re-playing the doomed battle in miniature might magically stave off the fall of the actual city, and of the South to follow.
When Bayard’s father Colonel John Sartoris returns from the front for reprovisioning, the boys are mesmerized by his uniform. “The tarnished buttons and the frayed braid of his field officer’s rank glinted dully, the sabre hanging loose yet rigid at his side,” Bayard observes. The Colonel looms Titan-like beside his horse, Jupiter, taking on the dimensions of a tall tale hero: “He was not big; it was just the things he did, that we knew he was doing, had been doing in Virginia and Tennessee, that made him seem big to us.”
Playing at war bleeds into real life when Bayard and Ringo shoot a musket at a Yankee soldier on horseback, narrowly missing him. When the Yankee commander comes looking for the culprits, Sartoris matriarch Rosa Millard hides the boys under her hoop skirt while denying all knowledge of their whereabouts, coolly inviting the Yankee visitor to join her in a cup of tea. Colonel Dick realizes he has been hoodwinked but, this late in the war and with a Northern victory assured, is feeling weary and generous enough to play along. The story ends with Bayard and Ringo being punished, although not for the crime of taking a pot-shot at the enemy: Instead, Granny washes the boys’ mouths out with soap for calling their Yankee target a “bastard.”
Yet The Unvanquished’s playful tone play harbors something much darker at its heart. The white characters’ death-cult level devotion to a “sacred cause, although You have seen fit to make it a lost cause,” as Granny laments in one anguished prayer to the God who has deserted her, thrums through the stories like a muted threat. The penultimate story, “Skirmish at Sartoris,” starts out in the same key of hijinks as the previous tales. Bayard’s cousin Drusilla Hawk, a grief-stricken war widow, has “unsexed herself” and taken up arms alongside John Sartoris. The old ladies of Jefferson are forcing John Sartoris to save Drusilla’s reputation by marrying her. Faulkner describes the stand-off in typical mock-epic fashion as two opposed parties, “the men and the women,” face one another “like they were both waiting for a bugle to sound the charge.” But this quaint domestic skirmish gets sidelined when John and Drusilla arrive in town to discover Northern voting commissioners organizing Black voters and preparing to run “Uncle” Cash Benbow, a Black man, on the ticket for town marshal. Instead of tying the knot, the couple shoot the two Republicans dead and steal the ballot box. They gallop back to the Sartoris homestead to hold a whites-only election there, with a series of pre-marked ballots, to a triumphant chorus of rebel yells.
Drusilla and John’s exploit is framed as prank; the old ladies’ horror at Drusilla’s rebellion, as she gallops home astride her horse with wedding veil askew, is mined for comedic effect. Yet the prank rings hollow, and Faulkner seems to know it. Ringo, who up until this point has been portrayed as Bayard’s equal and a complex character in his own right, collapses into a minstrel joke. “I done been abolished!” Faulkner has him proclaim upon learning that the Black men of Jefferson have been given the vote. As Ringo descends into racist caricature, Drusilla is transformed into a brittle high priestess of vigilante violence.
The stories thus pivot from slapstick to high tragedy, a tonal discrepancy cited by critics as the work’s most serious aesthetic flaw. Yet nothing illuminates the logic of white power— then as now— more brilliantly than this lightning-quick pivot from juvenile farce to deadly force. By merging roguish tales of boys’ play with scenes of racist vigilante justice, both enveloped in the dream-logic of fantasy, The Unvanquished— whether Faulkner intended it or no—exposes white power for the childish distortion of reality that it is.
In Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August, Percy Grimm is a paramilitary play-actor before becoming the head of a real-life lynch mob. On each national holiday “that had any martial flavor whatever,” Percy Grimm dresses in his captain’s uniform and strolls into town, as “glittering, with his marksman’s badge and his bars, grave, erect, he walked among the civilians with about him an air half belligerent and half the self-conscious pride of a boy.” Grimm, per his surname, is portrayed as nigh-sociopathic in his patriotic fervor: “It was the new civilian-military act which saved him,” the narrator explains. “He could now see his life opening before him, uncomplex and inescapable as a barren corridor, completely freed now of ever again having to think or decide,” secure in “his belief that the white race is superior to any and all other races and that … the American uniform is superior to all men.”
When Joe Christmas, a Black man accused of raping and killing a white woman, escapes the sheriff’s custody, Percy Grimm leaps into action as a self-deputized citizen-protector. He hunts Christmas down, then kills and castrates him, “his voice clear and outraged like that of a young priest.” Like Drusilla, Percy Grimm is a young, myth-drunk, militarized high priest of white supremacy. Faulkner wants to believe in the tragic sublimity of the Old South. But by casting its avengers as zealots and children, half-mad widows and village idiots, he hedges his bets against what he must, deep down, understand: the ultimate sterility and carnage of the white supremacy story, unworthy of redemption.
Drusilla Hawk and Percy Grimm, in their mock-tragic grotesquerie, are not anomalies; rather, they constitute a recognizable national type. The cluster of political and ideological commitments these characters embody—that the federal government is traitorous; that Black political participation anywhere a threat to white “liberty” everywhere; that white “patriots” are duty-bound to protect the Constitution with private arms— has shape-shifted over time. But it has never disappeared.
Take, for instance, Dylann Roof. He is Percy and Drusilla’s heir; he denounced his country’s usurpation by Blacks and Jews, photographing himself for social media draped in a talismanic mish-mash of white power regalia: combat fatigues, confederate flags, aviator glasses, and a Rhodesian national flag patch. After the Emmanuel Church massacre, Roof’s sullen, bowl-cut mugshot circulated widely before being re-purposed by his supporters as hagiography. “Saint Dylann” appeared photoshopped with a halo, and the stark outline of his signature haircut became a meme in and of itself. A Dylann Roof fan club, nicknamed “Bowl Patrol,” surfaced on the chat app Discord in 2018. “Honestly, my religion is the Bowl,” typed one chat member. “Disrespect the Bowl, Pay the Toll” and “Take Me to Church,” joked another. The memes chosen to sacralize Roof recall the campy, in-joke nature of the original Klan cloak and hood: the bowl cut as fashion is laughable, and yet can easily flip into the register of terror.
The Capitol insurrection is the most recent resurgence of violent white supremacy as American political tradition, and it is thus, unsurprisingly, marked by that tradition’s familiar generic scrambling of narrative modes. If one thing united the crew of rioters breaching the Capitol, it was their very Faulknerian conviction of diminishment: They had lost something (or more specifically, it had been stolen from them), and they had come to Washington to take it back. “We’re ho-ome!” crows a blonde woman as she steps across the Capitol’s breached threshold. “This is OUR HOUSE!” screams rioter after rioter as they surge through the Capitol halls. Over the din, a man with a voice-warping megaphone repeats robotically, “Defend your liberty! Defend your Constitution!” “1776, motherfuckers!” It is the rote antiquity of this script— we’ve been here before— that gives the insurrectionist chants their eerie quality of (bad) theater, meme and cliché: of child’s play. The country’s unconscious burbles up to the surface, a dream-state impervious to reason and fact.
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.
“I’m an idiot,” Chad Jones, accused (among other things) of assaulting a police officer with a flag pole, admitted to a friend the day after the Capitol insurrection. Jones was just one of many rioters who subsequently issued apologies for their “foolish” and “inappropriate” behavior during the riot. Garret Miller, who filmed himself breaking into the Capitol before going on to post calls for Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s assassination on Twitter, was among the contrite. Predictably, Miller’s lawyer sought to downplay the seriousness of his client’s threats, calling the posts “misguided political hyperbole,” the rantings of a boy who had been carried away by his own make-believe. Faulkner’s stories, and the narrative traditions they build upon, document our uniquely American tradition of racial “war telling,” and illuminate just how thin a line separates tall-tale hyperbole from real-life action. “On the one hand, you have to laugh,” tweeted Rep. Ocasio-Cortez of Miller’s childish posturing. But “on the other hand [you] know that the reason they were this brazen is because they thought they were going to succeed.”