In the months since a violent MAGA mob overran the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, hoping to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory over their beloved President Trump, nearly 700 alleged participants have been arrested and charged with crimes. The use of “alleged” here is just a formality, since most of the accused went to the trouble of extensively documenting their illegal activities on the internet: Social statuses, selfies, TikToks and livestreamed video have directly tied defendants to the riot. The evidence is staggering.
What seems like rank stupidity at first glance — creating a digital record that implicates oneself in a chaotic assault on American democracy — suggests something altogether more disturbing. The rioters were principally radicalized online, and that’s where they wanted to celebrate their supposed revolution. Trespassing in the halls of Congress required a special kind of egotism; these people believed they were prime movers of history, and should be remembered as such. The clips and photos gave them bragging rights (“I was there!”) while shoring up the delusion that they were, essentially, characters in a movie, the cavalry riding in at the end to save the day.
Now in court, many are still cosplaying. This time, they’re starring in a legal thriller.
Though some of the arrested January 6th instigators have opted to plead guilty or otherwise retain professional counsel, an unusual number are petitioning to represent themselves, a choice that judges tend to advise against. It was the option pursued by such illustrious figures as Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. But it makes complete sense when you consider how the insurrectionists wound up in hot water to begin with: by assuming they knew better than everyone else. The torrent of misinformation, memes and fiery rhetoric that ultimately gave rise to the Capitol mob was always tinged with smugness — if someone didn’t support Trump, or disagreed with your justification for doing so, they simply weren’t smart enough to know better.
Besides overconfidence in their lawyering talents, the rioters have plenty of reasons to be keen on self-representation. This is a community that gets very vocal about Constitutional rights, especially those described in the First and Second Amendments. The Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to make your own case in court, but the MAGA gang is just as likely to invoke “freedom of speech” on this front, since this is also how they’re defending the rampage itself. Meanwhile, they’re entitled to public defenders if they can’t afford an attorney — but why trust these court-appointed lawyers? They’re bureaucratic functionaries of the treasonous Deep State, and at best, they’ll try to reduce your sentence by arguing that you’re mentally ill. None of them will present the grand, sweeping theory of election fraud and government corruption that brought you to Washington in the first place. Complaining that his public defender was inadequate, Brian Mock, a Minnesota man who said that he “beat the shit” out of Capitol police officers and can be seen shoving a couple of them to the ground in a body camera video, explained that he “had a plan to prove FBI misconduct and conspiracy” himself.
Such attempts to proceed pro se and grandstand before a captive audience reveal the magical thinking that allows these individuals to presume they did nothing wrong. They’re treating serious felony charges like a parking ticket, some trivial infraction that might be dismissed if you show up for the hearing and cause headaches for everyone. It’s no coincidence, either, that this strategy mirrors Trump’s throughout any legal peril — flat denials, stonewalling, bluster, heckling, frivolous counterclaims, declarations of an illegitimate or unfair system, refusal to cooperate, outright lies and nonstop spectacle. If you can’t win, you can at least disrupt the ordinary course of justice, and perhaps even gain notoriety for it.
Pauline Bauer, a Pennsylvania woman charged only for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, had been granted pretrial release but landed herself in jail when she represented herself and continually interrupted a judge with bizarre Biblical quotations and “sovereign citizen” rhetoric. Having seen how Trump reliably tweeted through scandal after scandal, she evidently trusts that the shitposter mindset is the path to glory.
The difference, of course, is that the ex-president and other high-level ghouls who helped to incite the storm at the Capitol are extremely lawyered up. Renowned for his litigious attitude, Trump wouldn’t dream of representing himself, and would do everything to avoid showing his face in court at all. If you want to obstruct the rule of law, it helps to pay someone with experience in that area, as former White House advisor Steve Bannon, now flouting a subpoena from the congressional committee on the events of January 6th, surely is. Trump, for his part, is literally suing the chair of that commission, as well as the head of the National Archives, in an effort to thwart the investigation. As ever, he’ll use his resources to shield his cronies and leave his most fantatical followers out to dry, with no hope of exoneration but their incoherent ravings.
Still, they did have an important role in an epic narrative. It just happened to be a tragedy.