For the last two years, photojournalist Rian Dundon has documented the escalating protests by Trump supporters and right-wing extremists like the Proud Boys in addition to their antifa counterparts on the left. Each of Dundon’s images examines what the media theorist Daniel Boorstin in the early 1960s called pseudo-events, or politics as spectacle. Boorstin’s pseudo-events were fabrications by news corporations and political leaders, but today’s pseudo events are concocted by extremist groups like the Proud Boys and iPhone-wielding bystanders rather than, say, CBS. The protests Dundon attended were all relatively small—the largest far-right demonstration in Portland in the Trump era comprised a mere 500 activists—but many in attendance were bloggers, YouTubers, and even amateur photographers busily documenting their own expressions of hate or outrage, which amplified the public’s perception of these gatherings.
Performance politics also factor heavily into these demonstrations, by which we mean groups ranging from the Proud Boys and the Patriot Prayer protesters to the black-clad antifa members and congregants of the left-leaning Satanic Temple. At a recent demonstration, Dundon watched Satanists goad Christian right groups with slogans like, “I fucked God and turned him gay.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss these protests as mere theatrics—the extreme emotions on display can be quite authentic. In that sense, these photos also serve as evidence of visceral politics fueled by a key emotion: hate. We ignore the rise of this sort of extreme political affect—the vicious slogans, the narrowed eyes, the contorted faces and the ecstatic embrace of masculine violence—at our own peril. As the scholar William Davies writes in his recent book on the subject, Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason, “We have to take people’s feelings seriously as political issues, and not simply dismiss them as irrational.” Democracies, he contends, are being rewritten by the “power of feelings in ways that cannot be ignored or reversed. This is our reality now.”
At a recent rally in Portland, where Dundon lives, he witnessed self-proclaimed patriots, most of whom were white men, marching through the streets. One of them casually told a black woman wearing fatigues and waving an upside-down American flag to protest the current administration that she should “go back to Africa.” The images that follow illustrate this new level of antipathy and bigotry, but they also point to these protests’ radical tourism, showmanship, and excessive political feeling, in what I can barely believe is still America.