On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration earlier this year, many of us were still grasping about. Just what, in fact, the political reality was or would become seemed up for grabs, and there was no shortage of signs to decode. Suggestions of a nation converted to fascism seemed belied by largely empty bleachers and by police barriers with no throbbing crowds to restrain. Of course, Trump attempted to orchestrate signs of his own. It was, he said, the biggest inauguration day in history. The rain ceased and the skies cleared as he approached the podium, he said.
Then, at the corner of 13th and K Street, Richard Spencer was punched in the face on camera.
It would be difficult to imagine a better-staged scene. The bespoke leader of the alt-right had just been asked about his frog button. “It’s Pepe, it’s become a kind of a..,” Spencer begins to say. He’s suddenly interrupted by a pixelated streak of black arching into the frame, a jumble of motion that blurrily, but indisputably, represents a fist connecting to his cheek. Uncertain how to follow this unfolding action, the camera first moves left to follow the black figure but quickly loses them in the crowd. Dipping and panning right, the camera finds Spencer further down the street, rearranging his tousled haircut and looking around worriedly. Before the scene cuts, Spencer—who a few weeks earlier was leading a crowd in the chant of “Hail Trump”—is caught wearing the flushed face of a child that seems like it may be about to cry.
For all the handwringing about Richard Spencer, few mainstream journalists have been able to provide a critical perspective on his political views. Fawning interviews in Vice and Mother Jones (who called him a “dapper white nationalist”) seemed dumbfounded by the incongruity of a Nazi dressed in the style of J. Crew. He flirted through interviews and danced around questions—hardly ever pressed to explain the types of violence that would inevitably attend the creation of his desired “ethno-state.” Moreover, Spencer was aware of the signifying power of cartoon frogs and nattily attired young men. “We memed the alt-right into existence,” he claimed to Vice.
This is why the punch was precisely poised to do important semiotic damage. “I’m afraid this is going to become the meme to end all memes,” Spencer fretted on Periscope after the incident. He was right: the video was circulated instantly and widely. A series of remixes added canny musical accompaniment, from the Indiana Jones theme and M.O.P’s “Ante Up,” to Elastica’s “Connection,” which synched the music to the punctual moment.
If Spencer represents the strange return of the repressed characterizing our dire political moment, the punch (and the black-clad puncher) also reminded us of the one of the original, well-worn practices of 1930s anti-fascism: fighting Nazis in the street. Updated for a new, extremely online era, the punch became a deflating countersign, a moment of relief that also pointed us, sadly, to where the present had brought us.
Nathan Holmes received his PhD from the University of Chicago in Cinema and Media Studies. He teaches film courses at Loyola University, Truman College, and DePaul University in Chicago and is currently working on a book for SUNY Press entitled “Welcome to Fear City: 1970s Crime Film and the Urban Imagination.”