The Ethics and Aesthetics of Impeachment

ethica sine aesthetica with logo tinified
ethica sine aesthetica with logo tinified

How the Insurrection May Have Drawn in A Whole New Crowd to Trumpism

By Branson Camelo, Economist and Public Prosecutor and Leones Nunes, Attorney

On January 6, the world witnessed a movement against the American election result—a central institution in America. Congress was invaded by a crowd defending the populist rhetoric of President Trump with the illusion that they could modify the result of the presidential election that was about to be declared in the congressional session, confirming the Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s victory. The images from this episode instantly traveled the world—references of the Ku Klux Klan, the bison costume, and parliament violation as some of the more popular ones. These images seemed to resonate with a lot of Americans…what we’re arguing in this paper is that this insurgence had aesthetic intentions. Did these images and aesthetics attract more adherents from Republicans and other average Americans?

What Exactly is the Ideology of “Ethics and Aesthetics”?

Fashion theorists are unanimous in pointing out that clothing is a powerful tool of identity, language, and persuasion. Trump supporters’ voluntary loyalty demonstrates latent aesthetics that were reflected in the flags and objects that they chose to wear and exhibit. This aesthetic is fully open to interpretation, and decoding it reveals the set of ideas that permeates the movement’s supporters. To illustrate that, we can highlight the bison costume that some might have seen as outrageous, lackluster, and pointless. Others, however, could have seen the bison costume as freedom of expression, a humorous community where ridicule is shared and not used as an attack on a person. Maybe this is what they took from the apparel and drew them more towards Trump’s rhetoric. Hence, aesthetic influence. But, what about its ethics?

The theme that each ethic has an aesthetic may seem to be unrelated, but it is not. For instance, consider the distich, “Nulla Ethica Sine Aesthetica,” inscribed in giant letters on the Queen Sofia Musical Conservatory in Madrid so that no one can forget the primary lesson: Every ethic has an aesthetic.  We can remember that ethics is a set of values, behaviors, actions, and reflections that the group considers correct and desirable. Society externalizes this collection of attributes to the world covered by sensory aspects, revealing itself as a standard of beauty, ratified by the group as having a high aesthetic degree. This relation is apparent since Ancient Greece with the Athenians erecting buildings to praise the Gods, making those constructions symbolic of the characteristics of the honored gods. Nowadays, structures based on Parthenon (as some buildings in Washington) are references to wisdom and thoughtfulness characteristic of the goddess Athena.

Examples of Ethics and Aesthetics in History

America was built upon classical aesthetics representing the ethics of beauty and politics. This relationship is easy to see in the institutions represented by the lovely venerable buildings like the Capitol and the White House — the aesthetic of these two critical buildings resembles the buildings from classical Athens, leading to the idea of prudence and wisdom in doing politics — however those buildings had their images tarnished at the beginning of 2021. The iconoclasts Proud Boys tried to destroy the previous temperament to implement their own, just like the Visigoths in the sack of Rome: “‘In one city,’ St. Jerome wrote, ‘the whole world perished.’”

It is not a new idea that brutality has its own aesthetics and traits that a specific group admires, cultivates, and copies. In the Capitol invasion, this particular standardization was there, creating a new visual code associated with political villainy, akin to the well-known, nationalist ideal of fascism.

Fascism originated in Italy against the backdrop of beautiful Italian cities and towns that resulted from centuries of artistic work. In Nazi Germany, the grandeur of madness met with aesthetic possibilities, and only the atrocity of Nazism was able to cast some of these achievements into the shadows. We could highlight two remarkable cases of those aesthetic accomplishments with the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s technical ingenuity in filming the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and with the architect Albert Speer’s Cathedral of Light erected for the Nuremberg party meeting that same year. Communism also showed its face in the military parades in China and North Korea, or even in the Romania parliament with Nicolae Ceaușescu’s project of having the world’s heaviest building. These building aesthetics facilitated the political growth of fascism by displaying a feature that seemed massive and indestructible—unfailingly strong and meaningful to the public—that would solidify their belief that their politic was the only politic.

This aesthetic could also be seen in the hippie movement that emerged in America during the 1960s, with its unmistakable visual identity playing an essential role in protesting the Vietnam War. With Buddhist and Epicurean elements, the beautiful ethical construction had a chaotic aesthetic but was characteristic of the movement.

The Common Goal of Ethics and Aesthetics

The totalitarian aesthetic examples mentioned above have a common thread. They were the result of political leaders and their followers having a clear political intention: power; including the conquest of power, the maintenance of power, and the seduction of more supporters and sympathizers. Even though these sympathizers may not understand the whole political ideology and its consequences, they became attracted to aesthetics that consolidate an identity and enabled the feeling of belonging to the group, thus strengthening it.

This adherence built through aesthetics creates a network externality (or social wave) that makes the mobilization grow and further disseminates that image of “beauty.” The same phenomenon occurs when a brand (such as Apple) creates an identity among its consumers.

On the same theme, another aspect comes from observing human masses’ behavior without the direct command of a leader; such as those that occur with processions, manifestations of crowds, and civic marches; that are more voluntary than obligatory in nature.

The aesthetics of mass political manifestations with spontaneous adherence are a code that reveals crucial information about the reality of each time and place that is affected by the consequences of this manifestation. Social networks facilitate the dissemination of aesthetics (creating their power of attraction for some and of repudiation for others), particularly when the leader is a figure who takes advantage of the country’s most critical institution (the presidency) to publicize the movement.

Yes, Trump used the presidency’s political institution (built on classical aesthetics) to spread his Proud Boys aesthetic, which is not only crude and aggressive but, much worse than that, incompatible with the country’s political ethics.

If Trump had been convicted for impeachment, in addition to political incapacitation, the US Congress would have created an essentially ethical and aesthetic restraint. More than a politician’s judgment, the decision should have been about what image (aesthetics) the country should follow in the coming decades.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here.

Bradson Headshot
Bradson Camelo
Bradson Camelo (39) is an Economist and Public Prosecutor. Master in Public Policy and Researcher at the University of Chicago.
Leones headshot
Leones Nunes
Brazilian lawyer
Leones (39) is a lawyer from Brazil, married without children. He worked for 10 years at Caixa Econômica Federal, a public bank that is one of Brazil's five largest banks. He now works as a lawyer, mainly for administrative law. Leones likes to spend his free time with his family and friends, and writing about everyday life--especially about what political decisions impact people's lives.

1 comment

Daniel P. Sheerin April 7, 2021 at 11:22 am

Provocative, on-target article. Thanks.

Here is a letter to the Editor of the Washington Post that i had published a while ago that touches on some of the same issues …


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