Written by Candace Rondeaux
By now, you will have already seen the endless stream of scenes from the violent breach of the Capitol building on Wednesday by extremist supporters of President Donald Trump. There was the guy belaying down the wall from the Senate gallery, and the police with guns drawn in congressional chambers. There was the guy strolling through the halls of Congress with a huge Confederate flag.
This is the new iconography of America’s 240-year experiment with democracy. Expect to see more of it.
Only moments before those scenes unfolded, the good gentleman from Kentucky, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, struck a somber tone. “The voters, the states and the courts have all spoken,” he said. “They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.” Then with all the verve of an undertaker on tranquilizers, McConnell cautioned his Republican colleagues: “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.”
After the first objection to the official count of Electoral College votes in Arizona, Ted Cruz, the junior Republican senator from Texas, rose to declare that the convening of Congress to certify Joe Biden’s election was taking place “at a moment of great division, at a moment of great passion.” Then, in a swift instant, security agents whisked McConnell, Cruz and other lawmakers off the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives as Trump’s rioters breached the Capitol. A mob soon tried to bust down the door leading to the House chamber, where Democrats and Republicans had also been debating whether to move forward with acknowledging the truths of some 159 million votes cast.
Amid the Capitol riot, a woman with a Trump flag tied around her waist was fatally shot by police—one of now five fatalities during the rampage, including a Capitol Police officer who died from his injuries Thursday. Authorities in D.C. identified the woman, who had tried to breach a barricaded door in the Capitol, as Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt. On Twitter, her death was widely described as a national tragedy. But on Twitter’s far-right counterpart, Parler, dozens of accounts for followers of the Proud Boys hailed Babbitt as a martyr to the cause of the MAGA revolution, with many posting the grainy video of her being shot.
And that was just what was captured on camera. Off camera, signs of the country’s collective psychotic break began cropping up days before Trump urged angry mobs to lay siege to the place where his own vice president was fulfilling his constitutional role to oversee Congress’ formal certification of the electoral votes.
By Monday night, as Trump’s supporters began to trickle into Washington, the helicopter traffic over Capitol Hill was deafening. The arrest of Proud Boys instigator Enrique Tarrio for destruction of property, after he had burned a Black Lives Matter banner ripped from a historical Black church in northwestern D.C. last month, brought chilling revelations that he came armed with magazines of high-powered ammunition.
By late Tuesday afternoon, the far perimeters of D.C.’s downtown streets were eerily empty, even as crowds massed on Freedom Plaza a couple blocks from the White House. If anyone was tempted to come out to confront Trump’s supporters, they heeded D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s warnings and apparently reconsidered. That evening in Capitol Hill, a racially mixed neighborhood known locally as “Little Europe,” began to look and feel different. In ones and twos, and then larger clusters, maskless citizens sporting MAGA hats wandered around aimlessly, chatting loudly with each other about conspiracy theories on Facebook.
By Wednesday morning, pickup trucks bearing large “Trump 2020” and “Blue Lives Matter” banners, as well as Confederate flags and bumper stickers, raced up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, past me and a small crowd of my stunned neighbors as we waited for the bus. I could tell from looking at their faces that they were thinking the same thing I was. Should we flip them the bird? Shout obscenities? Throw something? What if they’re armed? What if they shoot us?
The images of the Capitol riot are the new iconography of America’s 240-year experiment with democracy. Expect to see more of them.
At pivotal moments in America’s political meltdown over the past year, this city has resembled the set of a Hollywood action movie. Search lights stream up over the dome of the Capitol building. Sirens scream constantly. More police cars are parked at the top of the steep hill where American law gets made. Still, if you live in D.C. for a while, you do get used to it.
But maybe, not so much this week. I would wager that most Washingtonians quietly said a prayer in hopes that the crowds would be small, that the threats of mass violence would not materialize. Far from the White House, it might have been easy to be convinced that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
On Capitol Hill, though, it was a different story. Less than a mile from my house, Trump loyalists erected a gallows with a noose below the steps of Congress. Hours later, after the mobs had stormed the Capitol, more than 1,100 National Guardsmen from D.C., Maryland and Virginia finally secured the building. With the Senate back in session Wednesday night, James Lankford of Oklahoma reminded the American people that “rioters and thugs do not run the Capitol.”
Of course, that was the same Lankford who, along with 13 other Republican senators and some 140 members of the House, had invited the country and the world to watch as they publicly spat on their sworn oaths to uphold the Constitution by announcing they would object to the certification of Biden’s election. After the mob had ransacked the capital, Lankford and a few of his Republican compatriots apparently had second thoughts and were finally ready to admit that the 81 million Americans who voted Biden into office do, in fact, matter, and that millions of them should not be disenfranchised. And yet, a handful of Republican senators, and more than 100 members of the House, still voted against certifying the election following the riot.
A national disgrace, you say. No? Not strong enough. A tragedy? Chilling? Horrifying? I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. This was entirely predictable and probably preventable. The storming of Congress will go down as one of the greatest intelligence, policing and leadership failures of all time. Steven Sund, chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, failed to prepare his team, failed to anticipate the scale of the threat, and failed to step up when things started going wrong. The Capitol Police inspector general will no doubt open an inquiry. Firings are reportedly imminent, but that is not enough. Sund needed to do the right thing and resign, which he announced he would Thursday.
That is just the bare beginning of the accountability needed. Whatever went down with the confusion over the National Guard and other security agencies—including reports that Trump “rebuffed and resisted requests to mobilize the National Guard”—there needs to be a thorough, transparent public investigation. Needless to say, police in D.C. and the FBI must work double-time to make sure that there aren’t more surprises lying in wait.
Within hours of the riot, Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar said she would draft articles of impeachment. Even the conservative-leaning National Association of Manufacturers appears to also agree that something needs to be done to make sure Trump is prevented from causing more trouble. It quickly issued a statement that essentially called Trump unfit to serve and called on Pence to “seriously consider” invoking the 25th Amendment “to preserve democracy.”
That’s a good next step, though not too likely to happen, even if Democrats in Congress are now raising the pressure amid more calls for Trump to step down or be removed from office. There is no question that Congress should act to censure Trump, at a minimum. But until Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20, more cowardice and more spinelessness are likely to win the day. There is little chance that we’ll see Congress unify around a remedy for what is ailing America right now.