A moral and cultural collapse is fueling the long political crisis Americans are living through. Well-meaning, tolerant, and patriotic people are still in the majority, but the behavior of the January 6th insurrectionists and everyone friendly to them establishes that civil society and federalism are gravely imperiled. The American way of government is based on compromise and negotiation; it is based on civility and comity; and it aspires to realize a humane and virtuous vision of itself. It is founded on a hope of betterment, on a set of ideal principles regarding individual rights and privileges. Throughout time, American leaders have paid lip service to these ideals and sometimes chanced their lives, careers, and reputations to make them real. The nation’s political identity is intrinsically moral and idealistic. This remains true, no matter how far short, in actual performance, it falls.
The underpinnings of republican government are rotting away. Over the past few years, we’ve discovered how many Americans hate the federal government. They resent their fellow citizens. They’ve had it with learning and discussion. They are sick of “bullshit,” meaning the ideas and values of anyone (especially anyone in power) who doesn’t speak or look or act their way. Their favored recourse is intimidation: speak loudly and crudely, ignore decorum. Belittle, smear, and threaten opponents. Gang up on the rule of law, which works best garbed in the regalia of intolerance, preferably while bearing a stick or a gun. Sneer at moderation, at tradition and respectability. Even polite-looking figures such as Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert are actually completely corrupt thugs inside.
These people are looking for their next chance to attack police officers, desecrate the flag, and destroy government norms.
The question is whether good Americans can stem the tide. Can we stop the pendulum from swinging toward violence and extremism, and get it to move back to the other side? Can we neutralize the influence inflammatory figures enjoy? Can we restore contentment and consensus, notably by ministering to legitimate grievances and needs? Can the political establishment refrain from abusing its power, and get back to the retreating goal of figuring out how best to promote widespread prosperity, how to restore dignity and safety to ordinary households and communities? A world of trouble lies ahead if the answer is no.
In his final year in office, Donald Trump demonized and denigrated his political opponents while inflaming a sense of grievance in his followers. Having become president on promises to “drain the swamp” and fight a corrupt political establishment, he treated any political figure who opposed, or merely competed with, him as an enemy. Meanness rather than civility was his metier. Whereas the duty of a president is to execute and administer laws impartially, Trump ran the White House like a machine politician, rewarding loyal “friends” and punishing the rest.
Trump’s willingness to foment violence against “enemies” became evident in April, when he began egging on groups of gun-toting citizens in several states, including Michigan, who resented strict COVID measures as an intolerable curb on personal liberty. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” Trump tweeted, explicitly encouraging them to overthrow the state’s lawfully elected government, implying that it was akin to tyranny. Trump had incited his first insurrection. Shortly afterward, members of right-wing militias stormed the statehouse in Lansing and forced their way into its legislative chambers, chanting “Let Us In.” At least two of the protestors later joined a plot with some ten others to bomb the capitol and kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan state legislators were terrorized. Whitmer had to carry on knowing that the president had made her a target of violence.
After the plot made the news, Trump brushed it off, saying Whitmer should “make a deal” placating her would-be captors. In the end, Trump got away with his blatant attack on Whitmer and Michigan’s state sovereignty. Inciting violence in Michigan cost him nothing. Among disaffected whites, who resent the way minorities and women are achieving political parity in US society, his following grew. State governors were silent. Female senators, who might have identified with Whitmer and chosen to stand up for her, also said nothing. No one formally called out Trump for this unprecedented and unwarranted attack on a state government and its authorities.
Trump’s partial success in Michigan encouraged him. It inspired him to plan crowd violence more methodically. He continued experimenting with militaristic language, particularly in the service of a boastful, grandiose narrative. He projected excessive confidence and invincibility. He spoke as one destined to win reelection, speaking dismissively of the machinations of his supposedly corrupt opponents and “others” who were not really American and definitely not worthy of the franchise. In the run-up to the November election, Trump loudly denounced the nation’s sophisticated election system as unfair and easy to manipulate. He repeatedly challenged the legality of election procedures in key states and counties, even where such measures enjoyed bipartisan support. In the summer, emails went out to Trump supporters inviting them to join “Trump’s Army.”
After losing Biden, Trump continued casting aspersions on the honesty of state and local election officials. He questioned the vote. He refused to concede, instead gathering about him a chorus of sycophants (including many top Republicans) who amplified his baseless claims of election fraud, perpetrating the Big Lie. Thousands began echoing his rallying cry of “Stop the Steal.” Trump’s insistence that he had won the election, that Biden and the Democrats had somehow stolen his victory, resonated with a segment of his followers who felt that they too had been passed over and betrayed. Secretary Pompeo kept the faith, insisting on November 10 that there would be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
Trump’s forces kept pressing on every front, threatening death to election officials and others who refused to falsify the election so that Trump could win. In Georgia, a frustrated election official, Gabriel Sterling, begged Trump via social media, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.” In Michigan, armed Trump protestors showed up at the home of secretary of state Jocelyn Benson for a “Stop The Steal” rally one December night. They surrounded the house and taunted her, as she and her 4-year-old son decorated for Christmas inside. Such folk believed, as one Trump fundraising email put it, that they were “the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.”
Having exhausted every legal option for overturning Biden’s victory, Trump orchestrated one last grand maneuver to wrest the presidency away from Biden on the day Congress was to receive and record the Electoral College results. Trump’s determination to disrupt and derail the proceedings predated the occasion by several months. This time, the groundwork he laid ballooned into a choreographed melee, a pitched attack on the Capitol and the people within it, that has no precedent in American history.
When the Senate impeachment trail begins on February 8, House managers will present a more complete picture of the storming of the Capitol that injured some 140 police officers and caused eight deaths. The outgoing president deliberately manufactured an assault on the legislative branch that could have resulted in the end of our Constitutional tradition. He encouraged a spirit of grievance and distrust among his followers, stoking their resentment against Congress and the political establishment itself through a sedulous campaign of put-downs and lies. He told them to march to the Capitol; they obeyed. He watched the violence from the White House with delight. Afterward, he claimed to “love” the mob and averred that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
Next week, the ex-president will send lawyers to the Senate to defend the indefensible: Trump’s premeditated attack on Congress, the vote, and the nation itself. The senators must find him guilty. To do otherwise will destroy the prospect of peace in our land: presidential authority will have no limit, and the peaceful transition of power will be a thing of the past.
Image: Screenshot from NBC coverage of the assault on the Capitol, from this source.
Donald Trump is engaging in a seditious crusade against the US government while neglecting his presidential duties. Wednesday, he incited supporters to march on the Capitol, where they smashed windows, trashed the building, and beat a police officer to death. They terrorized lawmakers intent on affirming Joseph R. Biden’s lawful election to succeed him as the next president.
Americans must face and tackle how fundamentally radical and seditious Trump’s machinations are. He is using the cover of the executive office to wage an ongoing campaign against representative government, Congress, and any fellow Republican, from the vice-president on down, who dares to speak out or break away. Ever since taking office, but increasingly since the Republican senate acquitted him of impeachment charges last February, Trump has steadfastly implanted an ideology of hate, intolerance, and grievance in his followers’ minds. This ideology involves labeling fellow Americans as enemies and dangerously “wrong” liars, who must be opposed because they threaten Donald J Trump and his supposedly righteous campaign to stay in power. Members of the legislative branch, who are doing their Constitutional duties, he dismisses and demeans as “weak” and “corrupt.” Ditto honorable state officials who won’t do what he wants.
Trump has consistently proclaimed these lies and methodically popularized them through tweets, speeches, and interviews. Since early November, he has continued to insist that he won the presidential election. (It was “a sacred landslide.”) He has never conceded defeat nor admitted lying. His doublespeak continues, and will continue after he leaves the presidency. (Even in what some regard as his concession speech, Trump never admits losing, nor acknowledges the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.)
Trump’s core followers completely believe the false narrative he tells. They believe that the Democrats and Joe Biden stole the election; that massive election fraud occurred (particularly in urban areas of swing states with lots of black voters); and that Trump is the rightful victor. Trump preaches that his followers are “the true Americans,” and that if his people do not “take back the government,” through violence if necessary, corruption will reign, and the greatness of the US will disappear for good.
What we saw of the assault on the Capitol in real time was superficial. Initial footage, much of it filmed at a great distance, failed to convey how nasty, violent, and intentional part of the crowd really was. In some of the early videos, we saw protestors strolling aimlessly through the Capitol, documenting their innocent-seeming transgressions with selfies, whooping like children. We saw guards opening barricades to allow “protestors” to flow past. Some Capitol Police chatted and posed with rioters, showed them courtesies, or stood around doing nothing. In contrast to the savage response the peaceful BLM protests elicited in the capital this summer, police applied a double standard Wednesday, giving a gingerly, kid-glove treatment to the mainly white crowd. Black Capitol police officers later complained that their superiors did little to prepare for what they privately knew would be, not a peaceful protest, but a violent assault.
As more footage has begun to circulate, and more bits of news come together, can we appreciate how deliberate, pitched, and murderous the incursion really was. Trump’s “army” was handicapped in that it had been warned against carrying firearms in DC, and those who marched on the Capitol were mainly unarmed. Nonetheless, members of the crowd carried cruder weapons, such as flags and staffs. Some had flash-bangs or zip ties for binding people. Some had ear-pieces and two-way radios; others had maps of the network of tunnels under the buildings. Two bombs were planted around the perimeter of the Capitol, but police found and defused them before they went off.
Though there appears to have been no coordinated plan of “attack,” elements of the crowd battled fiercely to break into the building by climbing through windows, bull-rushing officers, and battering the heavy reinforced glass of the main entrances and House Chamber. Trump’s forces beat and trampled one officer on the Capitol steps; he later died. Another policeman was pummeled nearly to unconsciousness, as a phalanx of rioters pressed to get through a sliding door.
Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran traveled across the country to take part in the assault on Congress, tried to climb through an opening into the door to the House Chamber that armed police officers were defending. She was shot in the neck and later died. She is just one example of a large subversive population who will follow Trump to the death, falsely believing that they are serving a noble and patriotic cause.
Inside, the Senate and House were ignorant that the Capitol Building was being overcome and assailed. They were engaged in debate when suddenly security officers ushered the Vice President and the House Speaker out. The senators, too, were quickly cleared and moved to safety in an undisclosed location. On the House side, some congressmen and women were trapped inside on the main floor of the chamber and in the balcony when the rioters began ramming the doors from outside. Security officers barricaded the door and drew their weapons to defend it, as the remaining MCs were evacuated. Staff and some representatives who were not in the chambers were instead trapped in a lockdown in their offices for hours. Only later did Congress have an opportunity to reckon with the grave danger latent in the massive assault.
There are now speculations about “a crowd within the crowd,” a highly militarized and well-equipped group intent on gaining access to the chambers, destroying the Electoral Votes, kidnapping or executing lawmakers, or forcing them to overturn the election under threat of harm. Recall that before Christmas, Donald Trump met with the leader of the Proud Boys at the White House, and that many members of this violent supremacist organization were visibly active in Wednesday’s crowd. It may take a few days for senators and House members to recover, but when they do they will realize how close they were to being killed, captured, or otherwise victimized.
Traumatic though it was, Trump’s open insurrection against the legislative branch was merely an opening salvo. Thugs leaving the building were heard to say “this is just the beginning,” and “next time we come back we will be armed.” Donie O’Sullivan of CNN, heard many in the crowd lingering around the Capitol saying they were proud of what they had done. Videos are circulating in various backrooms of the internet, priming Trump’s forces to renew their violent assault on January 20, Inauguration Day. One hopes the threat of renewed violence against Congress and the institutions of government will galvanize Republicans and Democrats to join together against Donald Trump and his treachery.