“If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” said outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about 1:30 p.m., finally breaking with President Trump and his remaining enablers, who were objecting to counting the electoral votes from several states. Within an hour, the presiding officer’s chair in McConnell’s beloved institution was occupied by a bare-chested, face-painted hooligan who wore horns and animal pelts and believes that Trump is a godking sent to vanquish phantom traitors and baby eaters.
It was a day of profound national humiliation, and it had been coming for a while.
A plurality of Americans voted against Trump in 2016. A majority voted against him in November. His incendiary behavior was tolerated, excused, ignored; there was his feeble response to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, the programmatic hatred of his countless rallies, the storming of the Michigan Capitol last year after his indirect encouragement. And now his extremist followers were allowed to lay siege to a building that hadn’t been molested since 1814, when the British burned the Capitol in the name of their own godking.
Some people who could have spoken up long ago finally found their voice.
“Today’s tyranny, an effort to subjugate America’s democracy by mob rule, was fomented and directed by Mr. Trump,” said Jim Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense. “His effort to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.”
Mattis predicted that Trump will be “a man without a country.”
He will not, however, be a man without a following. The violent insurrectionists, bedecked in the name TRUMP, scaled and smashed their way into the Capitol, stalked and chased police officers up marble staircases, looted and ransacked members’ offices, ascended the dais in the Senate for the perverse photo op. Members of Congress were hurried to undisclosed locations as staffers ducked in the galleries and prayed. The insurrectionists sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they carried the Confederate flag through the building. They tore off the wooden sign above the entrance of the office suite of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), lounged at a desk inside, stole her mail, left a note on a manila folder that said “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN,” which directly echoed Trump’s own threats. Outside, on the west front of the Capitol, they played the Village People’s “YMCA.”
It was all nonsense, and it was deadly serious. It was a furious pageant in which people were injured and killed. It was Washington turned into the Roman Empire by way of Atlantic City: corrupted, bankrupted, prostituted by Trump for a self-mythologizing spectacle and a quick buck.
One ponytailed woman, an anarchic tourist carrying a pink TRUMP flag, cheered as she exited a Capitol door that was scratched with the command MURDER THE MEDIA. “We made it!” she said, as if she were walking into a theme park instead of out of a crime scene.
“Next time we come back, we won’t be peaceful,” another insurrectionist said.
“Let’s go get a beer!” said another, with that malignant Trumpian whimsy of having gotten away with something.
The day began at 9:42 a.m., with a text to supporters from Trump's fundraising committee: "Over 100 members of Congress plan to object to the Election results TODAY. Will you stand with them? Donate NOW for 1000% IMPACT." Minutes later, a "SAVE AMERICA" rally began under a leaden sky on the Ellipse, a stretch of park between the Washington Monument and White House. The Trump family took the stage one by one, with the White House in the background, to kindle the fire.
“We will never, ever, ever stop fighting,” Eric Trump said.
“This fight has only just begun,” said his wife, Lara. “Our family didn’t get in this fight for just four years. We’re in this fight to the bitter end.”
“This isn’t their Republican Party anymore!” Donald Trump Jr. yelled. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!”
FIGHT FOR TRUMP, the crowd chanted. FIGHT FOR TRUMP.
The president took the stage about noon. “You will have an illegitimate president, that’s what you’ll have,” Trump said about the counting of electoral votes that would begin in the Capitol within the hour and end, presumably, with the formalization of Joe Biden’s victory. “And we can’t let that happen.” Trump put pressure on Vice President Pence to magically deliver him from defeat, even as Pence released his own statement saying there was nothing more he could do without violating the Constitution.
The electoral certificates were carried to the House in mahogany chests with leather straps. Just after 1 p.m., Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) objected to counting the votes from Arizona, and the houses of Congress retired to their separate chambers to debate. In the House, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked how Trump could’ve lost when he draws such big crowds. In the Senate, Cruz said that the election was in doubt because some Americans believe it is in doubt.
Then those Americans, fueled by belief and the encouragement of their leaders, marched from the Ellipse down Pennsylvania Avenue and, without much resistance, battered their way into the U.S. Capitol.
TV anchors, agog, kept saying they could not have imagined this. Politicians, bunkered, released statements of shock and outrage. They had not been paying attention. For some people — immigrants, Americans of color — the Donald Trump Show was never just a show. For the privileged, the past four years have seemed like shock-jock entertainment. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was unbelievable. For the party in power it was an opportunity to laugh, to fret casually, to fundraise, to confirm some judges, to fast-track a career as a toadie or a righteous scold. Now, as the Capitol’s security gave way, the bitter reality of America’s civic tragedy finally materialized in the “citadel” of democracy, as Biden referred to it in a brief, somber statement.
Long after things got ugly, Trump released some tweets, as well as a video from the Rose Garden, addressing the monster he had brought to life.
“We love you,” he told the violent insurrectionists.
“You’re very special,” he told the violent insurrectionists.
“Remember this day forever!” he told the violent insurrectionists.
Soon after, Twitter and Facebook temporarily blocked the president from using its platforms, but his followers hyped the siege without him, sharing photos and videos of their gleeful desecration. Officials would soon trot out that old chestnut, a “day that will live in infamy,” but for Trump’s people it will be a day that lives in legend.
Trump's incitements had been heard loud and clear elsewhere, too. In Olympia, Wash., a mob stormed the gates of the governor's mansion. In Atlanta, Georgia's secretary of state was evacuated from his office. In Denver, the mayor ordered city buildings closed. Outside the U.S. Capitol the insurrectionists waved JESUS flags, erected an executioners stand with a noose, carried a sign that said "PELOSI IS SATAN," wore clothing that invoked Nazism.
On Twitter, Ivanka Trump asked these “American patriots” to be peaceful, then deleted her tweet.
Many of the insurrectionists were young men spoiling for a fight, adrenalized by chaos. During the campaign, Trump had told people like them to “stand back and stand by,” and then, after he lost the election, urged them to come to Washington on the day Congress was slated to make that loss unsalvageable. On Wednesday, with his family, he lit their fuse and retired to the West Wing to watch the explosion on television. If he had flipped to MSNBC at around 3 p.m., he would have seen a woman, drenched in blood, being wheeled out of the Capitol on a gurney as paramedics applied pressure to a gunshot wound in her upper torso. She was a military veteran from San Diego who had apparently been brainwashed by QAnon, the online cult that elevates Trump as godking, according to the Daily Beast. Like others, she had believed an apocalyptic reckoning was at hand, though they themselves created it. She had been shot by a Capitol Police officer and was pronounced dead at the hospital.
“I’m a Christian and I love this country, but I love God more and you know the world is going to end,” said a C-SPAN caller named Donna, from South Carolina, about 4:45 p.m. “It’s going to get worse than what it is now.”
“It’s antifa that’s doing this,” said a caller named Diana, from Texas.
“I agree with the last two callers,” said a caller named Lisa, from Michigan.
As night fell, and the Capitol was retaken, unnamed sources began talking about the 25th Amendment, which says that Trump can be removed by agreement of his Cabinet and vice president. The president, nowhere on television and stymied on social media, was oddly absent amid the gales of speculation.
Meanwhile the insurrectionists moved westward and were allowed to violate a 6 p.m. city curfew, in stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter protesters who were assaulted by law enforcement here over the summer. Under the supervision of SWAT teams, the House and Senate reconvened to carry on their disrupted formality.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today: You did not win,” said Pence, having reclaimed the presiding officer’s chair from the horned hooligan.
Senators made sanctimonious speeches about rules, about comity, about how “this is not who we are,” as if what had just happened had not happened at all.
The Trump Show resumed, with supporting characters auditioning for the lead role. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) doubled down on his objection to counting Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. (Back in his home state, the Kansas City Star’s editorial board had already written that he had “blood on his hands.”) On the Senate floor, Hawley — a potential 2024 presidential candidate who, like Cruz, is fundraising off his objection to the electoral votes — talked about “fraud,” though there wasn’t evidence of that in the November elections. He spoke straight into the TV camera.
Hawley was followed by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the only Republican to vote to remove Trump from office a year ago. Romney, who had gracefully accepted his own electoral defeat in the 2012 presidential contest, said that the Senate, while attending to “a selfish man’s injured pride,” had sustained an “insurrection incited by the president of the United States.” He said that he was shaken, but he spoke evenly.
“No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters, particularly when the president will continue to say the election was stolen,” Romney said. “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth!” Here the chamber began to applaud.
Just past 3:30 a.m., Congress finished its work. “The report we make is that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be president and vice president,” announced Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Now there was a standing ovation in the House chamber. Pence responded that this was a “sufficient declaration.” He then handed things off to the chaplain for a prayer.
“We deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life and the quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy,” prayed the Senate chaplain, Barry Black. “These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”
At the conclusion, Pence whispered an “Amen.” Minutes later, Trump released a statement in which he promised a peaceful transition of power, but assured the country that the show was not over. “While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history,” the statement said, “it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again!”