The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Capitol riot shows how fragile a free nation can be

A damaged door inside the Capitol on Wednesday in Washington. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg)

Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol was unconscionable, unpatriotic and despicable. Its participants acted in the misguided belief that our most cherished political accomplishment — the peaceful transfer of power according to the outcome of free and fair elections — was at risk. That does not excuse storming the symbol of our democracy, the wanton destruction of public and private property, and the utter disregard they showed for the law and for law enforcement.

President Trump’s role in instigating this crisis is clear. For months, he has lied to his supporters, telling them falsehoods about a “stolen election” that are unsupported by serious evidence. He and his minions — especially once-honored former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — have spread rumors, calumny and fanciful inventions in an effort to overturn the people’s will. At best they were reckless, ignoring substantial and unjustified risk that their baseless accusations could ruin popular faith in democracy and result in violence. The seeds they planted grew into the tree whose fruits we now see.

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Our democracy’s strength is equally clear. No political leader joined the riot; none sought to use the tumult to seize power. It appears our nation’s military leaders consulted with the vice president’s cool head rather than the president’s fevered one when deciding to deploy the National Guard. There was never a risk that what some have called a “coup attempt” would ever turn into anything other than a paroxysm of anger, more akin to a toddler’s tantrum than a serious effort to overthrow the government. That is worth celebrating as we ponder our next steps.

Many have called for Trump’s immediate removal from office, whether through impeachment or the invocation of the 25th Amendment. We should commend such calls, as it is clear our president has no regard for the norms of the nation he leads. He still has 13 days left in office, which is ample time to wreak terror if he found people willing to work his will. The risk of that rightly terrifies all genuine patriots.

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Trump stands exposed for all as an egotist who cannot restrain himself for the national good. Even Richard M. Nixon had the sense of shame and obligation to resign rather than cling to office once it became clear he had no chance of avoiding impeachment and removal. Some will still follow this charlatan down the road to ignominy and forced retirement. Many other conservatives — a clear majority, I hope — will depart from his orbit and seek to rebuild without him.

Legally removing him, however, risks making him a martyr and hence strengthening him in his weakest moment. The 25th Amendment’s invocation would remove him from office but not from public life. He would still be free to publicly challenge his removal until Jan. 20, and who knows what he could be capable of once unchained? Impeachment would take a few days even if Republicans quickly fell into line, and again, would leave him at liberty to wreak havoc. A conspiracy of his aides might prevent him from doing his worst, but they cannot prevent him from doing what he does best: manipulate the media to amplify his rants. Our leaders must weigh the risks as well as the rewards of their choices as they decide how best to contain him as the sands run out of his hourglass.

Today is my mother’s funeral. I had hoped I could take the day off to concentrate on celebrating her memory. Wednesday’s events, however, compel me to write about something equally worthy of celebration: the perpetuation of American freedom.

I’ll be delivering my mother’s eulogy as you read this. I will extol her for what she was: a kind, decent woman who loved her husband, her family, her friends, her church and her country. Dorothy Olsen was like hundreds of millions of Americans who never have 15 minutes of fame. But it’s people like her who make America great and for whom American democracy was created. The great always make their mark on history; it’s in their nature to do so whether a regime is despotic or free. It’s ordinary folk that Ronald Reagan called “the forgotten American” who most benefit from the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power and the economic magic of democratic capitalism.

Wednesday’s events show us how fragile free nations can be. Let us now rededicate ourselves to achieving the American promise — that all people are created equal and capable of self-government in private and through our government. Our oft-forgotten fellow Americans deserve no less.

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Watch Opinions videos:

The U.S. is more politically polarized than ever. The Post’s Kate Woodsome asks experts what drives political sectarianism — and what we can do about it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Dana Milbank: President Trump has committed treason

George F. Will: Trump, Hawley and Cruz will each wear the scarlet ‘S’ of a seditionist

The Post’s View: Trump caused the assault on the Capitol. He must be removed.

David Von Drehle: This is Trump’s legacy

Max Boot: Trump is guilty of sedition. Impeach him again.

Eugene Robinson: We just saw an attempted coup d’etat. Blame Trump. Blame his Republican enablers.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.