The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In the Capitol nightmare, democracy prevailed

The U.S. Capitol Dome is seen through a fence where roses were left, on Jan. 9.
The U.S. Capitol Dome is seen through a fence where roses were left, on Jan. 9. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

We mourn the desecration of our nation’s Capitol by a right-wing mob and must hold those responsible, including President Trump, accountable. We should face the reality, as President-elect Joe Biden suggested, that “a group of Black Lives Matter” protesters would “have been treated very, very differently” from the predominantly White crowd of seditionists who were attacking democracy on the basis of a Big Lie.

But let’s also recognize that during the first week of January 2021, Trumpism, a movement that sought to undermine our democracy, was defeated, discredited and permanently shamed.

Of course there will still be right-wing extremists, some of them dangerous. But this is not new. Going back a half-century to McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, the Minutemen and the White Citizens’ Councils, anywhere from a tenth to a quarter of Americans have supported radical-right views. Only under Trump did the heirs to such movements win support from the Oval Office.

Trump’s defeat alone might not have defused the threat. But the horrors in the halls of Congress — along with the GOP’s decisive setback in Georgia’s Senate runoffs — finally induced a mass conversion experience among Republicans who long shored up a corrupt and dangerous regime. Except in the fever swamps, Trump will come to represent not a noble lost cause but a catastrophic turn from reason.

Trump’s abuses of the truth, his hostility to democracy and the rule of law, his racism and xenophobia, his privileging of his own interests over those of the nation he led — all these inclinations were obvious from the day he announced his presidential candidacy on June 16, 2015.

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But the many who tried to warn of the dangers he posed were repeatedly scolded for not understanding him or the movement he led. In a formulation that will live in analytical infamy, they were told again and again to take him seriously but not literally.

In fact, his critics were always right to take him both seriously and literally. Trump literally meant it when he said he would not recognize his defeat in a legitimate election. He meant it when he said he would call crowds to Washington to overturn the results. He meant it at the end of his one-hour, 13-minute rant on Wednesday when he told his horde of last-ditch backers that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

And he literally meant it when he urged his followers to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue . . . to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones . . . the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

Read the whole speech if you have the stomach to. It was the same exact Trump we have been hearing since 2015.

Yet suddenly, when it became impossible to separate the words from the consequences, Republicans were aghast. To nearly the last moments of his presidency they clung to Trump, hoping his loyalists would vote one more time in Georgia to give the party control of the Senate. But hugging Trump backfired. A pillaged Capitol and five deaths later — including that of Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick — they suddenly saw the light.

“Our identity for the past several years was built around an individual, we got to get back to a set of principles and ideas and policies,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). Ya think? Trump’s behavior, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie told a radio host, showed that “he believes he’s more important than the system, bigger than the office.” This was a revelation?

And even after everything that happened, 147 Republicans in the House and Senate still voted to challenge the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. One of them was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who then had the nerve on Friday to try to stave off the impeachment Trump has earned by piously declaring that “partisans of all stripes first must unite as Americans.” He might have thought of that, as Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah did, before he joined those who tried to nullify Biden’s victory.

Yes, we must come back together, but this requires telling the whole truth about what happened in the Trump years and marginalizing the extremists who came to play such a large role in Republican politics. It also means Biden and a newly empowered Democratic Party must behave as an emergency government. A philosophically diverse party has to minimize internal divisions to deal with the crisis created by the pandemic and an ailing economy, and to shore up our democracy with reforms that build on 2020’s successes in empowering large new swaths of voters.

For in the end, what Trump couldn’t abide was majority rule. He tried to overthrow it and failed. We should use his implosion as an occasion for a new birth of democracy.

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Dana Milbank: This Republican Party needs to go the way of the Whigs