In the days since the attack, however, our picture of the event itself has evolved. From long-distance camera lenses, it might have looked like a protest that grew out of hand. But many of the insurrectionists came prepared with tactical gear and communications equipment. They roamed the halls with zip ties hunting for Pence and congressional leaders. At a distance, they carried crosses. Close up, they built gallows and chanted death threats. At a distance, they carried “thin blue line” banners. Close up, they savagely beat police officers who resisted them.
One moment captured on video stands out to me for its brutality and symbolism. An insurrectionist pulls a police officer down the steps of the Capitol, where he is stomped and beaten with the pole of a U.S. flag. The crowd chants “USA, USA.”
Some elected Republicans, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, advise that we avoid the full legal and political implications of these events in the cause of national unity. He said impeachment would “only divide our country more.” Having accommodated radicalism in the GOP for years — and fresh from encouraging the election denialism at the heart of the violent revolt — McCarthy has a vested interest in ignoring sedition. So he is not, perhaps, the best source of advice on events moving forward.
The problem with McCarthy’s approach is that it assumes the threat has passed. On the morning of the Capitol attack, newly seated Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted, “Today is 1776” — comparing a revolt of treasonous misfits and conspiracy theorists to the conduct of a justified revolution. “There’s a lot of people calling for the end of violence,” said Rush Limbaugh. “I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord didn’t feel that way.” Violent insurrectionists are still being fed the lie that their cause is equivalent to the American founding. And they know that Trump — whatever halfhearted criticism of the revolt he was forced to make — still has their back.
Trump’s attack on the Capitol was not an isolated event. It was the logical outcome of an ideology of resentment, hatred and violence that Trump and his right-wing media allies have placed at the very center of U.S. politics. This conspiracy against the constitutional order has grown strong in an atmosphere of Republican appeasement. Those who want to continue that appeasement are inviting further disorder and violence.
Stopping this rot in the political order will require accountability. That begins with the president, who deserves every legal and constitutional consequence our system offers. He should be impeached for sedition. He should be prevented from holding any further elective office. He should be stripped of all the perks of the post-presidency. He should be prosecuted for insurrection against the U.S. government.
But the responsibility does not end with a single man. Many elected Republicans enabled the president’s political rise. Trump could only attempt the occupation of the Capitol because he had already occupied the Republican Party — in that case, with little resistance. Elected Republicans who cheered that takeover deserve to lose, and lose, and lose, until their party is either destroyed or transformed.
There are also harder cases. Some elected Republicans did more than spread the lies that empowered the insurrection. They voted to confirm those lies after the Capitol had been assaulted. Not even physical danger — not even the humiliation of their country and the attempted murder of their colleagues — could overcome their moral cowardice and political ambition. That justifies ethics investigations of people such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and McCarthy, leading to their possible expulsion. These legislators urged surrender to the pernicious lies and seditious demands of violent insurrectionists who had just left the building. That is the betrayal of the oath they took to defend the Constitution.
This is the sad reality of our beleaguered democracy: If the United States does not punish sedition, we will see more of it.