Instead of an orderly and normally pro forma procedure to ascertain the results of the electoral college, it will be remembered as the day Capitol Hill security collapsed, when members of the House and Senate were forced into lockdown, when Vice President Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others had to be escorted to safety, when House members were told to prepare to don gas masks.
Instead of a moment of celebration of free and fair elections in the world’s greatest democracy, Wednesday will be remembered as a day that brought a frightening and predictable culmination to two months of lies by the president that the election had been stolen by Biden and the Democrats, when in fact it had not.
It was a day in which Trump was aided and abetted by many members of his party, who were preparing to object to the electoral college counts and thereby give moral support to Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and who then decried the lawbreaking and violence of the people in whose names they claimed to be representing.
As the process of counting the election of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris was getting underway, democracy suddenly gave way to political anarchy. It was a clarifying moment. When the protesters stormed the Capitol, it was no longer possible to conclude anything other than that there are connections between the dangerous and inflammatory words of political leaders and how the people who trust them respond — and consequences.
Could there be any other conclusion? Trump had urged people to assemble on Wednesday to show their support for him. In the hour before the joint session of Congress convened in the House chamber, the president was exhorting a mass of supporters with one more recitation of his baseless claims of a stolen election and much else.
It was the president who urged them, their flags and banners snapping in the cold wind, to march to the Capitol, and they did, and immediately the Capitol complex became a scene of chaos and clashes between protesters and police, with Trump supporters hurling insults and vulgarities at law enforcement officials in riot gear and behind barriers designed to protect buildings and people. Then the protesters turned into a mob, breaching the barriers.
The scenes that unfolded in the afternoon were unlike anything anyone could remember, with rioters marching unencumbered through Statuary Hall near the House chamber, clogging the steps and balconies on the East Front, and the mob assembling in even bigger numbers on the Capitol’s West Front, where the inaugural ceremonies will take place in two weeks.
Alerts and texts to lawmakers, staffers and journalists provided a running inventory of the confusion, alarm and danger. U.S. Capitol Police called for reinforcements as they sought to reclaim one of the grandest and most secure buildings in the country. There were scenes of violence and reports of injuries, tear gas used and flash grenades set off, with all the images hurtling around the globe via television and the Internet.
To the rest of the world, America, long the beacon of democracy, stood as a nation besieged, its long-standing divisions starker and more threatening than ever, its electoral system challenged by the insecurities of a president unwilling to accept what even many of those elected officials raising objections to the electoral college counts knew to be true, which is that the election was carried out fairly and that Trump lost.
Before the Capitol was overrun and the proceedings designed to officially seal Biden’s victory halted, Trump could see the withering away of support, even if he was not prepared to accept it. First it was Pence, presiding over the joint session, who issued a lengthy statement saying that he was powerless to change the outcome or delay the ascertainment and doing so just minutes after Trump had again implored him to act in opposition to the Constitution.
“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” he wrote.
Next it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose days as Senate leader are numbered as Democrats won two stunning victories in runoff elections in Georgia. McConnell, who has drawn the ire of Democrats for the way he has run the Senate and for failing to confront Trump’s false claims earlier and more forcefully, said he was about to take the most important vote he had ever taken as a senator — a vote against the president’s wishes.
“Voters, the courts and the states have all spoken,” he said. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.” To overturn an election on the basis of “unproven allegations by the losing side” would mean that “democracy would enter a death spiral.”
In a matter of minutes, the Capitol was under assault, as if that death spiral were being visited on the lawmakers themselves. Biden, who spoke later in the afternoon, would describe the scenes he had witnessed on television as democracy “under unprecedented assault.”
He said what was happening “borders on sedition,” adding, “To storm the Capitol, to smash windows, to occupy offices, and to threaten the safety of duly elected officials is not protest. It is insurrection.”
Trump has fed this anger throughout his presidency, stoking division and hatred. For some, it has been a joyride, an opportunity to stick the eye of an establishment they saw as easy to hate. The president has delighted in playing impresario to this drama, reveling in the adulation of the crowds.
Those around him have proved to be powerless to constrain him, or have given up caring, assuming perhaps that it would finally run its course on Jan. 20, when Biden is to be sworn in. Instead, the worst happened on Wednesday, just two weeks before Trump will have to vacate the White House and become once again a private citizen.
Biden challenged Trump to address the nation on television and call for an end to the protests, to acknowledge that he had lost the election and to say that it was time for everyone to accept the results. The most Trump could muster by sundown was a pair of tepid tweets urging protesters to remain peaceful and to support law enforcement and a one-minute video in which he urged supporters to go home peacefully while repeating his baseless claim that the election was stolen. Twitter later took down the video, along with several other posts by the president, for violating its rules.
Trump is both a symptom and a cause of the eruption on Wednesday, a president who was elected in an outpouring of protest and who has used the powers of his office not to tamp down on the anger and hostility but to inflame it. It should not be a surprise that, in the final days of his presidency, it would produce Wednesday’s revolt against the election results.
Biden had intended to speak about the economy on Wednesday afternoon, all part of his team’s carefully planned run-up to the inauguration. Instead, he was forced to speak about the events that threaten to make his presidency even more difficult. He must deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and much else, but he was reminded by what was unfolding of the most important problem that awaits him.
“The work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy,” he said. That is the sad legacy left to him by Trump.