The Memo: Trump chaos comes to Capitol
It was an attempted coup by any other name.
Rioters brought chaos to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, egged on by a president who refuses to accept the reality of his defeat at the polls more than two months ago.
President Trump has spent much of the intervening period charging without evidence that the election has been stolen from him, floating ever more baroque conspiracy theories, and haranguing those in his own party who have — so far — thwarted his attempts to cling to power.
The president, in other words, has spent his time throwing lit matches on gasoline. On Wednesday, the fire took hold.
Protesters invaded the Capitol building. Lawmakers were told to shelter in place. Gas masks were issued. One woman who was shot at the Capitol later died.
The imagery that emerged in news reports — police inside the Capitol building with pistols drawn, trying to keep the mob at bay — rivaled anything seen during previous American crises in its shock value.
Yet there was something grimly predictable about the events, too.
The national fabric is at least as frayed and tattered as it ever was during other times of American tumult, such as the civil rights era, the war in Vietnam or Watergate.
The American public increasingly appears to be splintering into two tribes, defined at their extremes by mutually exclusive versions of reality.
An Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday found 66 percent of Republican voters asserting that the 2020 election was unfair. However broad the revulsion at Wednesday’s strife, it seems highly unlikely that many of those voters will suddenly change their minds.
Trump had earlier in the day appeared at a rally and encouraged his supporters to take their grievances to the Capitol.
Later, in a video, he rationalized the insurrection, saying that the election had been “stolen from us” and was “fraudulent,” even as he encouraged the crowds to “go home now.”
“We love you, you are very special,” he added.
The video, which appeared in a tweet, was later removed by Twitter. The social media platform went on to suspend the president’s account for 12 hours “for repeated and severe policy violations.”
Some of the crowd of several thousand that had assembled at the Capitol appeared to take the president’s suggestion to disperse to heart. Their numbers thinned as the afternoon went on.
But that left the fiercest denizens of “MAGA country” in place — like a diminutive young man in a military-style vest who insisted that “ballots” had got his side nowhere and “direct action” was needed. He declined to give his name, and threatened to “find” this reporter if his words were rendered in ways he found displeasing.
Nearby, two older men screamed profanities at distant police, after tear gas had apparently been used to begin dispersing the crowds.
Others, speaking earlier in the afternoon, had not been quite so militant, yet they still revealed an enthusiasm for some of the sensationalism and scaremongering that has been propagated by Trump, and by his media and political allies.
A Finnish-born resident of the U.S., who would give her name only as Pia insisted that, for her, “knowing a lot about communism, things are not turning out well for America.”
Joan, a resident of Virginia, contended that voting machines used in the election were rigged and said, of legislators, “I hope they overturn it.” But, she added, “I don’t think [protesters] should be violent at all or destructive in any way.”
The ship had sailed by then. District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced a citywide 12-hour curfew beginning at 6 p.m. and lasting until 6 a.m. The National Guard has been mobilized.
The mob succeeded, temporarily, in one regard. The process of counting the votes of the Electoral College — the final step in affirming Trump’s defeat — had to be postponed amid the mayhem.
It had already become clear that Trump’s efforts to overturn the election’s results would fail, despite the apparent support of more than 100 GOP House members and well over a dozen Republican senators.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered a dramatic speech on the floor of the chamber breaking with Trump’s backers. He hit out at the idea that the complaints raised by colleagues such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) could amount to “a harmless protest gesture.”
“The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” McConnell said. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
Vice President Pence, in a move sure to heighten Trump’s fury, made clear that he would not be intervening in the way that his boss had wanted.
In an open letter to Congress, Pence noted that “the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”
Other Republicans were more emphatic.
“This is what the president has caused, this insurrection,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said, according to The New York Times.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted simply, “This is a coup attempt.”
For all the tension and air of disbelief that hung in the Washington air on Wednesday night, the attempt failed.
But the effort itself inflicted a scar on American life that will not be easily forgotten nor healed.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.