Nation’s fraught politics leads to fear, scars and exits
The nation’s increasingly polarized politics are creating new fears for lawmakers and staff, a fact highlighted by Saturday’s planned rally at the Capitol where people will be demonstrating in support of those arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Congressional aides have said the “Justice for J6” rally has brought back bad memories from the insurrection, when members and staff alike worried for their safety as Capitol Police were overwhelmed by a violent mob.
That some would champion arrested insurrectionists is offensive to many who say they’ve been traumatized by the events and have described the lasting emotional toll of having their workplace ransacked to halt the 2020 election certification.
“We started having discussions about a month or two ago. This went on my calendar as: ‘don’t come into the office,’” one congressional staffer for a progressive Democrat told The Hill.
The staffer described the buildup to the rally as “genuinely very fucking terrifying.”
Over the past several months, real security issues have been raised, from the resurrected fence that now surrounds the Capitol to individual security for members.
The continuous threats of violence and subsequent political division has affected lawmakers in different ways.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), a young GOP lawmaker and critic of former President Trump, announced Thursday he was not running for reelection. He recounted a moment of clarity about the changing reality of his public service when extra security was needed as he arrived for a trip at the airport in Cleveland.
Gonzalez told The New York Times that two police officers provided him and his family with extra security detail to ensure their safety, a startling realization that occurred after the House voted to impeach Trump.
“That’s one of those moments where you say, ‘is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?’ ” Gonzalez told the Times.
The anecdote struck a chord with some Republicans outside of Congress who watched in fury and disbelief as the insurrection reshaped the contours of the modern GOP.
Many current GOP lawmakers remain tethered to Trump’s inaccurate claims of election malfeasance, but those unencumbered by reelection bids have spoken candidly about the effect of his rhetoric on the political climate.
“There are a lot of people — Anthony Gonzalez is the most recent example — who are true small government conservatives, who believe in low taxes, a strong and vibrant economy, limited regulation, but they are honest people who do not subscribe to untruths and conspiracy theories so they will walk away,” former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) told The Hill.
“Every time one of them walks away our country bleeds out,” he said.
On Friday, Sergeant at Arms William Walker circulated a memo to lawmakers and staff detailing new protocols for the planned pro-Trump rally. In it, he said residents are “strongly encouraged to avoid the U.S. Capitol Complex” on Saturday. The note also said that the Capitol and House office buildings will be temporarily closed to the general public.
“It demonstrates the power of a lie,” said Curbelo, who narrowly lost his House bid to Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) in 2018.
“Every single person who is going to take part in that event is motivated by something that is completely untrue. And too many Republicans have either contributed to this lie or refused to confront it. So that’s why you can pass criminals who attempted to disrupt the constitutional process as political prisoners.”
The former GOP congressman said Saturday’s planned rally represents a country that, in his view, has “deteriorated” under Trump’s thumb. The fragile state has been exacerbated by Republican lawmakers who have refused to challenge the persistent fraud claims.
“People don’t feel safe at the seat of government,” he said. “That is a manifestation of the erosion of the trust and confidence in our society. It is a clear indicator of the deteriorated state of our republic.”
Curbelo also believes the relative normalization of violence from many on the right could make it more difficult to attract candidates to run for office, particularly under a Republican Party that has tied its political future to the former president.
Trump released a statement this week siding with those engaged in the insurrection.
“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” he wrote Thursday.
The former president stopped short of addressing the Saturday protest, but the comments were the latest in a string of maneuvers following his November defeat by President Biden, stoking speculation that he intends to seek another term in the White House.
“In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!” Trump wrote.
But even some Democrats worry that the constant threat of violence will curb candidates’ enthusiasm to run for elected office.
“It’s demoralizing,” said Tyler Law, an operative who worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I know that candidates have to think even harder about whether they want to be in Congress and put their family through potential death threats,” he said. “It’s particularly hard to stomach the threats and harassment when the two parties can’t even work together to solve our most pressing issues.”
Democrats have been on heightened alert for some time. Earlier this week, police intervened around the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee near the Capitol and arrested a man who was armed with a machete and bayonet. Police ultimately said his motive was unclear.
“It is definitely being taken very seriously,” the Democratic congressional staffer said, recounting in broad terms the instructions that had been planned for additional protection among fellow aides heading into the weekend. “It has been well discussed.” Another staffer for a prominent Democratic lawmaker declined to be interviewed due to security reasons.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed confidence in the new precautions mapped out during a press briefing last week, stating, “We intend to have the integrity of the Capitol be intact.”
“The Justice for J6 rally should concern everyone, not just Democrats,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist.
“These rallygoers are people who believe the government is illegitimate, that those in jail for their violent insurrection are persecuted political prisoners, and that Trump loyalists represent the last bulwark of ‘real’ America. That extreme position legitimizes extreme, even violent action in their minds. And one party is rolling out the red carpet to welcome them.”
On Friday, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger informed the public during a news conference that lawmakers are not expected to show up for the event. “To my knowledge, all of them have declined,” he said, adding that there were only “a few” who received invitations.
“We have a strong plan in place,” Manger added. “We’re not going to tolerate violence and we are not going to tolerate criminal behavior of any kind.”