The world may have looked on in disbelief as images of the US Capitol under siege flashed across screens this week. But for anyone observing the last four years of Donald Trump’s presidency there was a sinister inevitability about the assault on the capitol building.
A president who has pushed baseless conspiracy theories, bullied friends and loyal adherents, and waged a war on the very notion of truth from the safe space of the White House has been increasingly reckless since losing the election.
In the run-up to November’s poll Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, equivocating about his intentions when asked, while at the same time carefully planting doubts about election integrity as he had done in 2016. Many dismissed his bluster, confident that a sitting US president would adhere to the basic constitutional norms of a functioning democracy. But the outgoing president has spent the last few months plotting to overturn the election from the White House, mounting court cases, threatening state election officials and successfully pressuring much of the Republican party and supporters to accept his theories.
On Wednesday these efforts reached a crescendo.
The choreography of January 6th was well-planned. For days, Trump encouraged supporters to travel to Washington for a self-styled “Save America” march. The timing was no accident. That date is set out in the constitution as the day members of congress confirm the presidential election results.
By 9am, thousands of supporters had gathered near the White House ahead of Trump’s speech.
“There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Biden will become president,” Jeff Odhner from Amherst, New Hampshire, told me. He was in a convoy of a dozen vehicles that had driven south to Washington from Massachusetts to attend the event. “We need to stop the United States from becoming a communist nation,” he said, holding aloft a sign reading “Trump won in a landslide!”
Sherrie Noble from southern Wisconsin, wearing a white Team Trump cowboy hat, said she had flown to Washington to protest the “voting abnormalities” that happened on election night. “Trump was far ahead in all the swing states when we went to bed. When we woke up, It was like ‘what happened?’,” she said.
“We’ve seen the videos of them taking out the ballots from underneath tables. It just doesn’t make any sense. Statistically it doesn’t make any sense. There’s never been a president in history who’s won Ohio and Florida and lost the election.”
‘F**k the media’
As we spoke, chants of “f**k the media” broke out from a group of flag-waving Trump supporters just in front of the Washington Monument.
But while the atmosphere and sentiment resembled many of the Trump events I have attended, there was a new element. Much of the ire was directed at Republicans as Trump supporters criticised the party for not doing enough to ensure the president’s victory. Signs denouncing Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and Pat Toomey – Republicans who said they would not oppose Biden’s win – as “sellouts for China” bobbed along the sea of Trump 2020 flags.
The theme was echoed by Trump’s warm-up acts – his two adult sons and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – who spoke before the president. When the president himself took to the stage just before noon, he lashed-out at what he called “weak Republicans” for “turning a blind eye” to what he claimed was election fraud. “If they do the wrong thing we should never ever forget what they did,” he said, name-checking Republicans like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney.
He encouraged the crowd to walk to the Capitol. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
Minutes later, the furious mob – its members’ anger directed towards their own political party as much as the Democrats – was moving towards the Capitol at the president’s instigation.
As the afternoon’s extraordinary events unfolded, the Republican party was already in full crisis mode on Capitol Hill.
Trump’s take-over of the party, since he became their unexpected presidential nominee in 2016, was now coming home to roost for the party of Lincoln.
Even before the anarchy erupted, the cracks were beginning to show. As Trump addressed supporters at the National Mall, vice-president Mike Pence issued a statement saying he would not overturn the election. Shortly after, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell took to the senate floor to implore his Republican colleagues to accept the results.
“The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
As the Capitol building came under siege and activity was suspended, the dynamic changed in an instant, as both parties grappled with the gravity of a Trump-inspired attack on the seat of democracy.
Less than eight hours later, the insurrectionists had pulled in their horns. By the time members of congress had re-entered the chamber, keen to show that American democracy would not be intimidated by a mob, the number of senators objecting halved. More than 120 members of the larger House of Representatives stuck with their objections, though they narrowed their focus to just two states.
Cruz, whose speech on the senate floor was one of the final interventions before the chamber was locked down, was notably silent in the wake of the riots.
Hawley remained defiant, however. As the floor activity stretched into the early hours of Thursday morning, the Yale-educated lawyer mounted a feeble case of why he was objecting to Pennsylvania’s 20 legally-cast electoral college votes.
His argument that the decision to expand absentee-voting was unconstitutional was torn apart by senators and members of the House in the other chamber, many from the state. Senator Bob Casey pointed out that the law in question, Act 77, was passed in 2019 and implemented without any serious question as to its constitutionality.
Donald Trump supporters storm the US Capitol following a rally with the US president on Wednesday in Washington, DC. Photograph: Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Furthermore, it was passed by a Republican-controlled general assembly, and simply afforded the citizens of Pennsylvania the same right to cast an absentee ballot that is afforded in many other states, a right particularly necessary in a pandemic.
The interchange encapsulated the dishonesty and partisanship at the heart of Republican efforts to undermine trust in America’s voting system. As McConnell put it: “Every election we know features some illegality and irregularity, and of course that’s unacceptable. I support strong state-led voting reforms… But, my colleagues, nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale – the massive scale – that would have tipped the entire election.”
Republican Mitt Romney put it more succinctly. “The best way we can respect the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth ... Joe Biden won.”
With just days left in Trump’s presidency, the Republican party is now scrambling to respond to the Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol, even as Trump acknowledged in a video message on Thursday night that a new administration will be sworn-in.
Fresh conspiracy theory
Conservative media, which has fanned the flames of partisanship in the country, has already settled on a fresh conspiracy theory – that the Trump-loving protesters had actually been infiltrated by Antifa, a loosely-defined network of left-wing groups, who were responsible for the violence.
The party is already facing into a dark winter. Having wreaked havoc on the GOP as he exits the political door, Trump’s political legacy as he leaves Washington is Democratic control of the executive and legislative branches.
His relentless drive to falsely discredit Georgia’s election system – despite three recounts – is widely believed to have depressed Republican turnout in Tuesday’s special elections. Democrats won both seats, securing Democratic control of the senate – an enormous boost for incoming president Joe Biden.
But the damage to the country goes much deeper than the ebb and flow of political power. If anyone needed a reminder that American authority is past its heyday it was the scenes of anarchy at the US Capitol. To say it further eroded the US right to demand democratic standards from other jurisdictions is an understatement.
China, newly emboldened by its freshly-minted investment deal with the EU, which has infuriated the incoming Biden team, immediately tried to equate the Capitol riots with the Hong Kong demonstrations.
While the incoming administration has pledged to restore America’s standing in the world and at the same time tackle an increasingly aggressive China, Biden’s immediate task will be to unify a nation riven in two. McConnell’s break from Trump this week – however belated – gives some hope that Republicans can work with Democrats. The swearing-in of a president less dependent on unregulated social media platforms to disseminate falsehoods and invective may also dampen the flames of division.
In the meantime, Trump will be plotting his next move. The prospect of a Trump-led media venture is very possible, despite the regulatory and financial challenges. The outgoing president has already raised millions of dollars since the election, prompting speculation about another run at the presidency.
While Trump seems unlikely to be removed from office in the waning days of his presidency, he may face a legal reckoning in the future. Investigators in the state of New York are already aggressively investigating his business affairs.
Once Donald Trump loses the power and protection of the presidency, he will be once again on his own – the brash, arrogant property developer and celebrity he always was. For Trump, the last four years may have been a wild ride, but the real world beckons.