This is America
He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last, to call the angry crowd to arms.
The mood at the “Save America” rally was defiant. Thousands of self-described revolutionaries gathered to hear the president speak about the 2020 election, the alleged fraud that led to his defeat, and about his plan to “save our democracy.”
For the unpatriotic members of Congress determined to certify President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory, Rudy Giuliani had called for “trial by combat.” Don Jr., the president’s son, had warned them that “we’re coming for you.” All powerful messages, of course, but nobody’s words meant as much as Donald’s.
Trump slowly made his way onto the stage as Lee Greenwood’s famous song “God Bless the U.S.A.” blared through the speakers: “I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free.” He clapped as he surveyed the crowd, pumped his fist. “And I’d gladly stand up next to you / And defend Her still today.” With the White House as a backdrop, he gripped the lectern and began his speech.
He raged for an hour, his tone firm and deeply serious, about how the 2020 election was stolen from him, how he would have won in a landslide if not for cheating by his opponents. Not just the Democrats, mind you. Also involved in the grand conspiracy against him were Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President, Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, and the other unnamed “weak Republicans” who refused to declare Trump the winner.
That he wanted unwavering support for his cause was abundantly clear:
We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about.
After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down. We’re going to walk down any one you want, but I think right here [sic]. We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women.
And that’s exactly what they did.
What followed has been described a number of ways: a coup d’etat, an insurrection, a violent mob of extremists. Necessary as the proper nomenclature is — and each of these terms is right in its own way — none alone can capture how horrifying the events of January 6th were.
It is accurate, for example, to describe the mob as violent radicals. The attack, perpetrated by Qanon followers, Trump voters, and neo-Nazis — three groups with an unfortunately significant overlap — left five people dead. But if we opt to characterize the siege in this way, we would do well to remind ourselves that one of the dead, Ashli Babbitt, was a combat-trained veteran who was shot as she attempted to breach the room which housed the Vice President and other members of Congress. Or that Randall Brock Jr., an ex-Air Force combat veteran, breached the Senate chamber while carrying zip-ties and wearing protective body armor.
Brock Jr. claims that he found that zip-ties on the floor, that he picked them up in order to “give them to an officer when I see one [sic].” Whether you believe him or not (I do not), their presence in the Capitol Building on the day of a planned insurrection raises important questions.
As do many other oddities: why were so many of the insurrectionists armed? Why did they shout at law enforcement to “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that bitch!”? Why did they bring pipe bombs and a cooler of Molotov cocktails? For what purpose did they erect a scaffold with a noose outside the White House? And why were some in the mob chanting “Hang Mike Pence?”
One cannot help but conclude from the above that the insurrectionists, while unquestionably violent, intended their attack to inflict more damage than it did, to claim more lives than it was able. Zealous in their belief that they were truly fighting for the existence of their country, they, like most extremists, felt there were no means off-limits in pursuit of their ends. After all, for a political group that assigns large prima facie value on vague notions of the American revolution, that lauds the lawlessness that led to the formation of our republic, having a steadfast claim to the moral high ground allows them to justify the unthinkable.
The violence will continue. Those who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday (who have not yet been arrested) organized the event in plain view, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Using sites like Parler, the Trump-supporting radicals salivated at the thought of insurrection: “Find the traitors and get the rope. THIS IS OUR HOUSE!!” one post reads. Another, even more explicit, says “Let’s take this fucking Country BACK!! Load your guns and take to the streets!” And now, after the unsuccessful coup attempt, the president’s most fervent supporters are threatening future attacks sometime before Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.
And who, exactly, is surprised? They have been brainwashed — by Donald Trump, by Conservative media, and by Republican politicians — into believing that the president won an election that he unambiguously lost. Not only that, they are convinced that a lukewarm Biden presidency would spell the destruction of the United States. As Trump said in the speech before the violence, “Our country will be destroyed, and we’re not going to stand for that.”
What’s more, the president and his allies have encouraged this domestic terrorism. Rush Limbaugh, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for instance, is spending his dying days encouraging the thuggish seditionists to continue the violence, comparing them to the American Revolutionaries:
There’s a lot of people calling for the end of violence. There’s a lot of conservatives, social media [sic], who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable. Regardless of the circumstances. I’m glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord didn’t feel that way.
Hours into the siege that killed five people, Trump posted a video on Twitter telling the rioters to go home. But in that same video he repeated the lies about electoral fraud that riled them up in the first place and excused them of any guilt, assuring the insurrectionists “We love you. You‘re very special.”
Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump, one thing is abundantly clear: the attack on the Capitol cannot go unpunished. As political scientist Jonathan Ladd pointed out on Twitter, unsuccessful coups are often followed by successful ones. And there is some evidence, though admittedly inconclusive, that the siege on the Capitol was a deliberate coup carried out by the President of the United States with the knowledge and support of federal law enforcement officials. In fact, some United States allies are already briefing their government that they believe the January 6th attack to be a coup attempt orchestrated by President Trump. As one NATO official described it:
The defeated president gives a speech to a group of supporters where he tells them he was robbed of the election, denounces his own administration’s members and party as traitors, and tells his supporters to storm the building where the voting is being held. The supporters, many dressed in military attire and waving revolutionary-style flags, then storm the building where the federal law-enforcement agencies controlled by the current president do not establish a security cordon, and the protesters quickly overwhelm the last line of police. The president then makes a public statement to the supporters attacking the Capitol that he loves them but doesn’t really tell them to stop. Today I am briefing my government that we believe with a reasonable level of certainty that Donald Trump attempted a coup that failed when the system did not buckle [emphasis added].
Their summary is chillingly accurate and highlights how dire the situation truly is.
Now is not the time to brush past the events of January 6th. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, in the name of “unity,” has warned that impeachment proceedings would “only divide our country more,” and Senator Lindsey Graham that it would “do more harm than good.” Graham added that “It will take both parties to heal the nation,” implying that both Republicans and Democrats are responsible.
But healing, as historian David Blight has observed, cannot occur without accountability. Whether we suffered a coup attempt or merely a violent mob, failure to punish those responsible for it only sets the precedent that violent subversions of the democratic process and undemocratic power grabs are permissible, legitimate even, and not deserving of repercussions. Without removing President Trump, electoral violence will become normalized in the United States.
We cannot allow this to happen.