Ninety minutes before rioters stormed Capitol Hill, US president Donald Trump addressed many of the same people using unequivocally inciteful language. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Mr Trump said. “You have to show strength.” His personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, also called on the crowd to conduct “trial by combat”.
A mob made up of “Make America Great Again” protesters, Proud Boys and other far-right groups took them at their word. Desecration followed. Four years after Mr Trump warned of “American carnage” in his inaugural address, he got what he wanted. The scenes of insurrectionists, some of them armed, ransacking Congress will go down in infamy in American democracy.
Nobody should feign surprise. Mr Trump has been vowing to “take back control” since before he took office. During the build-up to last year’s presidential election, Mr Trump repeatedly predicted it would be the most corrupt in US history. Since losing, he has broadcast that falsehood ever more loudly.
He said it again on Wednesday afternoon in the video he released urging his supporters to go home. (Twitter later locked the president out of his account and insisted he delete the post.) On Twitter and elsewhere, Mr Trump has fuelled the QAnon conspiracy theory that Washington is controlled by a deep state of paedophiles. A large minority of Americans now believe the US election was fraudulent. No wonder some were ready to storm Congress as it met to certify Joe Biden’s victory. The only surprise is that there were not more.
The most pressing question now is what Mr Trump might try to do in his remaining nearly two weeks in office. Senior military in the Pentagon have discussed at length how they would respond if he tried to declare martial law, using the 1807 Insurrection Act. Some around Mr Trump, including Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, have urged him to invoke it. After supporters stormed the Capitol, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, called them “patriots” in a tweet she later deleted.
The concern about what Mr Trump can still attempt to do is not academic. In spite of what happened on Wednesday, he still commands the personal loyalty of many people in uniform.
One reason why the mob so easily breached Congress is because many of the Capitol Hill police officers were clearly in sympathy. Some even took selfies with the insurrectionists inside the Capitol building. The contrast with how Black Lives Matter protesters were treated last June, when law enforcement violently cleared Lafayette Square to make way for Mr Trump’s photo-op, was glaring. Had African-American protesters tried to storm Capitol Hill, or the White House, there can be little doubt that bullets would have been used.
The next question is how many Republicans will continue to support Mr Trump’s “stolen election” narrative.
Shortly before Congress was invaded, Mitch McConnell, the outgoing Senate majority leader, repudiated Mr Trump’s attempts to declare the election a fraud. Critics will say Mr McConnell’s surprisingly forceful address was a day late and a dollar short. But he was able to state reality forcefully when it mattered. The same cannot be said of Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator, and more than 100 of their colleagues in both houses. Their theatrical protest against the election certification was interrupted by a real-life assault on the building in which they were speaking.
In his speech, Mr Cruz said the fact that so many Americans believed the election was a fraud posed “a profound threat to our country”. Here was a classic case of the arsonist posing as a firefighter. Fifteen minutes later, the session was abruptly halted.
As senators were hurried to safety, Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, who has been a rare Republican voice warning of Mr Trump’s authoritarianism, yelled to GOP colleagues: “This is what you’ve gotten.” He was right.
Agree with him or not, Mr Romney speaks for the party that used to care about the constitution, law and order, US standing in the world, and civility in politics. There may also be a silver lining to what happened. The ambiguous “see no evil” Republicans are having to make a choice: are they patriots or insurrectionists? Some have changed tack and endorsed the election result. Others, who continue to throw in their lot with Mr Trump, are now tied to his mob. They may not have expected events to turn quite so dark. But that was the gamble they took. As John F Kennedy said in his inaugural address: “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
— to www.ft.com