Yesterday, the “unthinkable” that many of us predicted took place: Donald Trump completed his years-long long incitement of his mob, who came to the nation’s capital, as invited, were riled up by Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, the Trump boys, and Trump himself, and then marched to the Capitol building and assaulted the U.S. Congress.
Experts will debate the precise terminology that best describes what happened. Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, tweeting while in hiding in the besieged Capitol, described it as a coup. Republican Senator Mitt Romney described it as an insurrection. This much is clear: there was a violent assault involving thousands, criminal laws were broken, members of the House and the Senate cowered in fear and were rushed away for protection, chaos ensued, and it took hours for “order” to be “restored.” Congress then reconvened and, in the wee hours of the following morning, completed its constitutional duty, and confirmed the Electoral College results.
That the results were confirmed is a good thing. That the hard core of the rightly-called “Coup Caucus” persisted in their obstructive actions even after the melee is simply further evidence of what these people stand for and who they are. That most Republican Senators stepped back from the breach is also good—though it absolves none of them of political responsibility for the crisis that they helped to foment. Only a handful of Republicans, most notably Mitt Romney, can claim to have unambiguously stood for constitutional democracy these past months. All the rest, from Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham to Mike Braun and Kelly Loeffler, backed Trump until almost the bitter end. To put this more bluntly and politically: the Republican party is an anti-system party that still controls almost half of the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch of the U.S. government and has the support of close to half of the electorate.
On January 6, 2021, the U.S. constitutional system walked up to the edge of the abyss and then took one small step backwards. The step was small. And the abyss still stares us in the face.
The Republican Party as described above is one source of continuing danger—though it may be momentarily debased and thus cowed.
But the main source of danger continues to be Donald Trump.
Donald Trump continues to occupy the office of President of the United States, in which capacity he is also the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces and the director of all forms of federal “law enforcement.”
In the past few days and especially in the past 24 hours, serious conversations about invoking the 25th Amendment and expeditious impeachment have been reported. But nothing has been done, either of these steps would involve deliberation and negotiation, and there is no reason for confidence that the relevant Republican officials would do the right thing.
And so Trump remains in power.
Think about this.
He incited the violence and, even as his messaging became more mixed, he has continued to incite insurrection, by describing the rioters as patriotic citizens simply defending their rights, and describing the law itself as the enemy of the people. In other words, he continues to promote sedition, which is itself a form of sedition.
This is not simply a matter of his rhetoric—though, as many of us have argued for years, his rhetoric is an essential dimension of his dangerous politics, precisely because of its mobilizing power.
It is also a matter of his control of the coercive force of the state.
It has been noted by many very establishment figures that yesterday’s assault on the Congress was only possible because of a massive “security failure.” But this “failure” is only a failure from the vantage point of the rule of law in a constitutional democracy. The current chief executive of the U.S. despises the rule of law, and is in the process of attacking it. He is legally in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, all federal officers attached to the Justice Department, and even the Secret Service. He is also in charge of the Pentagon. And yesterday he organized and incited an insurrection, then returned to the White House and watched the insurrection unfold, and said and did nothing.
He more than “greenlit” the insurrection. He supported it. He “stood down and stood by,” and refused to discharge his legal responsibilities as President to protect the U.S. Congress, and clearly obstructed efforts by those more “responsible” members of his administration who saw the nightmare they had helped to create and, not being sociopaths, saw that some action was necessary.
It is simply impossible to even begin to assign responsibility for yesterday’s “security failure” without immediately starting at the top—with Trump himself.
As the insurrection unfolded, it was reported that efforts by some Pentagon officials to press for a calling out of the National Guard were met with bureaucratic resistance and presidential refusal to act “against his supporters.” The Governors of Maryland and Virginia dispatched Guard forces to the scene before any action was taken by the U.S. government. Every single news outlet has reported that when federal forces were called out, this was done at the order of Mike Pence, in consultation (and at the urging) of the Secretary of the Army, the Acting Secretary of Defense, and Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. In other words, this action was taken behind Trump’s back, because Trump refused to act.
Trump’s refusal to act was itself an act, a classic “nondecision” if ever there was one. An insurrection was occurring, blood was being spilled, Congress were being ransacked and Congresspeople were being endangered, all at his urging, and he was choosing to watch. Do you think Trump was smiling while he watched? Honestly, it is hard to imagine Trump ever really smiling. And it is clear that he is now in a rage, a rage against his opponents, and his closest allies (“Mike,” “Mitch,” even “Lindsey”) who have now “betrayed” him. A rage at a world that refuses to bend the knee. But Trump was not and is not a bystander to the insurrection. He was the chief instigator.
Had action not been taken in spite of his nondecision, members of Congress might still be in hiding in the Capitol complex.
The U.S. military did not intervene yesterday in the manner feared by many. Yet. The Insurrection Act was not invoked. Yet. Good.
Yet the situation remains perilous, in a constitutional and political sense and in a military sense.
The U.S. remains on the precipice of a kind of civil war that could well turn violent in a serious way, in DC and throughout the country.
The U.S. military as an institution is not the preeminent danger to the republic—though there can be no doubt that the military contains many supporters of Trump, junior officers and enlisted men and women.
The preeminent danger lies in the violent vigilantism long incited and now unleashed by Trump.
But potential danger also lies elsewhere, among those ICE officers and Interior and Parks Service police and sheriffs and local police who surely support Trump. Many of these types turned a blind eye towards yesterday’s insurrectionists, or took selfies with them, or perhaps even joined them.
The “security failure” raises huge questions about who is actually enforcing the law and on whose behalf they are doing so. These questions are obviously not unrelated to broader questions urged by last summer’s BLM protests—which were so much more “civil,” “reasonable,” orderly and justified than yesterday’s events, and yet met with massive repression while yesterday’s insurrection met with virtually nothing at all.
These questions remain unanswered.
There has thus far been no press conference, no explanation offered by any responsible public official for what was allowed to take place yesterday, and for the fact that the insurrectionists, having done their work, were then allowed to leave without hardly arrests being made.
The chaos in the Capitol building has been ended, for now.
But the chaos in the country continues.
Huge questions remain unanswered.
A dangerous, autocratic sociopath remains in control of the federal government, possessing enormous powers of life and death.
We are still in the middle of what Barton Gellman has called an “interregnum,” and this impasse has now become violent, uncertain, and very dangerous.
A peaceful democratic transition is no longer possible.
It remains to be seen what kind of “transition” is possible.
As long as Trump remains in office we remain in grave peril.
Will responsible public officials do the responsible thing?
Will responsible civic action be required, and if so, will the leaders and organizers who promised preparedness for “protecting the results” prove up to the task?
Will constitutional democracy actually persist?
We are in a state of emergency, watching, waiting, and worrying.