The prospects for drama were hanging thick in the cold Washington air Wednesday morning, as a large crowd gathered to show solidarity with President Trump and those members of the House and Senate who were preparing to object to the acceptance of electoral votes in an election they viewed as illegitimate.
As rare as the circumstances were, an air of predictability had set in. Trump would fire up the crowd, which would then march to the Capitol. Inside, both chambers would hear the objections, which would prevail in neither chamber. The election of Joe Biden would be settled, however controversially, but at least there would have been a final therapeutic moment for the Republicans with constitutional and procedural concerns, and the millions of Americans who agree with them.
That’s the way it was supposed to go.
But as the House and Senate weighed the first protested state, a portion of the approaching crowd went rogue, peeling away from what would have otherwise been an inspiring portrait of Americans gathered at an iconic site to make a stand. From civil rights protests to anti-nuclear rallies to pro-life marches, large crowds have been a familiar sight in Washington whenever there is a grand political point to be made. The point of this day was that laws had been so wantonly disregarded in various states that the result was improperly found.
The merits of that argument, and the landscape for debating it in the House and Senate chambers soon evaporated in a cascade of broken glass and stampeding intruders. An overwhelmed law enforcement contingent was quickly outmaneuvered as elected representatives dove into the seats while insurgents took up positions from the Senate podium to Nancy Pelosi’s office chair. A woman climbing through a window was shot and later died.
The waning days of the Trump administration will now be forever stained by the misdeeds of supporters for whom the constitutional challenge was not enough. “This is the people’s house!” proclaimed some, as if their indignation entitled them to wander its halls at will.
There are too many catastrophes to address as a result. Foremost, the very image of our Capitol overrun by violent insurgents is something we should have been able to safely say we would never see. A worthy protest process that struggled for validity against hostile opponents was dashed against the rocks, never again to see the light of day. And a political and media culture that had yawned as America’s cities burned was gifted with plentiful fuel to ignite a suddenly aggrieved blame game that extended far beyond the offenders, to the entire crowd, to the representatives who challenged the election, to the President himself.
Never let a good riot go to waste, one could say.
To be clear: this was a riot. It was domestic terrorism. And it was met with instant condemnation from conservatives at every level. But as the news coverage dragged toward evening and the crowds dispersed, TV analysis made clear that was not enough. The media narrative was gorged with the charge that Trump’s sharp words at the White House were a directive to storm the halls of the Capitol. There would be no rest until segment guests could be badgered into blaming Trump for the actions of his most unhinged supporters.
But scapegoating is not the most pressing matter of this moment. Two moral imperatives are staring us down: the essential process toward consequences for those who have defiled the corridors of our democracy, and the necessity of addressing the provocation that inflamed them in the first place.
The indefensible behavior of the rioters does not erase the righteous grievance of millions of Americans who have lost faith in an election system cast to the winds of political opportunism. Democrats launched an end run around state legislatures, the only proper setting for changes in election law. The misadventures of governors, state courts and secretaries of state constituted a wholly improper basis for election procedures in enough states to call the electoral total into question.
President Trump is entitled to his anger. His voters are entitled to theirs. Members of the House and Senate are entitled to their constitutionally established avenues of objection.
But no one gets to do what happened Wednesday. And no one should defend it or even attempt to excuse it under some guise of “Hey, this is what you get when people get really mad,” which was sadly the thrust of a Trump tweet as evening fell.
As the sun rises on the day after, we are left to weigh many lessons. Some will involve the unpreparedness and actions of a law enforcement contingent that was overcome with shocking ease. Some will involve the political cost to an administration that had much to boast about, whose achievements are at least for now shrouded by mob violence.
But the most important lessons will feature our ability to address our national crises with honesty, goodwill and good faith. After the tear gas smoke clears, we still have an election held in contempt by millions. We have rioters to punish, but we still have a system to fix.