It was always supposed to be a long day. The night before, Americans had stayed up to watch the runoff elections in the state of Georgia. At around midnight, neither of the Democratic candidates had been declared a winner, but the returns suggested that most of the outstanding vote was Democratic. This probability, now a reality, that the Democrats would control both houses of Congress was supposed to be the big news of Wednesday, January 6, 2021.
It was not. The great drama, probably the greatest political drama in recent American history, would not come out of ballot boxes in DeKalb County, Georgia; it would come out of Capitol Hill. At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, a joint session of the two houses was to meet to certify the results of the November election and recognize President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the winners of the most Electoral College votes. The normally ceremonial event had taken on more significance than it was due, thanks to President Trump. For days and days, and particularly on the night before the Georgia elections, Trump had publicly and privately been cajoling his dutiful-if-not-sycophantic vice president into doing something he had no power to do: “decertify” an election that had already been duly certified by the states.
He didn’t win with Mike Pence, who sheepishly admitted in his opening remarks while presiding over the Congressional ritual that he did not (as everyone had already been saying) have the absolute power to overturn an entire election. But President Trump had gotten into the heads of too many others—a group of Senators led by Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri were leading the charge to raise objections to the certification of votes from as many as six swing states. Outside the Capitol, where this delegitimizing performance was planned—a performance because everyone involved knew it would not change the outcome—a different sort of assault was being put in motion. At noon, one hour before the two chambers met in joint session, President Trump took the stage before a crowd not far from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There he whipped up the faithful, men and women he had fed and fattened with stories of election fraud and voting dumps, to march on the Capitol and protest outside. The crowd cheered him on, considering themselves to be real (and armed) patriots there to save America at the “Save America rally.”
Everyone knows what happened next. Even as cable news switched between the House and the Senate, which had returned to their respective chambers to debate the objections to Arizona’s electoral votes, the crowd outside the Capitol grew and became ever more strident. As the objectors to the electoral vote count began to speak of feigned irregularities, the pulsating crowd laid siege to the Capitol. Then it was up the steps, and ultimately it stormed its way in. Photographs showed Confederate flag-bearing protesters in Statuary Hall, others standing in the Senate Chamber. Who could say whether some were carrying weapons? A photo later showed a man carrying plastic handcuffs, as if he hoped to take hostages.
No one can say that what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday had not been presaged by the two months or even the year that came before it.
It was eight o’clock in the evening—two hours after a 6 p.m. curfew came into effect on the streets of D.C. and after law enforcement had “retaken” the Capitol building—when the lawmakers met again. The people were the same, but the political calculations had unalterably changed. Sticking with a post-loss Trump, a move glibly rebranded by Senator Ted Cruz as “[protecting] the integrity of our democratic system,” now bore a greater political cost. Many Americans may have passively supported Trump’s efforts to own the libs and even to complain about fraud; few would be able to applaud the sight of armed protesters storming the Capitol, forcing lawmakers into lockdown and prompting foreign government officials to offer up best wishes for a return to order.
Arguably, it was the only way Trumpism could have been dealt a death blow. Two centuries of efforts toward democracy and decorum have been good for the United States, but even good fortune can foment unseemly side effects. In the case of the United States, these side effects have included a complacency borne of the belief that American democracy, represented by the Capitol, is impenetrable, indestructible, running on almost automatic mechanisms. Another problem, perhaps complicit in the first, is the inadequacy of political vocabulary for a moment like this: it’s hard to properly describe and thus defenestrate those who do not play by democratic rules, while invoking a democratic right to storm “the People’s House.” No one can say that what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday had not been presaged by the two months or even the year that came before it. Trump flouted norms and laws and constitutional principles with abandon, and lawmakers—even those who vehemently opposed Trumpism’s red meat and racial supremacy agenda—seemed not to know what to do.
We saw on Wednesday the consequence of these two factors: disbelief in the possibility of democracy being annihilated by one democratically elected leader, and the absence of an easily retrieved vocabulary that could describe, exclude, and punish threats to an aging democracy. The story, however, is not quite done. America has arrived at this dark crossroads because no one, or at least not enough people, took Trump’s threats, his constant whetting of a coltishly obedient base to violence, seriously enough to have stopped them. This mistake, of underestimating Trump and his nihilistic proclivity to wreck everything if everything could not be his, has cost America too much already.
There are still twelve days left before Trump’s tenure is over. These are twelve days in which he can order his followers to storm more buildings, take lawmakers and others hostage, destroy bit by bit any norms and laws he has not ravaged already. Twelve days are also enough to deploy the nuclear arsenal, or, more likely, to continue to abuse the presidential pardon power, granting pardons to those who stormed the Capitol, to more of his corrupt cronies and family members, and ultimately to himself. A humiliated madman can be arbitrary and fitful when left unrestrained, unchastised, and in charge.
It is for just these reasons that Mike Pence, the man who did not kowtow to Trump on Wednesday, ought to stand up again. Vice President Mike Pence must convene a meeting of the Cabinet under the 25th Amendment and put an end to a madman’s vise-like grip on a country and a people. Pence is reported to be reluctant to do it, even though it would be the fastest way to end Trump’s tenure. Impeachment is justified, as well, and worth pursuing: even though the two-thirds majority of the Senate is a high hurdle, moving forward would be a Congressional statement that, after all this, Donald Trump must be held accountable. Symbolism matters, the Capitol has been stormed, rioters have ravaged its innards, the madman responsible for all of it must be stripped of his power.