WASHINGTON — Before Wednesday, there was no precedent for a president’s inciting citizens to storm the Capitol. And it had been more than 150 years, dating to the Civil War, since a large group of lawmakers gave comfort to an insurrection.
But all that changed after President Donald Trump invited his die-hards to Washington, filled their heads with lies — that he had been cheated out of the election and that Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the result unilaterally — and pointed a mob of them in the direction of Congress.
What ensued was one of the ugliest days for democracy in memory.
Deep into the lame-duck period of his single term as president, Trump is getting in his last licks against America’s republican form of government. The military won’t help him. Federal agencies won’t do it, either. And his mob proved as ineffective at executing a rebellion as it was capable of vandalizing the seat of the republic — “the people’s house” — and delaying the pro forma certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory by a meaningless matter of hours.
The real aid he got came from Republican lawmakers, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, most memorably, who began the day by raising unfounded objections to the electoral vote counts of several states. Their actions demonstrated that Trump’s lasting legacy will be not about great victories at the ballot box or in the legislative arena but rather about his utter domination of fellow Republicans desperate to be seen as his political heir.
From our Francis Chung, Sen. Josh Hawley greeting protesters in the east side of the Capitol before riots began. pic.twitter.com/I8DjBCDuoP
— Manuel Quinones (@ManuelQ) January 6, 2021
And his biggest impact will be on a Republican Party that is deeply divided over whether to get on with America’s business or share in Trump’s delusion that he was robbed in November.
Hawley and Cruz, for example, are both widely considered potential candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Both supported House members’ efforts to overturn the will of the electorate Wednesday, prompting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to explain his view that it was a bad idea. And, in a moment that will surely be iconic for his fans and his detractors, Hawley gave a fist pump to Trump’s riot brigade Wednesday.
“They should be ashamed,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said on MSNBC, adding that the two lawyers — Hawley educated at Yale and Cruz at Harvard — are “traitors to the Constitution.”
Did they understand the relationship between their actions and those of the mob? To many Americans, that became apparent after pro-Trump forces stormed the Capitol, chased police officers and destroyed federal property. And, of course, someone lost her life in the building.
But some people think they knew exactly what they were doing.
“They are more responsible in my mind than poor Mr. Trump, who is sort of an impulsive buffoon,” retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Some Republicans have taken stands against Trump’s fact-free challenge of election results that already have been certified at the state level, criticizing him for misleading his voters.
“The president is abusing the trust of the American people and abusing the trust of the people who supported him,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said Wednesday on Fox News. “The mob will not prevail.”
In broadcast remarks, Biden pleaded with Trump to simply give a stand-down order to his loyalists.
“I call on President Trump to go on national television now to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege,” Biden said. Trump did no such thing. Instead, he tweeted. And then Twitter suspended his account for half a day, citing “repeated and severe” violations of its civic integrity code, followed by similar actions by Facebook and Instagram.
Ultimately, Twitter and other social media companies didn’t want to serve as platforms for inciting an assault on the Capitol, even if a bunch of Republican lawmakers were very happy to do just that.
When Trump leaves office in two weeks — if he’s not forced out before then — Republicans in Washington will remain divided over how to handle the aftermath of his departure. But one thing is clear already: No matter what Trump does, no matter how much he endangers the public or the republic, at least a handful of ambitious Republicans will scramble to lead the charge in the direction he sets.