Throughout his presidency, many warned that Donald Trump might incite political violence. I did so myself in early 2017. But while we’ve seen some bloodshed—Kyle Rittenhouse shooting Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha; Boogaloo members trying to incite a race war in Las Vegas; Michigan militia men plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer; the killing and beating by white nationalists in Charlottesville—it has been mostly at the fringes and not on a mass scale. Concern that the Trump campaign’s effort to recruit 50,000 poll watchers might lead to voter intimidation and possibly violence—understandable after Trump, during the debates, told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”—proved overblown. Voting proceeded largely without incident. The gap between the potential for mass insurrection and the reality spawned a whole subgenre of Ross Douthat columns dismissing Trump as too incompetent and weak to instigate a real coup.
Wednesday afternoon, it finally happened. As lawmakers in the Capitol began the process of counting Electoral College votes and fending off attempts by a block of Republicans to overturn the election results, Trump, speaking near the White House on a stage behind plexiglass, ranted for more than an hour about how the election was stolen and told a large assembly of pro-Trump protesters:
We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.
That was all it took. Before Trump had even finished his tirade, protesters began trekking down Pennsylvania Avenue. I watched them stroll by the National Gallery of Art at 6th Street NW.
It was an overwhelmingly white and 50-plus crowd, with some younger folks and a smattering of people of color. A few chanted, “Biden cheated!” and “Let’s storm the Capitol!” I heard one woman say: “It cracks me up how mad we make people.” I saw a guy in camouflage trash talk one of the cops monitoring the event.
Still, the demonstrators seemed (to me anyway) neither menacing nor festive–more grimly determined. I had the sense that anything could happen but that probably nothing would. Had my car not been illegally parked I might’ve followed them to the Capitol. Instead, I drove home and, upon arrival, had one of those “driveway moments” listening to the radio as Mitch McConnell gave the first speech of his I’ve ever admired. In it, he upbraided the president and renegade members of his own party for the folly of their actions. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” the Majority Leader said from the floor of the Senate. “If we overrule them all, it would damage our republic forever.”
It was at about that time when the crowd of demonstrators surrounded the Capitol. We’ve all seen on TV or read accounts of what happened next. They climbed over security fences and clashed with Capitol police, who inexplicably failed to keep hundreds of protesters from storming the building. A protestor was killed in the melee, shot by Capitol police. The mob roamed freely throughout the Capitol complex, rifling through offices and taking selfies. Senators and House members were locked inside their respective chambers until those, too, were breeched, whereupon lawmakers had to be evacuated by police with drawn guns.
“This is what you’ve gotten, guys,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, yelled as the mayhem unfolded in the Senate chamber, apparently addressing his colleagues who were leading the charge to press Mr. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
“This is what the president has caused today, this insurrection,” Mr. Romney said later.
President-elect Joe Biden called for Trump to denounce the violence and “end the siege.” A short time later, the White House released a video in which the president told the protesters to “go home” but expressed sympathy for them and doubled down on his baseless claim that the election had been stolen.
Eventually, police cleared the building and lawmakers returned to their chambers. Several senators who had previously objected to counting Biden’s Electoral College votes, including Steve Daines of Montana, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia—the latter having lost her seat in Tuesday’s runoff election against Rev. Raphael Warnock—withdrew their objections in light of the attack. Others, notably Missouri’s Josh Hawley, continued to press ahead. By the end of the night, the kabuki was over.
But you have to wonder what even those Republican senators who were always on the right side of this debate, like Mitch McConnell, must have been thinking. Hours before they were hiding under their desks from a violent mob sent by a president who they had a chance a year ago to remove from office but chose not to. Now that they’ve ended the debate over whether Joe Biden should become president in two weeks, they should begin one over whether Donald Trump should be removed from office tomorrow.
I underestimated the chaos that was likely to unfold just after I left downtown Wednesday—because the violence I had worried about four years ago hadn’t happened. In reality, the election of Donald Trump lit a fuse. It was just a long fuse. We shouldn’t be surprised that the bomb has now gone off. We should also be thankful—that the casualties weren’t worse, and that we will soon have a president who doesn’t flirt with violence and that we’ll be done with a Senate majority that tolerates it.