A Violent End to an Angry Presidency

The storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters should have come as no surprise to anyone — except, apparently, law enforcement leaders at multiple agencies, including Capitol Police

To be fair, an investigation into the security breakdown has only just begun (and a Capitol Police officer became the fifth person to die from the violence).

But anyone who claims to have been shocked by the spectacle of delusion and anger that the world witnessed on Jan. 6 has clearly been blind to President Trump’s tweets or not listened to a word he’s said over last four years — let alone the last two months (or even the two hours preceding the deadly riots for that matter).

The events of Jan. 6 were the entirely predictable culmination of a presidency that has thrived on fury and falsehoods.

And by falsehoods, we mean lies.

Most responsible journalists understandably label the president’s daily stream of misleading claims as “falsehoods” lest they be accused of being biased (even though they invariably will be). But when a falsehood has been thoroughly debunked yet is still repeated dozens of times, let’s not mince words: It’s a lie.

And let’s not mince words about what happened on Jan. 6: A mob of domestic terrorists laid siege to America’s Capitol in an act of sedition inspired and incited by a president who’s furious — or possibly detached from reality — that he lost an election.

Riot police and protesters converge outside the U.S. Capitol on the evening of Jan. 6 after pro-Trump rioters stormed the building. (Photo: By Tyler Merbler - https://www.flickr.com/photos/37527185@N05/50811509943/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98636068)

For long-time critics of President Trump, the desecration of the U.S. Capitol must have been a bittersweet vindication of their warnings that words really do matter — especially when they come from the leader of the free world — and that this president’s words have for years stoked hate and division.

This ranges from Trump’s refusal to issue a simple, generic condemnation of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017 (because he said he wanted to wait for all the facts before issuing a hasty statement — an apparent first), to his wink-wink acknowledgement of QAnon believers, or, as he called them, people who “love our country” and “supposedly like me.”

The latter, at least, is certainly true.

QAnon is the crème de la crème of conspiracy theorists, who are convinced that Trump is a warrior of God sent to defeat a satanic-worshiping cult of pedophiles who secretly run the world. One of these adherents almost shot up a D.C. pizza joint because he wanted to make sure that Hillary Clinton wasn’t trafficking children in the basement.

Trump has not only tacitly condoned this nuttiness, but he threw gasoline on a long-simmering fire with his relentless repetition of bogus claims about his “landslide” election victory — the one he lost by over 7 million votes (including over 300,000 in the swing states his legal team contested).

The president spent months — long before the election even took place — riling up his base using a tried-and-true far-right strategy: throw out titillating-sounding accusations and repeat them loudly and often enough in the hopes that something sticks.

So for weeks, we’ve been hearing about voting machines controlled by a dead Venezuelan president (or Nancy Pelosi, or Antifa or the Clintons — take your pick); “a couple hundred of thousands” of forged signatures; dead voters; corrupt postal workers; saboteurs in the DHS, DOJ and FBI; incriminating black suitcases; Chinese-driven socialists; witnesses who didn’t witness anything; too many shredded ballots to count; and a mysterious water main break that was, in fact, a small leak caused by a urinal that happened hours before ballot-counting even began.

It’s a wonder Hillary’s emails weren’t somehow involved.

All of the allegations — many of which emerged on conspiracy websites and have been repeated verbatim by Trump — have been exhaustively investigated and debunked.

Gabriel Sterling, a top election official in Georgia, recently held a press conference in which he meticulously refuted a litany of baseless claims, including that Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has a brother named Ron who works for a Chinese tech company.

That must’ve come as news to Raffensperger, who does not have a brother named Ron.

That this rumor was spread by the president of the United States is in and out of itself remarkable, although we’ve become so numb to Trump’s outlandish claims that they barely register any more.

It was Raffensperger (Brad, not Ron) who was subject to a Mafioso-like shakedown by the president to “find 11,780 votes” so he could win the state of Georgia, as reported by The Washington Post.

Raffensperger resisted the president’s entreaties to essentially break the law — as did just about every official drawn into the Trump legal team’s hail-Mary efforts to uncover systemic voter fraud.

The list includes: hundreds of state and local officials who certified the election results (many of them Republicans); multiple hand recounts; some 60 judges (again, many Republicans, including some appointed by Trump himself); and the Supreme Court, which refused to even hear a case brought by 18 GOP states that wanted to overturn millions of legally cast votes in four other states.

Yet on Jan. 6, shortly before Congress was to ratify the results of the Electoral College in what is normally a perfunctory ceremony, the president still aired his grievances over “the steal” and the “bullshit” that Joe Biden won.

He egged on thousands of his supporters for over an hour to “never concede” and “take back our country,” pledging to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with them to the Capitol.

He never made it — he reportedly returned to the White House instead — but the effect of his words lingered, inciting the crowd.

In a rare political rebuke by military brass, former Defense Secretary James Mattis, along with other top former Pentagon officials, directly blamed Trump for fomenting the armed insurrection on Jan. 6.

“His use of the Presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice,” Mattis declared.

Sterling, the Georgia election official, issued an ominously prescient warning several weeks ago when he begged the president to speak out against the barrage of death threats aimed at election officials because “someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed.”

Someone was — Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was among the mob trying to smash through a door in the Capitol when she was fatally shot.

Her social media accounts contained posts that not only supported Trump, but also embraced QAnon conspiracy theories.

Before coming to D.C., Babbit posted about the “storm” that was about to descend on the nation’s capital.

In fact, plenty of Trump supporters made their intentions crystal clear on sites like Parler, which were plastered with calls to sneak guns into D.C. and instigate violence.

As a result, questions are swirling as to why Capitol Police were so woefully unprepared for the protests, especially in comparison to the heavy police presence that was mobilized in response to social justice demonstrations over the summer.

Frances Townsend, former homeland security and counter-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush, put it bluntly: If the rioters were Black, they would’ve been arrested. If they were Muslim, they’d also be called terrorists.

Biden tried to avoid this double standard, denouncing the “riotous mob of insurrectionists, domestic terrorists” who launched “an unprecedented assault on our democracy.”

That assault is bigger than just the break-in itself. There are now national security concerns that rioters who looted congressional offices may have stolen sensitive information. Pipe bombs were placed at the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees that officials say could’ve caused “great harm.”

In the midst of the mayhem, Trump was pressured by aides to speak up and stop the violence.

He did so in a video address where he spent the majority of time repeating his grievances that the election was stolen and the other side was “evil.”

In other words, his call for peace was laced with incitement.

Jonathan Swan of Axios reported that while the chaos was unfolding, Trump was still stewing over Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to overturn the results of the Electoral College.

If true, it suggests a level of obliviousness and/or selfishness that should frighten every American.

After being temporarily banned from Twitter — and indefinitely from Facebook and Instagram — Trump finally backtracked and said he would work to ensure “a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power,” calling for “healing and reconciliation.”

But the damage was done and Trump is now more isolated than he ever has been in the last four years.

Top White House officials such as Mick Mulvaney, Matt Pottinger, Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao have already abandoned ship. (A more cynical reading would be that they resigned to avoid taking part in any deliberations over removing the president via the 25th Amendment.)

And to their credit, most Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, refused to join the futile Electoral College challenge that about a dozen of their colleagues planned on Jan. 6.

McConnell declared that the vote to certify Joe Biden as the next president was the “most important” of his career.

He later denounced the “failed insurrection,” as both Republicans and Democrats returned to the Capitol that very night in a show of defiance to confirm Biden’s victory. Pence performed his sworn duty and presided over the proceedings.

Yet we have to ask ourselves, why did it take four years to get to this point? Why weren’t the president’s Republican allies (or, depending on your viewpoint, apologists and enablers) outraged when, for most of 2020, Trump cavalierly dismissed a pandemic that has killed over 365,000 Americans and counting? When he made masks into a political loyalty test?

Or whenever he made disturbingly incoherent rants during scores of speeches and interviews? This isn’t about a politician dodging a question. This about a president seemingly incapable of finishing a sentence and making no sense half the time.

That it took four years for an assault on the U.S. Capitol to serve as a wake-up call to Republicans reliant on Trump’s base should in and of itself be a wake-up call.

To be sure, Democrats will have to face a reckoning between the progressive factions of their party and establishment figures like Biden.

But Republicans also need to do some serious soul-searching to reconcile the deep rift within their own party, especially because Trump in exile is likely to be just as influential as Trump in the Oval Office.

This soul-searching was necessary even before Trump exploded onto the scene, because Republican intransigence and misleading attacks on issues such as Obamacare partially laid the groundwork for the GOP voter resentment that propelled Trump to power.

The events of Jan. 6 may be a stain on a few Republicans such as Sen. Josh Hawley, who spearheaded the Senate campaign to overturn the Electoral College in what many have described as a cynical ploy to further his own political ambitions.

In a stunning editorial, the Kansas City Star newspaper wrote that, “No one other than President Donald Trump himself is more responsible for Wednesday’s coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol than one Joshua David Hawley, the 41-year-old junior senator from Missouri, who put out a fundraising appeal while the siege was underway.”

But will this national outcry really tarnish the Republican Party, given that Trump’s base still wields tremendous power — and will remain loyal to their president?

Democratic calls for Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment aren’t likely to go anywhere — and Trump sure isn’t going to resign himself. That leaves impeachment, the goal of which would be to ensure Trump can’t run in 2024. Critics of the move say there’s no need for further polarization and that it’s an unnecessary distraction from the urgent work that Biden will confront on Day One. Plus, Trump’s legacy has been irreparably tarnished anyway.

And it’s no surprise that after the attempted coup we just witnessed, political pundits have been quick to predict the president’s demise.

But this man has an amazing capacity to wait out outrage and defy the odds in a way no other politician can.

So while some normally Trump-friendly conservative commentators laid the blame for the Capitol attack on Trump, others defended it as the natural reaction of Americans frustrated with the subversion of democracy (that they themselves subverted).

More ominously, just hours — hours — after rioters draped in Trump regalia and proudly smiling for surveillance cameras swarmed the halls of the Capitol, Fox News host Sean Hannity suggested the rioters were, in fact, cleverly disguised members of Antifa.

Allegations that far-left “infiltrators” are already being debunked, but, predictably, they’re still being fanned by a growing number of far-right voices. (Incidentally, according to QAnon, Ashli Babbitt, the woman killed inside the Capitol, is actually alive and well — this as her family plans her funeral.)

So for all the GOP condemnation of Jan. 6, we should be wary. The country still faces a deep and fundamental problem: How do you reason with people who live in a reality of their own making?

[UPDATE: In a recent YouGov poll, one in five voters, including 45% of Republicans, approved of the siege of the U.S. Capitol and an astonishing 52% say Biden is to blame for the attack. There’s also talk of more protests during Biden’s inauguration.]

Four years ago, after Trump stunned many observers by winning the election, popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson made an overlooked but important point when he said that Trump’s opponents should be less concerned with Trump and more worried about the people who voted for him.

“You’re not really complaining about Donald Trump. There’s a major portion of the electorate who likes him, and so they are your obvious object of your ire. Then shouldn’t you be looking at the educational system that somehow allows people to not think about data, to not think about what is or is not true in this world?” he said on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” HBO show.

“You can knock Trump out of the contest and the population that supports him will just wait for the next one to rise up and you have to beat the next one over the head.”

As we saw on Jan. 6, violence should never be the answer, no matter your political beliefs. Cooler heads on both sides of the aisle will need to prevail to heal a wounded nation. But after four years of fury, scars run deep, and only time will tell if our leaders — and the American people — can stitch our democracy back together.

But beware the words Trump uttered in his “conciliatory” video, where he told his supporters: “our incredible journey is only just beginning.” 

A sincere thank you to everyone for taking the time to read Beltway Breakdown! For more information about me, check out my site at dc-insider.com.

To read my previous post, “Our Damaged Democracy,” click here. Or to check out my primer on how U.S. foreign aid — and government spending as a whole — actually work, click here.

And stay tuned for my next post on President-elect Joe Biden’s options when it comes to Iran.