On Wednesday 6 January, the day Congress held its ceremonial counting of the electoral college votes, a violent group of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building. They had come to Washington, DC for a rally held by Donald Trump on the Ellipse, a park near the White House. His supporters had been holding “stop the steal” rallies around the country, repeating baseless claims of electoral fraud; today, they were taking the show to the nation’s capital. Around midday, Trump told his supporters: “We will not take it any more and that’s what this is all about.”
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more,” Trump warned the crowd. Rudy Giuliani, his attorney, encouraged “trial by combat”. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, threatened senators and representatives who failed to object to the election results during the certification proceedings, promising to “be in your backyard in a couple of months… We’re coming for you.” It wasn’t their Republican Party any longer, he declared; it was his father’s.
After the rally, Trump retired to the White House, a safe, comfortable perch from which to watch the mob he had inflamed occupy and desecrate the Capitol. While some police officers showed tremendous bravery in the face of the rioters, overall the Capitol Police seemed to melt away – in sharp contrast to the policing of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. One officer posed for selfies with the marauders; another reportedly gave them directions. Among the insurrectionists were white nationalists, prominent QAnon conspiracists, and one recently elected lawmaker, Derrick Evans of West Virginia, who has now resigned. Some were armed, wielding bats and chemical sprays, or carrying materials that could have been used to kidnap members of Congress.
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A Confederate flag was paraded through the Capitol for the first time in American history. One man’s sweatshirt read “Camp Auschwitz”. At least five people died in the melee, including a Capitol police officer who had reportedly been hit over the head with a fire extinguisher.
What has become evident in the days since, with police recovering guns and explosive devices, is that things could have been much worse. More people, including elected representatives, could have been killed. What is also fast becoming clear is that the violence is not going away on its own and is likely to intensify in the build-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January.
Two days after the occupation, on Friday 8 January, a Confederate flag was tied to the door of the Museum of Jewish Heri-tage in New York. On Monday 11 January it was reported that there are “armed protests” planned in all 50 state capitals and in Washington, DC. Before Parler, a social network popular with the alt-right, was removed from Amazon’s servers, users posted messages outlining their plans to return, armed, to the national capital ahead of the inauguration.
Early on Thursday morning, after the mob had been cleared from the Capitol Building, the electoral college count was completed and the vice-president, Mike Pence, announced Biden’s victory. At the time of writing, House Democrats have launched impeachment proceedings against Trump, for “inciting violence against the government of the United States”, potentially making Trump the only president in history to have been impeached twice.
Remarkably, despite Trump’s unprecedented inciting of a destructive rabble to occupy their workplace, many Republicans do not support impeaching or removing him. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who objected to the electoral college count, said that the time had come to “put this anger and division behind us”, before tweeting that right-leaning Twitter users apparently losing followers was “unacceptable” (the platform has recently removed more than 70,000 accounts associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory).
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But many of those who voted against the efforts to obstruct the certification proceedings also came out against impeachment. Some Republican representatives and right-wing commentators said that impeaching and convicting Trump would risk further dividing the nation. If Trump were impeached, the argument went, those who support him would become angry.
Since those who support him are clearly already angry, the argument doesn’t hold up. Impeaching and convicting Trump would not only limit the damage he may do in his last week in office; it could also prevent him from holding elected office – for which he has demonstrated his unfitness – again.
From a political perspective, of course, there is a familiar logic to Republican resistance to impeachment. While some believe Trump’s political career may be reaching its ignominious end, the GOP is still very much beholden to the forces Trump unleashed. A YouGov poll revealed that 85 per cent of Republican supporters oppose removing Trump from office. Republican elected officials have had abundant opportunities over the past four years to stand up to Trump; the vast majority chose instead to indulge his deranged and dangerous conduct. And so, their president’s term concludes with an enraged mob storming the Capitol and, according to the YouGov poll, 45 per cent of Republican supporters approving of these events.
If one of the two major political parties in the US is now, as Donald Jr claimed, the party of Trump – a party of white rage, whose leader we cannot hold accountable for fear of stoking more white rage – then the violence will continue, emboldened by Trump’s impunity. The mob believes a different set of rules are meant to apply to them. And the mob, and the party they control, will do their best to make sure this is true.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war