Words matter. And the words of the US President over the past four years, and especially since November 3, have underwritten and encouraged the behaviour that led to yesterday’s storming of the US Capitol.
The scenes on Capitol Hill defied the imagination of most Americans. The rest of world also watched, in disbelief, as the US Capitol was invaded by a mob of criminals, alleging their support for the US President. The thugs and criminals who invaded the Capitol first walked slowly across the Rotunda, as if they were unintentional tourists, staring, and then taking photos of the awe-inspiring architecture inside.
The images that followed were of violent rioters scaling the Capitol building, breaking windows to gain access, and storming the Chambers of Congress in an attempt to subvert the certification of the 2020 Presidential election and destroy the corridors of America’s democracy.
There was no obvious master plan, just the signs of disgruntled Americans, a mob, provoked and inspired by a President who for four years has stoked division, incited protest and violence and now invited insurrection.
The vast majority of Americans watched yesterday’s events with horror, tears, disgust and fear, and that includes the vast majority of Republicans, even, probably, the vast majority of Trump’s so-called base.
America may not, after all, be so exceptional. Protests across the world have often turned violent when thugs, criminals and extremists hijack movements. But is this the beginning of something in America, or the end? Are four years of a destructive form of anti-democratic politics in America coming to an end, or will things get worse?
A lot depends on what happens in the next day, or even week. The prospect of Trump 2024 was always small, but how rapidly Trumpism disintegrates and what form it takes will depend on the choices that Republicans in the Senate and the House make in the days and weeks ahead.
These elected officials face a clear and unavoidable choice, whether to go along and continue to support President Trump, denying his role and responsibility. Or, instead, to take a clear stand against a President who has incited and ignited hatred, division, and now an attempted and violent subversion of democracy.
For many who have, up to this point, supported the President, the choice has been steeped in political calculation, fuelled by political ambition. Few see Senator Josh Hawley’s choice in any other light. But that was a choice for yesterday. A line has now been drawn in the sand and forced a choice.
Setting aside principle, even a purely political calculation leaves ambitious Republicans with very little choice. Too few Americans will find it politically or morally possible or desirable to follow Trump to make him a viable and elected political candidate the next time round.
The President’s inevitable departure from the White House will hasten this trend, and new leadership will inevitably emerge within the Republican Party. Those Republicans who carry on supporting the President face a troubled political fate as leaders of a fringe movement, albeit one that is potent, visible, and destructive.
Even before the mob of thugs and criminals stormed the Capitol, the President’s key supporters had begun to peel off. The week began with a letter, signed by all 10 living former Secretaries of Defense, calling out the President’s attempt to subvert the election and declaring the election over. And 170 business leaders had called on the President to accept the election of Joe Biden as President. The vice-president posted a letter just moments before the certification began, saying he could not deny the electoral result.
And just minutes before the Capitol was invaded, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a jaw dropping and eloquent speech in defence of America's democracy, calling on his fellow Republicans to accept the will of the people and certify the vote to confirm Joe Biden as America’s next President.
Yesterday’s events will accelerate the rapid-fire movement away from Donald Trump at all levels of the US polity, even if he manages to hold on to power for the final two weeks of his term. But those of us watching also have a role to play by recognising the violence for what it was: anti-democratic, illegal, and dangerous, but also led by a mob of rioters, not a mainstream block of voters.
Trump’s base has been strong and steady. Those who invaded the Capitol last night were only a narrow slice of Trump’s base, thugs and criminals, some extremists, willing to extinguish the rule of law in support of a President that has enabled and incited them to do exactly this.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Telegraph.