The nadir of Donald Trump’s presidency occurred at 4.17 p.m. EST on Wednesday, hours after a pro-Trump mob had stormed the American Capitol.
Four hours earlier, Trump had addressed a “Stop the Steal” rally at the Ellipse in Washington. Thousands of Trump supporters had convened to protest the alleged rigging of the presidential election and to demand that the Senate and House not certify the results that would put Joe Biden in the White House on January 20.
Speaking to the Stop the Steal crowd, Trump repeated his usual claim of widespread election fraud, with a particular emphasis on Georgia. Peach State voters had just sent two Democrats to the Senate in a momentous run-off election that shifted the balance of power and eliminated a Republican check on the Biden presidency. In his speech, Trump denounced Georgia governor Brian Kemp, calling him “one of the dumbest governors in the United States.”
This stalwart Republican and Trump supporter had shown his conservative bona fides in May 2020 by making Georgia the first state to lift its spring coronavirus shutdown, a course of action urged at the time by Trump. As a result of this measure, Kemp became the bête noire of the mainstream media. No matter: in Trump’s world, Kemp was now the enemy because he had not engineered a Republican victory in the Senate run-off.
Also on Trump’s enemies list were his three nominees to the Supreme Court. Those recalcitrant justices had not understood that their transactional obligation in exchange for appointment was to vote in favor of Trump’s presidential election challenges. “They love to rule against me,” Trump said petulantly. “They couldn’t give a damn. They couldn’t give a damn.”
Vice President Mike Pence was also given notice that he would soon join the ever-growing list of “very bad people,” in Trump phraseology, if he failed to devise a novel constitutional procedure and unilaterally invalidate Biden’s electors.
On New Year’s Day, Trump had implied that his January 6 speech would reveal definitive new “evidence of massive voter fraud.” Like all such promises of a Kraken-sized trove of proof, this assertion proved another bait-and-switch. Trump’s January 6 list of allegedly deliberate ballot improprieties merely recycled the same unproven allegations that have been incessantly amplified on right-wing news sites and either rejected by dozens of courts or held back from adjudication by the Trump legal team itself.
The most fantastical claim in the Stop the Steal portfolio is that the Dominion voting systems used in many states on November 3 were designed for fraud and had been so used. On Wednesday, Trump doubled down on this claim: Georgia’s decision to use Dominion software in the run-off election meant that that vote, too, had been “rigged.” This claim was even more unfounded than the baseline rigging charge, requiring us to believe that even under intense media scrutiny, Georgia’s Republican governor and Republican secretary of state had conspired to throw the vote to Democrats or had been too feckless to prevent the Democratic conniving going on right under their noses.
An hour after the rally ended, dozens of attendees had broken into the Capitol to halt the validation of states’ electoral tallies. They broke windows, vandalized property, rummaged through members’ desks, took selfies from the well of the Senate, including from the vice president’s desk, and milled awkwardly like tourists around the soaring marble architecture.
The mob attacked members of the press and fought with police. One police officer, Brian Sicknick, died after being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher. During the chaos, another officer fatally shot an unarmed female member of the mob.
Though the physical damage inflicted by these insurrectionary wannabes was negligible compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars of property theft, the loss of life, and the destruction of thousands of livelihoods during this summer and fall’s race riots, the symbolic damage was far greater. These boors had defaced the supreme symbol of popular sovereignty and of the rule of law. They tried to substitute brute force for constitutional processes governing the transfer of political power. And they have set a precedent that makes other such usurpations more likely, each one sending us in the direction of Third World anarchy or dictatorship.
Trump’s obligation at this point was simple: denounce the violence. He never did so. His first response during the Capitol invasion was a tweet lambasting Vice President Pence, who had reportedly just been escorted out of the Senate chamber, for lacking courage.
Ten minutes later, Trump asked his followers via Twitter to “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” After another ten minutes, he reiterated his plea to remain peaceful. “No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order—respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue.” These were necessary exhortations, if falling short of the requisite condemnation of the vandalism.
Joe Biden then released a video speech that was admirably low on partisan rancor. America was about honor, decency, and respect, Biden said. The Capitol assault did not represent true America but rather a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. Their actions border on sedition and must end immediately, the president-elect said.
Biden has since negated that elevated tone by embracing the preposterous Democratic conceit that the ineffective security measures at the Capitol demonstrate pro-white favoritism on the part of law enforcement. The fact that those allegedly white-coddling security officers killed a white woman has been swept from public discourse. The claim that riot response is more resolute when black people are rioting is equally ludicrous considering the far worse damage inflicted over the summer on federal, state, and local government facilities. Throughout the entire period when cities burned and rioters attacked police officers and struggling businesses, not one Black Lives Matter protestor or antifa agitator was killed by the police.
Perhaps prompted by Biden’s video, Trump then released his own videoed speech at 4.17 p.m. He would have been better off staying silent. Instead of sticking with the “respect law and order” message, he reiterated his claims about the stolen election. “I know your pain,” he said. “I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now.” He repeated this theme. “There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election.”
This moment of crisis was simply not the time to rehash the rigging narrative. Rather than bringing the country together, Trump invoked an “us versus them” national division. “They” took it all away. His supporters (i.e., the Capitol rioters), by contrast, are “very special.” They have “seen what happens. . . . the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil.”
It is undeniably true that both sides of the country’s yawning cultural and political divides increasingly think that the other side is “bad” and “evil.” But this was not a campaign rally. Trump should have spoken to all Americans and promised an effort at unity, as he did, belatedly, on Thursday. In a coda tweet, Trump adopted a heroic tone. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.” He added, “Remember this day forever,” as if we had just witnessed a valiant last stand that history will honor.
While Trump behaved with characteristic self-absorption, the hypocrisy of the mainstream press and of many Democratic politicians in responding to the January 6 storming has been patent. These are the same people who have either ignored the destruction of federal property and the desecration of national monuments over the last year or glorified that mayhem in the name of racial justice. Speakers at the Democratic National Convention stayed silent about the anticop riots (“mostly peaceful protests”) leading up to that convention.
The media and political elite’s self-righteous rhetoric now, calling on Wednesday for a swift police response to the Capitol intrusion, comparing it hyperbolically to Falluja and Benghazi, asserting, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did, that “nightfall is when Trump rioters become violent”—as if the one-off Capitol violence were as routine as anti-police riots—is laughable. But while it is understandable to focus now on the Left’s nauseating double standards, as much of conservative media are doing, the Trump problem cannot be sidestepped.
His disregard for the norms of the presidency—only imperfectly respected by his predecessors, but never quite shredded with the same indifference—foreshadowed the disregard for the Capitol building shown by a handful of his supporters on Wednesday. It was a fitting end to his tenure. The final downward trajectory of his presidency possesses an undeniable dramatic coherence. In 2016, he refused during the third presidential debate to commit to accepting the election result if he lost. Even then he was promoting the idea that the election was “rigged.” His logic was identical to that of rigged election theorists today: It is inconceivable that Trump could lose the 2020 election. Therefore, if he did lose, it could only be through fraudulent means.
Pragmatist Trump supporters made the calculation that he was the lesser of two evils. His vindictiveness and narcissism had to be balanced against the alternative of an increasingly militant Left that seeks to tear down the accomplishments of Western civilization in the name of equalitarian identity politics. Trump did not drive the Left into its current apoplexies; the momentum from the previous four decades of academic-generated hatreds was moving to this point regardless of who was in the White House.
It is the case, however, that the Trump demise will give even more fuel to the ongoing desecration of our heritage by the Left, a desecration that will prove more momentous than what occurred on Wednesday.
Now, any cause championed by Trump, whether border enforcement or color-blind public policy, will be discredited in the view of whatever remains of a moderate, non-woke establishment. The brief interregnum from the dominance of the Left provided by the Trump presidency will be followed by a frenzy of revenge on greatness and meritocracy.
The most enthusiastic Trump supporters had deep and justified grievances that made them excuse so flawed a standard-bearer. The only upside one can hope for from these last two months is that Trump will have lost his hold over the future of conservatism. Perhaps someone will emerge who can articulate the ideals of tradition and excellence with the grace that they deserve.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images