Storming of U.S. Capitol Becomes Emblem of Trump Era Disruption

The violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday will reverberate through American politics for years if not decades to come, reshape global perceptions about the strength of U.S. democracy and become an enduring emblem of the Trump era.

Images of mobs storming the building, police drawing guns while barricading the door to the House chamber, and protesters sauntering across the Senate floor showed the seat of American self-governance under siege. The final act of a turbulent presidency became a frightening illustration of threats to the nation’s democracy.

Leading Republicans finally began to recoil from a president most had been loath to publicly criticize after Trump egged on the protesters shortly before they marched to the Capitol, and then delayed speaking out against the chaos.

There were at least four deaths during the mayhem Wednesday, with one woman shot, city police reported. Lawmakers fled the House and Senate chambers, some in gas masks, as rioters carrying Trump flags and Confederate banners breached the building. Extremists posted pictures on Twitter they said were taken in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, with some carting off items from the suite and one man later displaying a piece of mail he said he had grabbed.

National Guard troops and other federal law-enforcement personnel were called in to help clear the Capitol, which was occupied for about four hours. Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on the entire city.

Storming of U.S. Capitol Becomes Emblem of Trump Era Disruption

Body Armor

Congress had to suspend a debate over objections to the Electoral College vote from Arizona that was lodged by Republican allies of Trump -- part of the president’s attack on the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Once the Capitol had been cleared, congressional leaders decided to resume the debate in the evening, with senators escorted back into their chamber by FBI personnel in full body armor.

Hours after the takeover began -- and after politicians from both sides of the aisle demanded he call for the mob to disperse -- Trump released a video urging the extremists to “go home.” But he also told them, “We love you,” and repeated false claims that the election was “stolen.” In a later tweet, he praised them as “Great Patriots.” Twitter Inc. later locked his account for 12 hours for “severe violations.” Facebook Inc. blocked him from posting for 24 hours.

Storming of U.S. Capitol Becomes Emblem of Trump Era Disruption

Even during the Civil War and the height of domestic tumult over the Vietnam War, demonstrators never took over the centers of American power. Yet the Capitol on Wednesday was overrun for the first time since the War of 1812 -- when it fell to invading British troops -- at the very moment that votes were being ceremonially counted for the presidential election, America’s quadrennial exercise in the peaceful transfer of power.

The day’s events seemed almost incomprehensible in a long-established Western democracy, and spurred charges of an attempted coup. More than one politician drew parallels to political unrest in Latin American or the Middle East.

Comments from foreign leaders eerily echoed the kind of rhetoric U.S. officials often deploy to cajole authoritarian regimes to accept a loss of power. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it is “vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power” in the U.S. The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Fontelles, said the Nov. 3 election results “must be fully respected.”

Storming of U.S. Capitol Becomes Emblem of Trump Era Disruption

Former Republican President George W. Bush said, “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic -- not our democratic republic.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, a leading national business organization usually sympathetic to Republican policy goals, issued a statement urging Vice President Mike Pence to “seriously consider” invoking the 25th amendment -- the constitutional provision used to remove a president from office who is unable to carry out his duties.

Republican Opposition

Republican support for Trump in Congress, which held firm through his failure to condemn White supremacists in the Charlottesville riots, an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and his impeachment trial, already was strained by his refusal to accept the presidential election results and his role in the party’s losses in the Georgia Senate runoff Tuesday.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell vainly tried in advance of Wednesday’s proceedings to dissuade his GOP colleagues from joining objections to the Electoral College votes. Shortly before the mob breached the building, he warned in a speech on the Senate floor that any setting aside of the votes certified by the individual U.S. states “would damage our republic forever.”

Storming of U.S. Capitol Becomes Emblem of Trump Era Disruption

“If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” McConnell said. “We would never see the whole nation accept an election again.”

Amid the chaos at the Capitol, Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory over incumbent Republican David Perdue in the Georgia runoff was called -- cementing Democratic control over the Senate along with Democrat Raphael Warnock’s win over Kelly Loeffler, which was clear earlier in the day.

Voter Reaction

Trump’s war with Republican officials in Georgia who refused to overturn their state’s presidential election results had split the party and hampered the GOP candidates in the race. Some Republican officials publicly blamed him for the loss.

Rejection of Trump in suburban areas that once had been supportive of Republicans was pivotal in the Georgia contest, as it was in the presidential election.

The scenes of chaos and failed insurrection at one of the nation’s most recognized symbols of democracy is certain to further repel moderate voters wary of disorder.

The closest parallel in recent American history may be the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968, an image that tarnished the party for years afterward even though it unfolded outside a convention hall in Chicago far from the seat of government.

Provocative Rally

This time, a Republican president was the instigator.

Midday Wednesday, the president held a “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House, where he told the crowd, “we will never concede,” and repeated false claims that his loss to Biden was due to vote fraud. Trump encouraged protesters to go to the Capitol and support members of Congress who planned to object to some Electoral College votes. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, urged supporters at the rally to settle the election dispute through “trial by combat.”

A broadening group of Republicans is holding Trump directly responsible for the violence that followed.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a longtime Trump ally, said in a statement, “It’s past time for the president to accept the results of the election, quit misleading the American people, and repudiate mob violence.”

Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican and former FBI agent, said in a tweet that there was “nothing short of a coup attempt” and that Trump “lit the flame of incitement and owns responsibility for this.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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