Normally, the ceremonial counting of the electoral votes is a tradition. It’s a holdover from the days before instant communications, when this would have been the official announcement of who won.
In these days of instant communication, we already know who won and we are well into the process of preparing for either continuation or transfer of power.
This year was not a normal year. Yesterday was not a normal day.
So, What Happened?
Permits were issued for three protests in D.C. yesterday. Two smaller protests, one at Freedom Plaza and the other on the Mall were permitted.
The big one, though, was the March for Trump/Save America, which was permitted for 30,000 people on The Ellipse. This was a Trump rally, condoned by him and with him listed as a speaker.
Trump spoke to the rally for more than an hour, and almost before he was finished, thousands of his supporters left and headed for the U.S. Capitol. They did not have a permit to protest outside the Capitol.
When they got there, they faced down the Capitol Police, who are not “real” law enforcement but rather a large security detail, climbing the Capitol steps, breaching barriers.
Outnumbered Capitol Police facing tear gas (yes, the rioters had the tear gas), and without riot gear, broke. Some appeared to give in and simply let the rioters pass. The National Guard was deployed but were not allowed to approach the Capitol because it would have been “poor optics.”
A small number of rioters entered the building, where they committed vandalism, attempted to break into locked offices, and took photos of each other (the F.B.I. says “thank you”). They also tried to breach both chambers. Senior leaders were evacuated while the rest sheltered in place.
Shots were fired. One shot hit and killed a Trump supporter named Ashli Babbitt. It’s known that the shot was fired by the outnumbered and overwhelmed police.
Eventually, the National Guard and other backup arrived, and the building was cleared. By 8:20pm, Congress was preparing to return to session and continue the count.
Said so dryly, it doesn’t echo the fear that was felt by many in DC.
What Went Wrong?
There are many places one can place the blame. Some might blame Josh Hawley, the Senator who pushed so hard to contest the vote.
But there are two places the blame must be placed.
The first is squarely on President Trump. He has been inciting this for months, and those of us familiar with history were warning about something like this before he won the primary. To his minor credit, when they breached the Capitol, he tried to stop it, but at this point the tiger all authoritarians ride has turned on him.
Trump and his supporters have threatened our democracy for long enough. By this I don’t mean everyone who voted for Trump, because unfortunately one of our problems is that political parties are sports teams in this country (and often in others).
The other place to put the blame is the underfunding and poor training of the Capitol Police.
For many years, there have been systematic problems, which from what I can tell include:
- Huge amounts of overtime rather than hiring more cops.
- A “jobsworth” culture where following the letter of the rules is more important than doing a good job.
- Budget “discrepancies.”
- Guns being left in bathrooms.
- Physical fights with reporters. And others. I have a witness account of an incident where a Capitol Police officer manhandled somebody to keep them from going down a closed road.
- An indoor firing range so poorly designed that bullets were bouncing back at officers.
I think I don’t need to go any further. Improved funding and training for the Capitol Police so they can do their job. And it also appeared that the officers protecting the building were not issued gas masks. No doubt nobody thought that the enemy might have tear gas.
They needed backup, they needed help, and instead they’re getting criticism.
What of Our Democracy?
During the tense afternoon it felt very much as if our great republic was truly at risk.
Looking back, I can compare this with, for example, the Spanish coup attempt in 1981 (where lawmakers were held at gunpoint for 18 hours) and know that it wasn’t that much.
But at the time my brain was literally interposing images of the Reichstag fire with an image of the Capitol burning.
I thought “this is it, we’re done.”
Lawmakers hid under their desks as bullets flew. A staffer did what Pence, in the heat of the moment, forgot (not judging him) and secured the electoral college ballots.
Police cleared the building and arrested 52 people (the FBI is seeking assistance looking for others who fled, again, thanks for those photos).
And Congress went back to work, picking up right where the left off. By midnight they had dealt with the challenge to Arizona’s votes. No doubt with a greatly increased coffee bill, they went back to work, with damage still in the halls.
At 3:46am, Pence officially affirmed Biden’s victory. Trump, banned from Twitter for the night, probably sulked.
Exhausted lawmakers went to find their beds, or at least something they could use as a bed (it’s not uncommon for them to sleep in their offices after a session that runs late, or in some cases routinely to avoid high D.C. rent).
Our democracy held.
It held because the people we chose to represent us did not bow to terrorism, even to terrorism sponsored by our own President.
Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham said “Enough is enough.” (Literally).
Several Republican senators chose to drop their objections to the electoral votes, however, many Congressman did not and there was still an objection to Pennsylvania.
The rats are deserting Trumpism, as its true colors finally become visible even to those who thought they could ride the tiger.
Trump himself may have lost control.
But, for now, our democracy is holding.
Each and every one of us, though, has a choice: Democracy or Trumpism. This is not a choice between conservative and progressive, a choice between Republican and Democrat, or even a choice between Trump himself or Biden.
It’s a choice whether we want to continue the Grand American Experiment or end it.
And when you think about the choice, think about lawmakers hiding under their desks.
And think about those same lawmakers, exhausted, at 3am, doing their job.
We have to do our job now.
It’s time to deradicalize America.