Trump supporters took over the stage set up for the Jan. 20 inauguration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris.
The president Trump’s White House press conference showed that he knows his reelection prospects are fading, and he’ll try anything to keep power.He raised the threat of a constitutional crisis to a new level. He issued an extraordinary series of baseless charges about the election he was on the verge of losing—that Democrats were stealing the vote, that the media had deliberately released “phony polls” to suppress Republican turnout, that corrupt officials in Detroit and Philadelphia were finding Democratic ballots to whittle away his supposed lead.
The Atlantic’s first feature documentary ventures into the underbelly of the far-right movement to explore the seductive power of extremism.They were shocking things for a sitting president to say. He promised a lot of litigation and held out hope that the Supreme Court, now with a 6–3 conservative majority thanks to his appointments, would save him. But despite his fighting words, his body language betrayed a far different tone. He read from a prepared statement on his lectern, barely looking up at the cameras, his voice a flat monotone devoid of the verve he deployed to whip thousands of people into a frenzy at his rallies.
The president’s most devout loyalists responded best to his energy, to the high-decibel passion, and occasionally indignant anger, that he brought to the stump. This speech contained none of that. Trump is a showman who prizes presentation above everything else, who watches his interviews with the sound off, who critiques appearances with precision, who famously mocks his opponents as sleepy and low energy. What matters, of course, is not what Trump says, or how he says it, but what he does and what his supporters do at his behest.
Trump gave the speech his opponents had been fearing, one that signaled he might use the considerable tools at his disposal—the machinery of government, willing Republican allies, compliant conservative courts to hold on to power and thwart the will of the voters. Trump might well pursue that course, but his argument was largely nonsensical, and his complaints about the late counting of mail-in ballots—as stale as they are at this point—stem from dynamics his own allies created. The health risk of the pandemic led to the surge in interest in voting by mail, and Trump’s attacks on the practice’s integrity resulted in a huge partisan skew in the people who availed themselves of that option.
In states such as Pennsylvania, Democrats begged the Republicans who control the legislature to allow county officials to begin counting those early ballots before Election Day to ensure a prompt result, as they do in GOP-led states such as Florida, which Trump won. But those lawmakers refused.On Fox News, John Roberts described Trump’s remarks as the words of a man who was losing and trying to hold on to power. Even the loyal New York Post described the president as downcast and his charges as baseless.
The talkers on CNN were even more withering: Jake Tapper deemed the appearance a disgrace. “We knew the president wasn’t going to lose gracefully, if he lost,” he told viewers. “But frankly, watching him flail like this is just pathetic.” Trump’s lone nominal defender on the network, former Senator Rick Santorum, said the president’s accusations were without merit and dangerous. Anderson Cooper likened the president to an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun.
GOP lawmakers weren’t buying it either. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Republican to vote to remove the president from office earlier this year, tweeted, “Counting every vote is at the heart of democracy.” The soon-to-be governor of his state, Spencer Cox, urged Americans not to believe unfounded allegations that destroy trust in the process. Representative Will Hurd of Texas has said that the president’s speech was “not only dangerous and wrong, it undermines the very foundation this nation was built upon.”
Despite Trump’s lack of punch, there was as Santorum noted—still danger in his message. If the election has demonstrated anything, it is that there are millions of Americans who hang on to the president’s every word, and who, even if he eventually vacates the White House, will believe that his defeat was fraudulent.
Among conservatives, there is already talk of asking Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature to overrule the popular will and submit their own electors on Trump’s behalf. Asked whether Republicans in the state should “invalidate” the election, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina replied, “I think everything should be on the table.”
Trump’s supporters haven’t stormed the streets en masse, but they have gathered outside election offices in Detroit, Philadelphia, and elsewhere to protest the counting of legitimate ballots. The registrar of Clark County, Nevada, Joe Gloria, told reporters today that he was “concerned for the safety of my staff.”
The president gave no indication that he cared about any of that. As he was speaking, the tallies that could spell his defeat kept coming in—another few thousand votes for Joe Biden in Georgia and, shortly thereafter, a few thousand shaved off Trump’s shrinking lead in Pennsylvania. The president seemed to know the end was coming. As he slunk away, a reporter shouted after him, “Are you being a sore loser?” Trump ignored him and left the room.On the West Lawn of the Capitol Wednesday, a man in a pom-pom beanie clamored for blood. “Execute the traitors!” he shouted into a megaphone. “I wanna see executions!”
The man got the deaths he wanted, if not the executions. Four rioters died as a result of Wednesday’s (6 January last) insurrection at the Capitol. The mob beat a police officer with a fire extinguisher, law-enforcement sources told The New York Times; the officer later died. Some of them had bigger plans too: Before the protest, pro-Trump radicals had posted online about their intentions to kill Vice President Mike Pence.
They brought zip ties and wore Kevlar vests. Rioters erected wooden gallows next to the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and police discovered two pipe bombs on Capitol Hill.The violence could have been even worse. Some of the rioters clearly wanted it to be. And Wednesday’s attack may have had another, more insidious effect to embolden extremists.
Already, Trump-supporting zealots online are promising to return to Washington around Inauguration Day.“President Trump has ignited fire within people,” a protester named Maria told me on Wednesday afternoon, before either of us knew that rioters had broken into the Capitol. “Some of these guys … they’re ready to go to war or die for their country today. This is not going away anytime soon.”
As the rioters breached the Capitol walls, Representative Susan Wild of Pennsylvania was in the House gallery, watching her colleagues debating on the floor below. She watched as the Capitol Police evacuated Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Suddenly, officers announced that rioters had entered the Capitol Rotunda, and ordered Wild and her colleagues to put on the gas masks below their chairs. Wild dropped to the floor.
She and several other members of Congress crawled on their hands and knees from one side of the gallery to an open exit on the other. After she hung up, the panic set in the sensation of being trapped, cornered like a caged animal. This, Wild told, was probably the moment captured in the now widely circulated photo of her being comforted by Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger. “I had an image of an overwhelming number of armed people invading the Capitol coming in to shoot us up,” she said. “I remember thinking, Wow, this is what it’s come to.”
The rioters didn’t shoot any lawmakers, but Wild was close to real danger. A screaming mob had forced its way into the Capitol on the west side, and more people were climbing through the broken windows of the east entrance. A group led by a man in a Q-Anon T-shirt chased a police officer up to the second floor, chanting and demanding to speak with senators. Some wore tactical gear helmets, armor, and black masks covering their entire face.
It was easy to miss them with all the coverage of the costumes and poop-smearing and poses struck in Statuary Hall, but they were there, these military-styled men, carrying blunt instruments and fistfuls of zip ties, better known as flex cuffs, capable of restraining hostages. At least one was an Air Force combat veteran, The New Yorker reported. They seemed to act with purpose and knew their way around the Capitol. One carried a semiautomatic weapon and 11 Molotov cocktails. Later, police officers found the two pipe bombs.
The devices were outside the buildings housing the Democratic and Republican National Committees, just blocks from the Capitol. Federal agents discovered a truck full of rifles, shotguns, and bomb-making supplies parked outside the RNC headquarters.“We are lucky, more than anything else, there wasn’t a large death toll,” Peter Simi, an expert on extremist groups at Chapman University, told, “It could have been far, far worse.”Whatever happens, American is nothing but a military democracy!
The writer is an independent political analyst who writes on
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