The world’s oldest democracy has had a brush with its own mortality.
An attempt to disrupt the U.S. transition of democratic power has delivered a wakeup call for a system poisoned by escalating political hatred.
Make no mistake about what this was: “A failed insurrection” is what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it.
So a country that has styled itself, and shed blood, as a democracy-spreading force around the world now finds itself struggling to safeguard it at home.
Wednesday’s scenes will outlive us all — images of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol, of politicians forced into hiding, congressional offices ransacked and, in a symbolic gut-punch, a Confederate flag carried triumphantly inside this most anti-Confederate landmark.
WATCH | Protesters storm the barricades:
The actions of U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, will outlive him as an indelible piece of his legacy.
He encouraged that crowd to march on the Capitol, then later waffled in his statements condemning what happened. By day’s end, his military chief and national security adviser said they were working with Vice-President Mike Pence to restore calm.
CBS News reported that some members of Trump’s cabinet were discussing the possibility of removing him from office under the 25th Amendment. The Republican governor of Vermont was among several saying Trump should immediately resign or be impeached.
The last Republican president and the Republican presidential nominee before Trump both condemned his behaviour, with Sen. Mitt Romney referring to the president as a “selfish man” whose wounded pride about losing an election prompted an insurrection.
Hours later, lawmakers were called back into the chamber hosting a joint session. Shortly after 3:30 a.m.ET, Joe Biden was formally recognized by the U.S. Congress as the incoming president, in a procedural meeting led by Pence.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” said Trump’s vice-president, who had been under public pressure from his boss to overturn the result.
“The world will again witness the strength of our democracy,” Pence said as he called the meeting back to order following a frantic few hours.
“Let’s get back to work.”
WATCH | What happens to Trumpism after Trump?
Twitter, meanwhile, had locked down the president’s account on the grounds of public safety.
Yet conversations overheard in Washington suggest it will be more difficult to stem the loathing now threatening to corrode the republic’s foundations.
A crowd of thousands arrived at the Capitol after a rally where Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and Trump himself vowed never to concede.
Numerous other speeches delivered from podiums at rallies this week in Washington were laden with threats of violent insurrection.
‘The brink of a revolution’
“We’re on the brink of a revolution. And I for one will take the first bullet,” Chris Cox, the founder of a group called Bikers for Trump, said at one Tuesday night rally.
A televangelist at the same rally, Mark Burns, called the presidential election a battle of good versus evil and led a crowd in the chanting of the revolutionary creed, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
WATCH | How Wednesday’s events unfolded:
The head of a conservative Christian group, Christie Hutcherson, asked the crowd: “Are you ready to start a revolution? … We need to pray — but not just pray.”
On Wednesday, the crowd assembled in three loosely formed concentric rings around the Capitol.
The closest group smashed its way inside the building. A second and much larger group milled upon the doorstep, hoisting Trump flags and tossing firecrackers.
That second group included a man carrying a bullhorn inciting the third, and largest, group assembled on the lawn of the National Mall.
“Push forward people. This is what you’ve come here for,” he said, encouraging them to storm the premises.
“This [Congress] is your house. Come on in.”
Some of those on the lawn were having friendly exchanges, such as one woman showing baby pictures on her phone.
Others prayed for Trump’s doomed attempt to overturn the election. During one prayer, several women cried, and one splayed across the grass.
Several warned things will get worse if Biden is allowed to take office.
Standing near the podium where Biden is scheduled to take the presidential oath in two weeks, a man in camouflage shouted: “This is just a wakeup call.”
“Next time, we won’t be peaceful,” shouted a man next to him.
Others walked away — either westward down Pennsylvania Avenue past the Canadian Embassy or north to the nearby metro station.
Non-mask-wearing, Trump-supporting, out-of-town visitors crowded into metro cars alongside residents of Washington wearing masks.
One man loudly spouted unhinged conspiracy theories about Pence being peddled online to explain the vice-president’s perceived abandonment of Trump.
He and others exchanged the URLs for conspiracy websites that he fumed were being pulled off of Facebook.
One woman said the president had a duty to remain in office under his oath to defend the constitution against enemies, both foreign and domestic: “He can’t concede,” she said.
Back at the Capitol, tensions were escalating. Members of the mob complained about the police. Which is striking given that police, for hours, were so badly outmatched that they did little to protect the Capitol.
Some of the protestors even joked about it: “They didn’t even fight back,” said one man walking away from the Capitol. “We have stormed the Capitol.” A friend said: “That was the easiest storm ever.”
Eventually, additional police units from surrounding areas gathered on the nearby streets and put on riot gear.
Members of the mob spotted them and began hurling insults, several sounding genuinely surprised that police would not be supporting them.
A man in a red cap berated a shielded officer from Montgomery County, Md.: “What side are you on?” he said.
While the scenes will shock, the instability shouldn’t.
Political-risk analysts warned before the election that the country could face low-level unrest. The International Crisis Group cited several factors, including the country’s politics being polarized along racial and cultural-identity lines; the rise of armed groups with political agendas, such as the groups that allegedly plotted to attack the Michigan legislature and kidnap the governor; and the president himself.
Psychologists have warned about how Trump might respond to an election loss.
‘We’re not going away’
When lawmakers returned to their desks on Wednesday evening, Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said the thugs who launched what he called a failed insurrection would not deter democracy from performing its vital tasks.
The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, paraphrased Franklin Roosevelt’s words about the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and said Jan. 6, 2021, would join the short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.
“This will be a stain on our country not so easily washed away,” Schumer said. “The final, terrible, indelible legacy of the 45th president of the United States — undoubtedly, our worst.”
Trump’s presidency began four years ago with him claiming the largest crowd for an inaugural celebration on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. His presidency ends with the largest domestic coup attempt in that spot.
Hundreds of people at one Washington rally this week chanted: “We’re not going away! We’re not going away!” The speaker leading those chants, referring to unfounded allegations of voter fraud, said: “This problem is not going anywhere.”
WATCH | Vice-President Mike Pence condemns violence at the Capitol as Congress reconvenes: