WASHINGTON—On the steps of the Capitol building, a crowd of people in red MAGA hats and combat fatigues waved Trump flags and chanted “F – – – Joe Biden.” Nearby, some used a metal barricade to try to smash the windows. As the mob’s chant transformed into “Trump won!” a cloud of pepper spray disrupted their efforts, causing them to recoil as they coughed and covered their eyes.
They looked ridiculous in their costumes, holding delusional signs in tribute to their delusional leader. And yet they had managed something remarkable. If only for a moment, they had made the mighty marble Capitol — and what was once the world’s mightiest democracy — look ever so vulnerable.
It was a typical moment of chaos on a day unprecedented in modern American history, during which supporters of Donald Trump, egged on by a speech he gave earlier in the day demanding the presidential election be overturned, stormed the seat of American government and temporarily shut down the proceedings of the peaceful transfer of power.
The sittings of both houses of Congress to accept the electoral votes that would make Biden the next president were suspended as the Capitol was stormed by Trump supporters, some of them reportedly armed. Images on news broadcasts from inside the building showed them waving Confederate flags as they wandered the halls freely, at one point setting off a fire extinguisher inside. Other videos showed some of them fist-fighting with police. There were numerous reports of armed standoffs between Trump loyalists and police. There were reports that a woman was fatally shot inside the Capitol, although the details of who she was and who did the shooting were unclear. Suspected homemade bombs were found near the headquarters of both major national parties.
Even as all that was taking place, Trump was condemning Vice-President Mike Pence on Twitter for not trying to overrule the Electoral College on his behalf. Later in the day, the president tweeted a video in which he asked his supporters to stand down from the Capitol and remain peaceful, although he still spent most of it claiming the election was fraudulent.
His supporters, who had massed on the National Mall in the morning at Trump’s urging to protest Biden’s election victory, marched on the Capitol shortly after 1 p.m., just after Trump had addressed the crowd. Almost immediately, they overwhelmed barricades that were set up in front of the Capitol. Thousands of them soon moved onto the steps of the building, and onto the bleachers that had already been set up on its west side for Biden’s inauguration.
Then hundreds of people swarmed into the building — apparently through doors they unlocked after breaking the windows — as the two houses of Congress were beginning debate on the electoral votes, prompting a lockdown that lasted into the evening.
Outside, thousands more rallied on the steps and the surrounding lawns, chanting slogans such as “Stop the Steal” and intermittently setting off fireworks. Many shouted into megaphones — “Bring back the gallows! Hang every one of these traitorous bastards by their f – – – – – – – necks!” — to loud applause. They shouted at police, “You’re a traitor to your country!” and “We had your backs, now you should have ours!”
But there was a surreal contrast within the crowd. While some of those who’d gathered wore military fatigues, bulletproof vests and helmets, others were dressed in clownish Uncle Sam or prisoner costumes. Groups of young men smashed their fists against windows while, just metres away, families with small children laughed as they posed for selfies. A man chased an alleged Antifa supporter down Pennsylvania Avenue, shouting “I’m going to kick your ass, bitch!” while nearby people formed an orderly line to use port-a-potties. There were merchandise tables and street performers dotted throughout the crowd, adding a circus atmosphere to a scene of genuine menace.
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“My wife is gonna insist I don’t get shot,” one man remarked with a laugh shortly after dusk as flash-bang grenades fired by police exploded in thundering booms over the crowd. After 4 p.m., authorities working systematically around the building to disperse most of the crowd, which flowed back down Pennsylvania Avenue to hotels and tour buses, discussing the 6 p.m. curfew that had been imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Shortly before the curfew came into effect, Capitol Police reported they had secured the building.
“This could be the start of something,” one protester said.
“Oh, it is. Today changes everything,” another replied.
It seemed like it might turn out instead to be the end of something — the polite indulgence of Trump and his supporters in which many Republican officials had long engaged.
As Trump attacked his own vice-president and his supporters attacked the building, Pence himself tweeted “this attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Republican lawmakers inside the building described the siege a “coup attempt” and vowed not to be deterred by the mob. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who had opposed confirming Biden’s win, announced she’d changed her mind as a result of the riot. “What happened today and continues to unfold in the nation’s capital is disgraceful and un-American,” she said in a statement. “We must have a peaceful transfer of power.”
Even before the crowd had breached the building, it appeared many of Trump’s longtime enablers had decided the time had come to stop putting up with his dangerous undermining of democracy. Just before the protesters breached Capitol security, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a speech saying that accepting the election results would be the most important vote of his Senate career.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said he had consulted with Pence, McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others — but notably, not the president — before deciding to deploy the National Guard to help quell the protest, and said it was Pence who approved the deployment. And members of Congress resumed their meetings by 8 p.m., with McConnell vowing that the “attempted insurrection” would not keep them from certifying Biden’s victory.
But even as Trump’s grip on power was slipping a mob made up of his followers had managed an astonishing feat — they shut down the government of the world’s most powerful country.
The Capitol building, massive and imposing, is one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the world. That its defences could be so easily and quickly overtaken, its occupants threatened, and its business disrupted by people the authorities knew were coming was an astonishing illustration of how flimsy the security of the U.S. government actually is. Under Trump, many things that seemed rock solid have been exposed as very fragile — including American democracy itself.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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