I thought I knew how bad it could get. We were warned that hordes of MAGA true believers were descending on Washington on Wednesday to listen to President Donald Trump's election fraud lies. But honestly, their cheerleading felt like an afterthought compared to the congressional Electoral College objections from GOP senators and representatives — arguments legally specious but still dangerous for democracy.
I have spent the last four years watching these keyboard warriors, troll princes and racist agitators bungle and stumble through their confrontations with counterprotesters, back down from police challenges, posture with their comrades and generally cosplay as militia members. And like many in America, it had lulled me into a false sense of security.
But on Wednesday, the cosplay became very real.
The images and tweets that trickled out of the Capitol building Wednesday seemed impossible. The Senate evacuated. The speaker of the House and other congressional leaders hustled to an undisclosed location, her office invaded. Protesters seemingly in full control of the Senate's chambers. The states' Electoral College votes in wooden cases whisked away to safety like sacred texts saved from marauders.
I think the events of Jan. 6 will have to be a tipping point for Congress. Specifically, for the congressional Republicans who have riled up and agitated Trump's supporters, apparently thinking there was no real cost to be paid and only political power to be gained. But Wednesday they were locked down, with just a barred door separating themselves and their colleagues from the chaos their words and actions have wrought.
It's ironic that Congress was at least pantomiming doing Trump's bidding when the gates were breached. Republicans in the House and the Senate were claiming, without explicitly saying so, that Trump's allegations of fraud had convinced enough of their constituents that they felt it was their duty to reject Arizona's electoral votes. These charlatans, all of whom knew that they were putting on a show for the people outside the building, were cut off when they were informed that their audience had come to them.
Just hours earlier, Trump had stood on the Ellipse, basking in the support of his adulators — and he was angry. "All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical Democrats," Trump said. "We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don't concede when there is theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore." He compared Republicans to a boxer who had been fighting with one hand tied behind his back, and he snarled that his party was being "too nice."
It was time to march to the Capitol, Trump rallied the crowd, promising that he would "be there" alongside them. The crowd listened, taking off up Pennsylvania Avenue. True to his nature, Trump did not join them — instead, he slunk away to the White House in his motorcade.
The protesters quickly turned into a mob. Then the mob became a riot. All the rhetoric from Trump about law and order over the years, all his praise for the police and law enforcement, evaporated when his supporters forced their way into the halls of Congress. For all of Trump's praise of national monuments and federal buildings during last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, the rioters smashed windows and climbed the walls and the façade of the Capitol itself.
And where were the men and women who courted the support of these protesters? What was going through their minds as House Republicans reached for the gas masks beneath their seats to counter the tear gas deployed in the Rotunda? What would these champions of Trumpism had done if forced to play Victor Frankenstein, standing face to face with their Creation? (To his credit, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who like the majority of his House colleagues planned to object to the Electoral College results, reportedly did try to reason with the rioters.)
There is no denying Trump's role in Wednesday's violence. No matter how much he says otherwise, this is what he asked for. His goal, delaying congressional recognition of the vote, was technically achieved in the short term. His Twitter account, normally his primary weapon, seemed impotent — possibly purposefully so — in its feeble attempts to contain what he'd unleashed.
Even after having witnessed the power of his words, the best Trump could muster in atonement was a one-minute video from the White House lawn. He did not concede the election. He merely told his supporters "to go home," in between reminding them that "we had an election stolen from us" and that "they've taken it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country." These are not the words of someone who truly wants peace, a point made clearer when he added in another tweet, "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long."
"Remember this day forever!" Trump implored. Twitter removed three of his tweets before locking his account — but it will be hard not to remember this day.
As darkness fell in Washington, and with it a citywide curfew, the National Guard from Washington and Virginia mobilized to confront the remaining protesters. With the Capitol only recently secured, calls for a second impeachment have intensified, and members of the Cabinet have discussed invoking the 25th Amendment — as they should. Two weeks is too long to let Trump remain in power.
In the medium term, Trump's incitement backfired — several Senate Republicans announced that they planned to withdraw their challenges to the electoral votes after the siege. And Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said Trump "lit the flame" under the mob that he formed.
But more than windows were broken Wednesday. Any sense that the storm would calm itself faded. Republicans who filled their sails in this gale have been faced with the fact that there is no way to safely ride its surges. Some may still try; after everything that happened, 121 House Republicans still voted to reject Arizona's electoral votes. It's these Republicans, still scrambling to be Trump's successors, who have a choice in the coming months, deciding whether they will help steer America's ship into calmer waters — or allow it to be dashed upon the rocks.
I believe they have chosen the rocks.