Well, that was dramatic.
Images of enraged Trump cheerleaders storming Capitol Hill like the Bastille is going to haunt the right for a long, long, long (pardon the epizeuxis) time. In galavanting through Capitol halls like harrooing Homines habilis, these simian iconoclasts handed their ideological enemies the powerful weapon of endless referencing. More tangible punishment awaits: the cleverest of the ordure-flingers bared their teeth to cameras, guaranteeing their mugs will soon grace a rogue’s gallery at your closest FBI field office.
Mission accomplished, as George Bush might brag. Joe Biden will be sworn in later this month. The election result is unchanged. Democrats have a free hand starting January 20th to do their will, calling any opposition in league with insurrection. Rioters could spend a decade in the clink thanks to President Trump’s anti-monument vandalism executive diktat—the irony of which is any West Ender’s dream closer. And we might get more military adventurism in the MidEast to boot.
So what did the MAGAites really accomplish for all their feral efforts?
In true modern political fashion, nothing so much more than a symbol. Of sore loserdom. Of petulant poor-sportism. Of a puerile temper-tantrum with shattered windows and busted door frames instead of cracked rattles and thrown dummies.
For the first time in five years, elected Republicans are turning on their leader, swimming against the centripetal force of Trumpism. One by one, like slumping dominoes, G.O.P. lawmakers are falling onto each other, lambasting the President and the very people who’ve donated to, supported, and volunteered for their campaigns over the years.
The Greek chorus of anti-Trump “I told you so!”s is only building in volume. Democrats, tapping deeply into their party’s ousia of hystericism, compared the Capital Hill furore to both the Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Senate soon-to-be Majority Leader Chuck Schumer went full holy terror, declaring that the “temple to democracy was desecrated.” (The Founders would disagree: a Viking helmeted, greasepainted, unshirted hell-raiser larking about the Senate chamber is the epitome of pure democracy.)
Likening Congress to the heavens isn’t just overwrought; it’s positively emetic. Mobsters are sacerdotal ascètes compared to coddled Hill staffers.
Even so, Official Washington’s reaction to the shambolic affair is predictably self-focused. After a hot summer of urban incineration, lawmakers suddenly give a hoot that it’s their office equipment being trashed rather than a family-owned mechanic shop in Toledo. Before, it was mere property being crushed underfoot and set ablaze; now divinely anointed tools of democracy like Macbook Airs and gilded letter openers have been tainted with the touch of deplorable. Gott im Himmel, rette uns!
For the rest of us whose work wardrobe doesn’t consist entirely of Dockers, Brooks Brothers shirts, and regimental ties, the mob violence on the Capitol should be considered with what the French call the longue durée view of history. Yes, for disclaimer’s sake, the pandemonium was in no way justified, let alone lawful. A woman—an accomplished Air Force veteran—needlessly died. A Capitol police officer was killed. The entire ugly episode deserves condemnation. A million periods and full stops.
Are the sensitive censorers now satisfied? Yes? Very well, let’s carry on: the Trumpy fracas should be put in the wider context of American history. As professor Darel E. Paul shows, violence is an inextricable part of America’s DNA. From the revolution that birthed the nation, to the Whiskey Rebellion, to tariff nullification, to the Civil War, to Reconstruction, to Jim Crow and KKK night riders, to desegregation, to the civil rights marches, to Rodney King, to Ferguson, the country has demonstrated over and over how short its fuse really is. We’re a het-up people. As Benjamin Franklin said in 1776, the American race is “rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined.”
And yet, what transpired on Capitol grounds was small potatoes compared to tumult within living memory.
Fifty years ago, hundreds of anarchic agitators set off bombs in government buildings and bustling places of business. As Bryan Burrough recounts in Days of Rage, “During an eighteen month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil, nearly 5 a day.” Less than a decade earlier, a president was assassinated in broad daylight.
Congress itself has never been unfamiliar with nasty threats and physical confrontation. Slaver-defender Rep. Preston Brooks famously caned abolitionist senator Charles Sumner to near-death. Southern Rep. John Dawson once threatened to jugulate another lawmaker “from ear to ear.” Historian Joanne Freeman summarized the pre-Civil War federal legislature as follows: “Punching. Pistols. Bowie knives. Congressmen brawling in bunches while colleagues stood on chairs to get a good look.” An antebellum Jerry Springer, if you will.
The strained oratory and thundering gassing of our current congressional jabberers seems quaint in comparison. And therein lies the esse of our enmity: the DC class is so insulated from the frustrations of the low cives that they didn’t see the simmer among Trumpers turn to a boil. Policy elites can’t and won’t deign to acknowledge the anxiety prevalent among the average voter, regardless of party. The country spent the past ten months under lockdown, while the same politicians who pushed the shuttering flouted their own mandates with no repercussion. The BLM bedlam of last year was excused and abetted by the same liberal pols who believe no less than the Wehrmacht marched into their hallowed halls.
The truculent will always be with us. Ignoring them until their frustration hits a maximum moment and bends toward wanton destruction, then stomping the state’s boot down hard on the outburst, doesn’t solve anything.
The Capitol Hill fray was a hiccup, a sharp judder, in a long line of convulsions that trace the American republic’s lifespan. The anger is still bubbling; we’ll undoubtedly belch again if our political leaders pay it no mind.