American democracy came under attack Wednesday. But rather than a cyber breach or an act of terrorism from agents of a foreign adversary, this attack was delivered by Americans acting under a distorted definition of patriotism.
Encouraged by President Donald Trump and his farcical attempts to overturn an election defeat, a mob of supporters breached barriers and forced their way into the U.S. Capitol in a shameful display of insurrection. Members of Congress were sent fleeing to safety while their vote to finalize the election of Joe Biden as president was temporarily halted.
Some rioters made their way into the chamber where Congress had been holding a joint session; at least one person was shot and killed; tear gas wafted through the halls of the Capitol. Cable news stations and media websites delivered images typically associated with the most backward and chaotic of nations, places where political power is transferred through the use of force rather than a democratic vote.
“The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” Biden said in an address to the nation. “What we’re seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent, it’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition, and it must end now. I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward.”
The episode was shocking, providing a sad but predictable coda for the Trump presidency.
Since losing the popular vote and the Electoral College to Biden on Nov. 3, Trump has claimed the election was fraudulent without offering proof. More than 50 legal challenges to the election results have been rejected by the courts because they are without merit.
That cacophony of caterwauling reached a crescendo Wednesday with thousands of Trump supporters descending on Washington, D.C., to protest the certification of the election results. After some of those supporters invaded the Capitol, Trump delivered a milquetoast plea for them to leave.
Peace eventually was restored and Congress eventually resumed the ceremonial approval of election results, but the storming of a symbol of American democracy will linger. It will forever serve as an emblem of a most undemocratic and most un-American president.
Trump’s disdain for democracy has been sharply defined in the weeks since the election. His antipathy for the foundations that make this nation sturdy have tainted the presidency perhaps more than any of his predecessors. And when historians and future generations ponder his impact on the United States, they need look no further than Wednesday’s demonstration.
As Biden said: “Today’s a reminder, a painful one, that democracy is fragile and to preserve it requires people of goodwill, leaders with the courage to stand up, who are devoted not to the pursuit of power and personal interest at any cost, but to the common good. Think what our children who are watching television are thinking. Think of what the rest of the world is looking at.”
What they saw was a democracy that is teetering, not because of an election but because the man tasked with preserving it has demonstrated no interest in so doing. Teetering because the United States has a president willing to goad supporters into violence through lies and avarice.
The result was a dark day in American history. A day that reminds that democracy is, indeed, fragile. And a day that reminds us that the greatest threats to democracy often come from within.