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Columnists

The Assault on Congress

January 13, 2021

In my last column, I voiced concern about the danger to American democracy posed by hard-core reactionaries. On January 6, that danger materialized in an attack on Congress. We must ask who organized this outrage and for what purpose? Why was the police presence so limited?

On the day of the assault, Congress had convened to certify the electoral college finding that Joe Biden had been elected president of the United States. A dozen Republican senators and over a hundred Republican House members had announced they would be rejecting the vote tallies of several states. 

During legislative events of this nature, crowds often gather to peacefully show support or disapproval for the measures being debated. Last Wednesday’s gathering was different. It had been preceded by numerous death threats and the placement of pipe bombs at the national headquarters of both parties. Many demonstrators arrived armed with the intent of disrupting normal governance. One of them brought a truckload of Molotov cocktails. As soon as the would-be insurrectionists realized there was minimal police presence, they began to force their way into the Capitol.

One invader wore a shirt that celebrated Camp Auschwitz. Did he think that was funny? Or was his true ideology being displayed? Also present were Confederate flags, the banner of states dedicated to the preservation of slavery. Who paid for the numerous professionally crafted posters hoisted by the rioters? Who arranged for the national transportation involved? 

Although the “rally” had been widely promoted by Trump for a considerable time, only 135 police were deployed at the Capitol with another 200 in reserve. In contrast, when Black Lives Matter staged peaceful rallies in Lafayette Park last June, there were scores of armored National Guard units that were backed up by tanks. Who’s responsible for this disparity?

The cultural context of the insurrection was shaped by Donald Trump. Even after losing 50 court cases in which he charged electoral irregularities, Trump insisted he had won re-election in a landslide. He launched intensive efforts to get state governments controlled by Republicans to reverse the popular vote.

Trump also attacked any Republican who judged the election to be valid. This included the Vice President, the Attorney General, and the Senate Majority Leader. A number of Republican officials, however, supported his accusations. Most prominent was Senator Ted Cruz. Replying to critics accusing him of cynically courting the support of die-hard Trump voters for a future presidential bid, he said he was protecting the integrity of the election.

The January 6 date had been designated by Trump as the last chance to stop the election of Joe Biden. At the rally proper, he repeated his unfounded claims and urged the audience to march on the Capitol.  He indicated he would join them although he ultimately reneged. 

When the demonstration turned violent, Trump sat silently in the White House. The task of calling out the National Guard to restore order had to be done by Vice President Pence. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media immediately suspended Trump’s account for fear he would use their facilities to incite more rebellion.

The next day the highly conservative National Association of Manufacturers called for invoking the 25th amendment to immediately remove him from office. Democrats began actions for a second impeachment. The four living ex-presidents questioned Trump’s behavior, Republican George Bush issuing the strongest statement. Due to this political pressure and the general outrage of the public, Trump finally mildly chastised the rioters and pledged a peaceful transition of power to the new administration.

On the day of the rioting, COVID-19 deaths in the United States hit a historic daily high of 4,000. The anti-COVID vaccine was still not being distributed efficiently, unemployment was rising, and many small businesses were permanently closing their doors. Rather than address such vital challenges, a Republican faction opted to turn a ceremonial function into a half-day of useless technical game-playing. This was a political charade as the majority of Congress had indicated it would accept the results of the election. Rioters turned this factional showboating into a tragedy.

Wednesday’s turmoil momentarily overshadowed the Georgia run-off election which brought two new Democrats to the senate. Their election gives each party 50 seats and incoming Vice-President Harris has the power to break ties. This hairline majority does not mean Democrats will be able to run roughshod over the Republicans, but the power of Mitch McConnell to thwart legislation through procedural red tape has been greatly curtailed.

The first ninety days of the Biden presidency will be absorbed by the unresolved issues I have raised. The turmoil of Wednesday may prove to be the last hurrah of reactionary extremists. More likely, it was just a taste of outrages yet to come. Paramount in stemming the latter possibility is that the federal government vigorously prosecute all participants who literally attempted to trash the legislative cradle of American democracy.

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