This scene shows how a democracy ends

7 January 2021

9:06 AM

7 January 2021

9:06 AM

This is the house that Trump trashed. The President claimed that the election had been stolen. He pressed elected officials from Mike Pence down to break the law. Hours before, he rallied his supporters with promises of ‘a wild one’. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani called for ‘trial by combat’. The assault on the Capitol is the result, a mob trying to ‘stop the steal’ by force.

The riot at the Capitol throws a brick through the Overton window of acceptable behavior. As I write, the Senate is hiding from the mob, police have shot at least one man inside the building, and the National Guard are on the way. The footage shows the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building, brawls between rioters and police at the chamber door, a keffiyeh-wearing rioter raising his fist at the Senate leader’s desk, tear gas fired at the crowds.

It is easy to blame Trump, and accurate too, because his culpability is obvious. With rioters and armed police in a stand-off, he repeated his claim about a ‘stolen’ election in a message that also asked them to back down. It was unconscionable, a transparent attempt to pressure the Senate even further, while denying his own responsibility. If people are killed, the blood is on his hands.

But Trump is the symptom as well as the disease, and the disease is bipartisan. The fever of Occupy and the Tea Party preceded his entry into politics. He sought the Republican nomination while Bernie Sanders sought the Democratic nomination; the Republican party, unlike the Democrats, was too feeble to fight off the outsider. And after a year in which Democratic leaders have acclaimed left-wing rioters as agents of ‘social justice’ and ‘anti-racism’, the surprise today lies only in the location of the riot — as though there were still neutral symbols and institutions in a country so divided.

‘That is not what we do in America,’ Kevin McCarthy said on the phone to the CBS studio from his safe place. ‘That is not who we are.’

But it is. American society was founded on righteous violence, and Americans have periodically practiced it on each other. Joe Biden, after delivering a speech of angry platitudes, plucked a typically dumb ad-lib — ‘The American people have got to stand up now. Enough is enough is enough’ — from the script of revolutionary piety. Your lawless followers are a mob, but ours are the people. Yours must stand down so ours can stand up.

We are watching the playing-out of the Founders’ nightmares. James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, wrote that ‘pure democracy’ succumbs to ‘the mischief of faction’. The Electoral College is one of the strategies intended to buffer elections against the passions of the mob. As in the Roman failures that Madison feared, politicians have raised mobs against each other and the state.

The Democrats have delegitimized the Electoral College as a legacy of systemic racism; some of their elected representatives have promised to remove it. How ironic that the Democrats, to secure Biden’s victory, should now cling to the College and praise it for functioning as it is meant to function.

Republicans have denounced the Democrats for undermining the constitutional system — until the Electoral College denied them what they wanted. How appalling that Republican senators like Josh Hawley should refuse to endorse the College’s findings from conviction. How absurd that Ted Cruz should join him from cynicism.

It is, as Burke wrote of the French Revolution, a ‘monstrous tragi-comic scene’. Like the scenes of riot from last year, this scene shows how a democracy ends.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments