In his 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” Philip Roth imagined an American president who coddled dictators abroad and condoned mobs at home.
Would such an episode end democracy in the US? Or would it, by showing the consequences of an authoritarian leader, act as a kind of vaccine, prompting the nation’s immune system to turn authoritarianism back for good? (The book became a series last year on HBO, which is owned by CNN’s corporate parent WarnerMedia.)
“The Plot Against America” was fiction. But there were echoes of it in the question facing the US after the spectacle this week of an American president whipping up a crowd of supporters and urging them to head to the Capitol to block the final certification of the incoming president’s victory in a free and fair election. Rioters invaded the building. Five people, including a police officer, died. Members of Congress scrambled for cover.
Among those rushed away by Capitol Police was Rep. Seth Moulton, a US Marine veteran from Massachusetts.
“Violent assault on democracy” was something he expected while serving in Iraq, he wrote. “I never imagined it as a United States congressman in America.”
As police attempted to retake the building, Moulton lamented that, “We’re sheltering together not because of a foreign terrorist attack, but because of a domestic coup attempt spurred on by rhetoric like that from the President and his supporters...Make no mistake: They are enemies of America. This is no protest. This is anarchy. It’s domestic terrorism. The people who are in the building right now are traitors to our nation.”
As the attack unfolded, SE Cupp wrote, “I will never forget this: Americans storming the United States Capitol in what can only be described as a coup attempt, a Trump supporter pictured standing at the Senate dais, and one jaw-dropping image of police pointing guns at the House front door from inside as a demonstrator appeared to be trying to breach the chamber.” Cupp added: “I will never forget the utter sadness over our divided, fragile democracy that one man has tried so desperately to cleave in half for his own corrupt, narcissistic and craven self-interest.”
Finally, the Capitol was cleared, and at 3:41 am Thursday, the electoral vote counting was completed. Joe Biden is due to take the oath of office as the 46th President on January 20.
So far, a majority in the country appears to be decisively rejecting what President Donald Trump did and calling out his enablers, many of whom started jumping off his sinking ship. Democrats are moving to impeach Trump for a second time, with the possibility of some Republican support.
Even though Trump has only 10 days left in office, wrote Julian Zelizer, it makes sense for Congress to “go on record stating that any president who incites an attack on another branch of government should no longer have the privilege of holding office.” The Senate could not only convict Trump but also disqualify him from holding office in the future.
The president whose inaugural speech talked of “American carnage” turned out to be the one who produced it over his big lie – that he was cheated out of a re-election victory, John Avlon noted. “Our country is far more divided and violent and deluded than before he entered office. His misrule has led to this moment, but it is not his responsibility alone. Trump’s fear-fueled lies and extremism and conspiracy theories have been indulged for too long by partisans. His rhetoric has directly led to death threats against election officials who have done their job honestly and independently.”
The rioters are not patriots, not Republicans and not conservatives, but are domestic terrorists, wrote GOP commentator Scott Jennings. Trump’s “lies and conspiracy theories” about the election caused the insurrection. “All Republicans have a duty to support the republic and the Constitution by condemning this terrorism, rallying around the peaceful transfer of power and our constitutional institutions, and demanding all of the actions within the power of the President of the United States to restore order to our Capitol.”
When Paul Begala worked in the Capitol, his office window looked out to the National Mall. “Every night as the sun went down,” Begala recalled, “the glow would illuminate my workplace, and I would ponder the miracle that a guy from Missouri City, Texas, could work in the same building where Lincoln served, walk the halls once strode by a confident young war hero named Jack Kennedy, go to meetings in the room where Harry Truman learned that FDR had died and that he now bore the awful burden of presidency.
“None of that history stopped these thugs. None of the majesty mattered to this mob. They cared not a whit about Lincoln or Kennedy, nor about the Constitution or the country. Their flag was not the Stars and Stripes that have draped the caskets of so many actual American patriots. Rather, it was the banner of a cult of personality, the name that had been emblazoned on a fraudulent ‘university’ and failed casinos.”
Last week ripped the final shreds off the mask of Trump, exposing him as a classic authoritarian leader, wrote Ruth Ben-Ghiat. “Although Trump lost the election two months ago, for his followers, he was the winner who had unjustly been deprived of what was rightfully his. Add in the culture of armed insurgency and the anti-democratic, extremist beliefs many of these groups espouse, and the solution of ‘direct action’ – namely, an armed takeover of the halls of power to save the leader – becomes compelling… Trump, of course, was not in the building. He set the fire, but was careful not to be in a position to get burned by it or control it.”
Incoming President Joe Biden condemned the attack on the Capitol, offered reasssuring words to the nation, and continued filling out his Cabinet, but he won’t become President for more than a week. In the meantime, Democrats in Congress are urging Vice President Mike Pence to remove Trump under the provisions of the 25th Amendment.
“Every day he is in office there is a very real possibility that he will unleash his backers in new and harmful ways,” wrote Frida Ghitis. “At this moment when everything is at stake, Pence can not only save the country, but he can also start the process of repairing America’s battered reputation.”
Law enforcement officials promised to take action against the rioters. Americans “deserve to know that everyone who participated in this act of seditious terror will be investigated and prosecuted under the law,” wrote Joe Lockhart. “Republican leaders also need to take responsibility and look within their own party to confront those who helped encourage this insurrection.”
“The FBI says it ‘is seeking to identify individuals instigating violence in Washington, D.C.,’” noted Jill Filipovic. “If they’re looking for the chief instigator, they should walk over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If they’re looking for the many who carried out the violence, looting, and ransacking, many of their faces are easily visible in photos and videos, and many are bragging about their acts on social media.”
One key question will be whether Trump could be held legally responsible for the riot. “These domestic terrorists attacked the great symbol of American democracy,” wrote Peter Bergen, “and they should be held accountable – and so should their Inciter-in-Chief, President Donald J. Trump.”
“There are limits to the First Amendment. It is a crime to incite or solicit others to commit crimes if you have reason to believe they may actually carry out those crimes,” wrote Bergen.
A former prosecutor, CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, wrote that “there is a criminal case to be made against President Donald Trump for his role in the assault on the Capitol. It’s not an easy case or an automatic win for prosecutors. But there is a legitimate case there for any prosecutor with the fortitude to bring it — and the ability to counter the defenses Trump’s legal team may use to fight back.”
It was impossible to miss the racial implications of the attack by the overwhelmingly White crowd and the sharp contrast to the way law enforcement reacted to Black Lives Matter protests last year. “As I watched the siege of the Capitol building,” wrote Roxanne Jones, “I recalled the George Floyd protests in Lafayette Park near the White House in June, where heavily armed law enforcement set off explosives and fired gas on peacefully gathered citizens of all races – some of them even on their knees with their hands up or lying flat on the ground. Photo after photo of that day shows protesters being beaten, arrested and dispersed by police.” By contrast, it was all too easy for the rioters to invade the Capitol this week.
Historians Rhae Lynn Barnes and Keri Leigh Merritt pointed out that “as rioters, incited by the President and with some carrying White supremacist imagery descended upon the Capitol, scaled its walls, planted pipe bombs, and dangled from its railings, the pictures and videos were simultaneously stunning and revolting: The bright reds of the Confederate and Nazi flags and matching MAGA hats simmered against a sea of Trump flags now sold on street corner popup shops that outnumbered American flags, a noose, a raised wooden cross reminiscent of Klan lynchings, and a sweater reading ‘Camp Auschwitz.’ The lineage between the slaveholding secessionists and the modern insurrectionists could not have been more clear: Both groups were willing to destroy the union and both used violence to deflect their own racial fantasies of power and privilege slipping away.”
To Nicole Hemmer, the riot evoked memories of the August, 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, in which far-right extremists, including neo-Nazis confronted counter-protesters. The parallels: “the hesitance of law enforcement to engage White, right-wing protesters (and their delay in doing so), the turn in right-wing media to the bogeyman of antifa as the source of disorder, the President’s efforts to excuse or embrace the violence of his supporters.”
After the Capitol was secured, a few Black custodians were seen in a video widely viewed on social media sweeping up the damage from the riot, noted Issac Bailey. It revealed, he wrote, “An abiding dignity in the work the men are doing. An illustration of their importance to the health of this country, just the latest example of how Black Americans remained steadfast throughout our history come what may.
“It feels wrong that they had to pick up the pieces from a failed insurrection attempt that, had it been successful, would have disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly those in areas with heavy Black populations.”
Through the eyes of a longtime law enforcement official, Cedric L. Alexander, the preparations for defending the Capitol seemed deeply flawed. “The Capitol appeared to be weakly ‘guarded’ by Capitol Police, a force massively outnumbered by the gathering insurrectionist mob,” Alexander noted. “Guarding an important site requires defense in depth. At the Capitol, not even a thinly fortified perimeter had been established.”
Was it “incompetence, gross negligence or both?,” Alexander asked. “The only real mystery here – and it is a mystery with the most profound implications – is why law enforcement left itself so unprepared for a dangerous event many people, up to and including the President of the United States, had not merely anticipated but had actually announced days and days in advance.”
Paul Callan observed, “The inability of police forces of the most powerful nation in human history to adequately protect the Capitol building from an angry mob seems inconceivable. Where were the Secret Service, the FBI, the National Guard, not to mention the nation’s powerful armed forces?”
Former White House chief of staff and Northern Ireland special envoy Mick Mulvaney was among the first of the Trump officials to resign over the President’s actions. “What took so long, when all of this was so predictable,” asked Doug Heye, a former senior GOP official who repudiated Trump early in 2016. “Trump has incited violence and sown division since he declared his candidacy in 2015. In the end, this is exactly what Mulvaney signed up for, whether he cares to admit it or not.”
This week’s events demonstrated even to longtime loyalists Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell how wrong they were to back Trump, wrote Michael D’Antonio. “As the mob careens around the Capitol and lawmakers huddle together in a secret and secure facility, it’s obvious that the likes of McConnell and Pence are far too late with the little display of opposition they mustered on the darkest day that hallowed building has ever seen.”
After four years of enabling Trump’s extremism on their platforms, Facebook, Twitter and others suspended his accounts, and then Twitter banned Trump permanently. They were also too late, wrote Kara Alaimo. “One reason that things got so out of hand in the first place is because Twitter didn’t shut Trump’s account down sooner,” she noted. “The platform, of course, allowed Trump to bypass the traditional media, which would have fact checked him, and make claims that were patently false… And because no one was willing to shut him down (@jack, I’m looking at you), he only became more emboldened. Social networks should have held Trump to the same standards as other users from the start.”
Don’t forget Trump’s enablers in Congress, including Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who led the baseless challenge to the counting of electoral votes Wednesday. “The three repulsive architects of Wednesday’s heartbreaking spectacle — mobs desecrating the Republic’s noblest building and preventing the completion of a constitutional process — must be named and forevermore shunned,” wrote George Will, in the Washington Post. “They are Donald Trump, and Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.”
Georgia puts GOP in minority
A day before the Capitol insurrection, Democrats won stunning victories in the Georgia runoff elections, giving them control of the US Senate to go along with their hold on the House and the next presidency.
The winning campaigns of Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock “dealt a devastating blow to anti-democratic forces within our government by sending Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell back to the minority,” wrote Jess McIntosh.
Merrick Garland, who was denied even a hearing by McConnell when President Barack Obama nominated him for the US Supreme Court seat now filled by Justice Neil Gorsuch, was promptly picked by Biden to be his attorney general. “I hope he swallows the pill of that memory every single day before he strides down the hallway of the Department of Justice, not because any attorney general must seek vengeance, but because he has a moral, legal and ethical responsibility to understand and prevent injustice when he seeks justice on behalf of the people of the United States,” wrote Laura Coates. “All of them.”
The lesson of the runoffs, wrote Van Jones, is “not just that President Donald Trump has largely undermined and ruined the Republican Party. It is also that progressive grassroots leaders (led overwhelmingly by Black women) have reimagined, recreated and rebuilt the state’s Democratic Party coalition.”
For more on Georgia:
David Axelrod: The courage of Brad Raffensperger
Coronavirus fear and hope
The Capitol riot and Georgia runoffs overshadowed a horrific week of death and disease from the Covid-19 pandemic. On Thursday alone, more than 4,000 Americans died.
In California’s hospitals, the scenes were especially dire. “Thanksgiving, Christmas and now New Year’s celebrations that shouldn’t have happened have now led to countless Covid infections that are claiming their victims and testing our endurance,” wrote ER doctor Haig Aintablian. “No doctor I know has ever seen a situation like this outside of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or war. Our hospitals have so many Covid patients fighting to survive that they have overwhelmed our ICUs and led to overflow units that were never designed for such patients.”
Infectious disease expert Dr. Kent Sepkowitz noted that, “even the brutal fact that it has killed more than 1.8 million people globally, including 350,000 in the US, has failed to sway some. We continue to have inconsistent acceptance of basic public health measures, as if the recommendations were an assault on free choice, a capitulation to a bunch of whimpering scientists with their fake news graphs and charts.”
Vaccines are our best hope, he wrote. If more than half of the people are vaccinated, Sepkowitz observed, “rather than a runaway pandemic, we would see occasional small and moderate-sized outbreaks here and there, similar to what we see with measles, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable infections almost every year. It’s terrible and tragic and unnecessary – but it’s not on the same scale as the current historic pandemic.”
Ariel Dorfman: What Trump has made blindingly clear to America
Julian Zelizer: What we forget about Jimmy Carter’s legacy
Albert Thakur grew up as an immigrant from India on New York’s Long Island. He’d sit on his grandfather’s lap watching “Jeopardy!,” hosted by Alex Trebek. “He made English more comprehensible to a new ear like mine.”
This fall, Thakur got a chance to meet the man who helped shape his life when he appeared on “Jeopardy!” and thanked Trebek, then battling the cancer that would kill him days later. “Holding a smile and a twinkle in his eye, he always upheld a mantle of humility,” Thakur wrote. “And anyone could see the joy in his face while we played…
“We, as Americans, are living in arguably the most divisive time in our history. But I saw how the video of Alex and me, and then his death, brought people together in the best way, in an American way.”