Perhaps it’s time to begin talking about how long an outgoing president can remain in office.
America is the only sizable democracy that allows its outgoing chief executive to linger in office for two and a half months. Up north, Canadians do the handover in about two weeks; the French give the old president less than 10 days to clear out his desk; the British do it in a few days; and the Australians give the loser a day to clear out.
Can you imagine a company allowing a C.E.O. to hang around for more than two months after he’s been fired? It just wouldn’t happen. Even if you lose your job managing a Staples, you’re out the door that day with your possessions in a box.
And Trump is the very last person you’d want loitering on the premises—especially one with the nuclear codes. He may well have done more harm to American democracy since the election than he did in the previous four years. Trump’s the ex-boyfriend who won’t return your key; he’s the boss who hangs around the front entrance after he’s been sacked; he’s the drunk who smashes the window as he’s being tossed out of the bar; and he’s the perfect excuse to trim this uniquely American presidential timeline back.
Can you imagine a company allowing a C.E.O. to hang around for more than two months after he’s been fired?
His base, a motley collection of kooks, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists, are the advance troops of America’s lunatic fringe. They’ve always been with us. But they’ve been kept where they belong, on the fringe. With Trump—and with assists from the Republican high command, the filthy Trump spawn, Facebook, Twitter, and right-wing TV news—their nuttiness has moved into the center. Wednesday gave the fringe the opportunity to turn the sanctum of American democracy into their own Circus Maximus. (In other news that day, America reached a daily record of close to 4,000 deaths due to the coronavirus.)
It was gratifying to see that even some Fox News anchors expressed shock and dismay at the mob violence inside the Capitol. And yet a few right-wing commentators managed to find ways to suggest it wasn’t Trump’s fault. That night, Laura Ingraham, along with other right-wing blowhards, began claiming that some of the insurrectionists didn’t look like Trump supporters, suggesting that Antifa infiltrators could have instigated the violence. Wait: now the riot was rigged?
The mob took the Capitol seemingly without much resistance. If a gang of overweight, middle-aged white men in hoodies can storm the halls of government with such ease, one can only imagine what a band of trained, well-equipped terrorists would accomplish.
Wednesday gave the fringe the opportunity to turn the sanctum of American democracy into their own Circus Maximus.
We shook our heads at the gilets jaunes protesters who caused havoc on the streets of France. But in interviews those rebels had much more on the ball. They were more articulate, healthier, better educated, and less paranoid and conspiracy-minded than their American counterparts. Most of the Trump protesters—rigged out in Confederate flags, Trump banners, Viking horns, toy-store tricorns, and raccoon caps—looked like the human leftovers from an all-night Halloween party.
Some of the insurgents told reporters they were fighting to take their country back from “socialism,” but, tellingly, they weren’t burning down Bernie Sanders’s house or the Democratic National Committee headquarters, or a Black Lives Matter monument. They were attacking a Republican-led Senate that has done the president’s bidding and that was doing nothing to improve their lives or fix the social and financial inequities that keep them in arrears.
And not all paranoia about a self-perpetuating Establishment elite is crazy: in the middle of the Capitol mayhem, the architects of the ill-prepared, disastrous invasion of Iraq took to cable-news shows to whitewash their own records. Coming from anyone else, George W. Bush’s assessment that those who attacked the Capitol were “inflamed by falsehoods” would be fine. But he misled the country into war, not a riot. Bush’s former secretary of state Colin Powell, who in 2003 knew the evidence of W.M.D. was trumped-up and didn’t admit it, told NBC how much better he would have protected the Capitol. Michael Chertoff, who as Bush’s homeland-security secretary famously bungled the Hurricane Katrina response, blamed the Capitol Police for their lack of foresight, saying, “A five-year-old would know this would be a center of focus here.”
You didn’t need to see footage of rioters in MAGA hats rampaging through the Capitol to know that something terrible and momentous was happening. On the Senate floor, Mitt Romney’s Brylcreemed coif was untrimmed and askew, and Lindsey Graham, the twangy Talleyrand of Republican politics, flipped sides again, breaking with the candidate he had once opposed and excoriated, then, after Trump won, defended and unctuously flattered. With only two weeks left to the Trump presidency, Graham pirouetted again: he slammed the president (“Enough is enough”) and started making goo-goo eyes at Joe Biden.
Coming from anyone else, George W. Bush’s assessment that those who attacked the Capitol were “inflamed by falsehoods” would be fine.
The Capitol Hill carnage was a humiliating sight, but Republicans needed to see it. It took them almost four years to accept—or care—that Trump cannot be shamed. It turns out that the only way to silence this president is to let him embarrass the country so deeply that even his craven advisers quit, Twitter and Facebook lock his accounts, foreign allies wince and look away, and enemies such as Iran and Russia gleefully say, “Told you so.”
What Americans saw was the America as it is now seen by much of the world—not as a democratic superpower managing the peace but as a sad, depleted country at war with itself. And what’s driving the division is not an ideological dispute so much as a class divide, so deep and insurmountable that the most discontented of the have-nots literally scaled the walls of government to defy their own leaders.
Lawmakers acted surprised by the uprising. Which is a mystery, since the whole thing had been organized online and Trump had goaded his fans to action as far back as mid-December, when he tweeted: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump’s legal Cerberus Rudy Giuliani and his prim Mini-Me, Trump Jr., also hyped the coming onslaught.
Congress has a 2,000-person police force. If you watched the mayhem on television, you’d be hard-pressed to have seen their presence. There’s more security at a Celine Dion concert. For the most part, the Capitol Hill cops were milling around holding doors, helping people down the stairs, and posing for selfies with the invaders. Where was the fortified army that protected government buildings by battling Black Lives Matter protesters in June with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons?
Where was the D.C. fire department? On a day when the temperature was in the low 40s, nothing changes the tempo of a riot faster than thousands of gallons of ice-cold water being sprayed from fire hoses. As an Onion headline put it: D.C. Police Lose Control Of Rioting Trump Supporters After Hundreds Of Officers Called Away To Deal With Black Jaywalker.
Trump being Trump, he hollered the battle charge in the morning then led from behind, tucked safely away in the White House, a bit less than two miles from his inflamed rabble. To paraphrase Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union, Trump’s a tragedy wrapped in a farce inside an enema.
America’s grifter finally got the crowd size he wanted, though. And those tiny hands have blood on them.