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A Sickening Day in American History

The MAGA mob and Republican rebellion on Capitol Hill marked a turning point in this nation’s history—but in which direction?

An angry crowd gathers outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

A dazed feeling, somewhere between nausea and numbness, washed over me Wednesday afternoon. It conjured up the way I felt after the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. And it brought back that horrible morning in 2001 when planes flew into the twin towers.

But never before had I grieved so much for American democracy. The assassinations of the 1960s were rooted in racism and derangement, the 9/11 attacks in religious fundamentalism from the Middle East. But the storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump’s insurrectionists was as American as apple pie—an inside job by my fellow citizens.

For four years, I have avoided resorting to 1930s parallels, tempting as these historical tropes sometimes were. But today all I could think of were the German industrialists who coddled Adolf Hitler for their own cynical reasons. That was my reaction while I watched Ted Cruz’s despicable speech in the Senate, as he tried to delay the electoral vote count, and later when I heard GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy say on Fox News with mock innocence in his voice as thugs roamed the Capitol, “People have taken this too far.”

Even after Joe Biden urged Trump to defuse the violence, even after former White House aides begged the president to speak to the nation, Trump couldn’t do it, even for 60 seconds. With mobs of his supporters rampaging through the Capitol, Trump began his video with these words, “I know your pain. I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen.”

This is a position that the courts have rejected in more than 60 cases. It is a belief that Mitch McConnell forcefully repudiated earlier Wednesday. This was a fantasy that even Mike Pence, the lapdog vice president, couldn’t accept as he adhered to the limits that the Constitution places on him in the counting of electoral votes.

But it was the Trump video—in the midst of an attack on the Capitol that was the worst since the British burned it in 1814—that exposed the delusions of a despot. Watching Trump, it was suddenly impossible to believe that his postelection attacks on democracy were just an act or a money-making grift or a cynical move to undermine the presidency of Joe Biden.

Trump actually believes that a conspiracy that now stretches from Venezuela to the vice president’s office stole the election and robbed him of the presidency.

The continuing danger of a president untethered from reality is that Trump has control of nuclear weapons for another two weeks. And that frightful reality makes me nostalgic for the days when a drunk Richard Nixon careened around the White House talking to portraits of dead presidents.

Trump’s behavior has inspired renewed talk of using the unwieldy provisions of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which allows for the temporary removal of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But deploying the Twenty-Fifth Amendment requires the active participation of Pence and a majority of the Cabinet. Even though CBS News reported Wednesday night there was talk of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in the Cabinet, it probably is not a realistic shield to protect against an unhinged president with just two weeks left in office.

Equally impractical are cries to impeach the president again. Certainly, Trump’s recent behavior—especially his threatening phone call to Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state—is worthy of an impeachment inquiry. But it would be an affront to constitutional norms (not that Trump or his GOP enablers respect them) to ram through an impeachment vote and a Senate trial in two weeks.

So what is to be done?

At a minimum, every Republican officeholder who kept undermining the legitimacy of Biden’s election should be linked with the Capitol mobs for the rest of their political careers.

In 2024, neither Cruz nor his Senate ally Josh Hawley should ever be treated as legitimate presidential candidates. They are not conservatives, but authoritarian opportunists. If there is a future GOP contest for House speaker, commentators and more principled conservatives should contrast McCarthy’s craven postelection behavior with Liz Cheney’s rectitude in acknowledging Biden’s victory.

The hope—and, yes, I’m grasping at straws—is that the events of this week will trigger a permanent rupture in the Republican Party between conservatives and autocrats. They may not disagree on policy, but they do part ways when it comes to respecting tradition and legal order. The GOP’s autocratic wing proved today that it welcomes mob rule and trades in fealty to a supreme leader.

As for Trump, his cuckoo coup attempts in recent days should be seen as the final exit ramp on the road to infamy. He is more likely to be commemorated with a statue at the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, than a bust on Mount Rushmore. The ideal solution would be to find a remote island like St. Helena, Napoleon’s final home, where Trump could live out his days deprived of internet access and cable TV.

Since I will always be a dreamer about democracy, I can fantasize that America’s political leaders—regardless of ideology—saw the abyss during the storming of the Capitol and vowed, “Never again.” That was certainly the mood when the Congress returned to finish the electoral vote count Wednesday night in a brave triumph of normalcy over mob rule.

But while I would like to believe that a permanent commitment to “Never again” is coming, I still can’t shake the feeling, somewhere between numbness and nausea, that the road back to a healthy democracy will be longer and more arduous than I ever imagined.