Among the more striking images taken the day of the last presidential inauguration, on Jan. 20, 2017, were those showing President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greeting President-elect Donald Trump and future First Lady Melania Trump at the White House.
The Trumps pulled to the entrance to the West Wing in a limo. Hugs, kisses, handshakes and pats on the back were exchanged. Mrs. Trump handed Mrs. Obama a blue Tiffany box wrapped in a white satin ribbon. They posed for cameras, turned and headed inside together.
A couple hours later, Trump, who’d created a political brand by questioning Obama’s legitimacy as a U.S. citizen and later built a campaign on crass attacks on Obama’s competency as president, would take the oath of office. But in those moments prior to his inauguration, any bad blood between them was belied by ceremony and tradition. Such are the transitions in power from one president to the next that we Americans have come to expect.
Who knows what this year’s Inauguration Day will bring two weeks from now? Whatever happens, some of the most searing impressions of this transition were most assuredly burnished Wednesday when a mob whose passions were enflamed at a rally led by Trump himself assaulted the U.S. Capitol.
Chanting, waving Trump campaign banners and Confederate flags and dropping chemical irritants doubtlessly meant to distract police, rioters pushed past barricades and broke into the building as Congress met in joint session to ceremonially certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president. They wandered the halls, vandalized offices and tried to smash their way into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dozens of police were injured in the melee. A 35-year-old woman who crawled through a broken window into the Capitol — and whom her husband has described as an Air Force veteran and ardent Trump supporter — was shot and killed. Three others died from medical emergencies amid the chaos.
Finding words to describe this insurrection is a challenge; members of Congress from both parties did an admirable job Wednesday night. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, resolved to finish certifying the election, said the country and its Congress “have faced down much greater threats than the unhinged crowd we saw today. We’ve never been deterred before, and we will not be deterred today. They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed.”
Trump, who built the mob’s path to our nation’s Capitol from rhetorical bricks made out of allegations and lies about our electoral system, must be held to account. It’s not enough for history to judge the actions of a president who failed to win a second term and is bitter about the result. So must his party and peers.
But what about the rest of us? When will we reckon with the degradation of our political discourse, and the violence we’ve come not only to accept but expect?
Trump has spent more than four years rallying thousands of supporters at a time while stoking hatred toward his political enemies as well as journalists, government and institutions of democracy. Four years ago he moved to Washington vowing to “drain the swamp.”
All of it was antecedent to his warm-up act on the National Mall Wednesday, at a rally where he enlisted supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” before reminding them, “you will never take back our country with weakness.”
The assault on the Capitol that followed was no ordinary protest or act of vandalism. It was a violent attempt to cower members of Congress engaged in their official duty. It was a strike at both the physical “temple of democracy,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, as well as a symbol of our government. It disrupted — though thankfully did not stop — a ritual of our republic devised more than 230 years ago.
That Congress persisted in its work owes to the courage of those we’ve sent to represent us — at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue, anyway. It will take much longer, with more work on the part of our leaders and those of us who elect them, to repair our republic.