Letters From an American

Call a Coup a Coup

Call a Coup a Coup

Trump supporters breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election certification process. (PHOTO BY ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

January 10, 2021

Unbelievably, it was only a week ago—last Sunday — that we learned Trump had called Georgia’s Secretary of State and pressured him to change the results of the 2020 election. Trump demanded that Brad Raffensperger “find” the 11,780 votes Trump needed to win Georgia. The news of the attempt to get an election official to overrule the will of the people was astonishing: at the time, it was the worst domestic attack on our democracy ever, coming, as it did, from a sitting president.

At the time.

Over the past several days, the picture of what happened on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, has become clearer, and it’s bad. While Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser gave a press conference Wednesday night, there has been not a single official briefing from the White House, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, or Capitol Police.

The federal government has gone dark.

What we do know is that on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, egged on by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, Don Jr., and especially Trump himself, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol just as Congress was meeting in joint session to confirm Democrat Joe Biden as our new president. They overpowered the Capitol Police — perhaps with the help of some of the officers — breached the doors, and smashed their way through the historic building, shouting for Vice President Mike Pence — whom Trump insisted was at fault for not overturning the count — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and “traitors” who were counting the electoral votes for Biden. While many of the early pictures from inside the Capitol showed rioters gawking like tourists, ones released this weekend showed violent thugs, carrying plastic handcuffs and seeming to have information about where to find specific members of Congress. They breached the Senate chamber at 2:16, just a minute after the senators made it out.

The Capitol Police got the lawmakers to safety, but were not in control of the building. Lawmakers huddled quietly behind barricaded doors waiting for police that took hours to come. When they did arrive, they cleared the area and regained control of the Capitol. After janitors had cleaned the building, lawmakers counted the electoral votes that established Democrats Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice president of the USA.

As videos have emerged and timelines been established, it has become apparent we came perilously close to seeing our elected representatives taken hostage or even executed on the makeshift gallows the rioters set up outside the building.

But here’s the thing: these were not outside insurgents; they were supporters of the Republican president. Trump enflamed the insurgents but he did not create them: years of demonizing Democrats and suggesting they must not be allowed to govern did that. As NPR reporter Kirk Siegler noted, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, infamous for years of standoffs with the federal government, wrote on Facebook that Trump “pointed towards Congress and nodded his head… [and said] go get the job done.” Republicans are now caught in a vise of their own making. They have to stand either with their own voters or with democracy.

The night of the attack, more than 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives and several senators, led by Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), continued to endorse Trump’s lies by voting to reject the electoral votes for Biden in key states. The next day, Trump’s supporters tried to argue that the rioters were “Antifa,” despite their Trump garb and the fact Trump invited them, incited them, urged them to go to the Capitol, and after the riot told them he loved them. (An AP investigation establishes that they were right-wing agitators.) When that didn’t take, supporters tried “whataboutism,” comparing the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer to the storming of the Capitol.

They are trying to rewrite the history of this week to downplay that we have suffered an attempted coup that killed at least five people, and that the people behind it are still in the highest levels of our government.

The realization that we are in the midst of a coup, abetted by Trump’s use of social media, prompted Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to ban Trump permanently, and to take down QAnon accounts. That, not the Capitol attack and the murder of a police officer, has created outrage among Trump, who is allegedly “ballistic,” and Trump supporters. Republican lawmakers spent the weekend noting how many followers they were losing as Twitter took down QAnon, Nazi, and fake accounts. (Trump opponents noted that this was not actually a good thing to call attention to.) Parler has lost almost all of its supporting businesses and might go out of business itself.

Democrats are appalled by what Trump has wrought, and they are joined by plenty of Republicans. In the National Review, for example, Ed Whelan called the Capitol attack “an outrage that ought to have every genuinely patriotic American seething with anger.” He blamed Trump for inciting the attack, and said that “impeachment and conviction of Trump is an appropriate, and probably a necessary, response.”

In a powerful video, former Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger called the Capitol attack the American equivalent to Kristallnacht, which marked the beginning of German Nazis’ systemic destruction of the Jews. To puncture the idea that the sort of behavior on display on Wednesday was manly, Schwarzenegger told the private story of his abuse at the hands of his father, who had been swept up in the Nazi movement in Austria, and celebrated the sword from his starring role in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian as a symbol not of toxic masculinity but of democracy, tempered by adversity. He called on all Americans to rally around Biden and to work to make his administration a success.

White House appointees’ resignations show which way the wind is blowing. Trump’s former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney took to Fox News Sunday to say he had no idea that people might actually do something like attack the Capitol. “People took him literally,” Mulvaney told MSNBC. “I never thought I’d see that.”

Similarly, the rioters themselves, once found and arrested, are either apologizing and saying they were swept up in the moment, or denying they were part of the mob. One man apologized for his “indiscretion.”

Both Marriott, the world’s largest hotel chain, and health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield have suspended their donations to lawmakers who voted against the counting of Biden’s electoral votes late Wednesday or early Thursday morning. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project has promised to target companies that donate to any lawmakers who voted against the counting of the electoral votes. Hitting closer to Trump, Stripe, the vendor that handles online credit card payments for Trump’s campaign, has announced it will no longer handle his account. And tonight, the Professional Golfers Association of America Board of Directors took the 2022 PGA Championship away from Trump Bedminster, his New Jersey club.

At the end of last week, Democratic leaders set out a three-part plan to punish the president for inciting an insurrection. They gave Pence an option to begin the process of invoking the 25th Amendment, which, considering the president had tried to get him killed, was not necessarily a long shot. Pence refused. They gave McConnell the weekend to convince Trump to resign. Trump refused. They announced that, if both of those things failed, they would begin impeachment proceedings on Monday.

McConnell promptly noted that the Senate could not take up such a proceeding until the day before Biden’s inauguration at the earliest. He is bargaining. It is possible to hold an impeachment trial even after a president is out of office, but he knows that Biden does not want the beginning of his term crowded with more Trump business, especially as coronavirus is raging and Biden wants to get it under control. McConnell doesn’t want Republicans to have to vote either for or against the president because such a vote will slice the Republicans in two and make it clear that some of them stand for insurrection. In the Senate, only Republicans Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Pat Toomey (R-PA) have endorsed impeachment.

McConnell is hoping Pelosi will blink and the moment will pass.

She will not, and it will not. She notes, correctly, that the president is “an imminent threat” to “our Constitution and our Democracy,” and she is trying to give the Republicans cover to do the right thing. Tonight, she announced that the House tomorrow will begin proceedings on a resolution by Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) calling on Pence to mobilize the Cabinet to activate the 25th Amendment within 24 hours. If he declines, the House will turn to impeachment. She has asked for unanimous consent for the resolution to enable the Republicans to avoid a vote. If they refuse, the measure will go forward the next day anyway.

She also fired a shot across the bow of Republican lawmakers by asking her colleagues for their views on the third section of the 14th Amendment, the one that prohibits anyone who “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States, “or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof,” from serving in Congress.

As I watch Republican lawmakers try to slip away from the crisis they have made, I think of Black Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, armed only with a nightstick, luring the insurgents in the wrong direction to buy the time Senators needed to escape with their lives.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.

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