Updated at 6:06 p.m. ET on January 6, 2021.
Insurrectionists are attacking the seat of American government in an attempted coup, urged on by the president of the United States. Saying that feels melodramatic, ridiculous, and overwrought, but there’s no plainer way to describe what is currently unfolding.
Tens of thousands of supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered in Washington, D.C., where he encouraged them to attend a rally as Congress began to ceremonially certify the Electoral College victory of President-elect Joe Biden. After a speech by the president, protesters overran security at the Capitol building, which seemed unprepared for the onslaught. They knocked over barricades, pushed past cordons of officers, and broke windows. Some carried Confederate battle flags as they got much closer to the heart of the U.S. government than any Confederate troops ever did.
Photojournalists captured images of guards with guns drawn, trying to hold the mob off at the doors of the House chambers. Insurrectionists entered the House and Senate chambers, standing on the dais in both, and roamed through the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. NBC News reported that one woman died after being shot inside the Capitol.
The mob disrupted the Constitution, halting certification as required by the document. The Senate and House chambers were locked down, Vice President Mike Pence was whisked away, and demonstrators roamed the halls of Congress. Tear gas was reportedly released inside the Capitol Rotunda, and members were told to don gas masks stored under their seats.
This attempted coup is Trump’s fault. “This is what the president has caused today, this insurrection,” Mitt Romney told a reporter. It will not work—police may have been unprepared, but they will regain their footing. There’s no apparent endgame for the mob. Those involved in the attack can and should be held responsible, but the president bears the ultimate blame. He has spent two months insisting to his supporters that the election was stolen in an undemocratic fraud. This is not true—the claim has been conclusively debunked and rejected in court after court.
The participants in the coup ought to know better, but they were lied to by the president of the United States. If what Trump was saying were true, members of Congress would have a patriotic duty to do all they could to save the election, and his supporters would have a patriotic duty to defend the rightful government. But Trump has lied repeatedly and brazenly, practically commanding his supporters to mount an uprising, and now they have done as he asked. “This attack on our Capitol will not be tolerated and those involved will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Pence tweeted. He could start with his boss.
Some of Trump’s allies in Congress share blame. While the mob overran security, Republicans were casting doubt on the outcome of the election in the House and Senate. Senator Ted Cruz sent a fundraising text boasting about his attempt to overturn the election in the midst of the melee.
As the chaos spread, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “This is wrong and not who we are.” But this is exactly who the members of the Trump clique are. The president and his circle have mounted a four-year assault on the rule of law, and this is the logical end of both that tendency and the president’s specific words. Indeed, the president continued to fuel the fire throughout the afternoon. He first raged at Pence, who said he did not have the power to overturn the vote, and said, “USA demands the truth!” He added, in another tweet, “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” Later, demonstrating his tendency to view himself more as the leader of the Republican Party than of the nation, he added, “Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order—respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue.” Trump did not, however, call on the protesters to leave.
Later in the afternoon, Trump released a video in which he called on the mob to “go home and go home in peace” but did not condemn its behavior, instead saying, “We love you; you’re very special.” (The moment echoed his coddling of white-supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.) Moreover, the president once again made false claims that the election had been stolen fraudulently, repeating the same incitement that set off the violence.
By contrast, Biden decried the attack during brief remarks. “I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward,” he said. “It’s not protest. It’s insurrection.” He also called on Trump to go on national television “to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution.”
But clearly Trump has little intention of doing any of that. At least one person is reportedly dead, more will be hurt, and others may die as a result of today’s events. That’s what happens during attempted coups. Trump has been warned, including by Republican officials, that his words would get people killed, but he has paid them no heed. Trump himself is not present. Earlier today, he said he would march to the Capitol with his supporters, but instead he retreated to the White House, preferring not to get his hands dirty.
For four years, Trump’s critics have been accused of hysteria and hyperbole for describing his movement as fascist, authoritarian, or lawless. Today, as Congress attempts to certify the election of a new president, the president has vindicated those critics. In attempting this coup, Trump has also vindicated the Americans who voted decisively in November to remove him from office.