Updated at 6:48 a.m. ET on January 7, 2021.
The U.S. government is relatively coup-proof because, like the president who heads its executive branch, it is bloated and sluggish, and due to its sheer inertia, resistant to being jostled far out of position. That does not stop some from occasionally trying—and yesterday a crowd of deranged seditionists, encouraged by specific Republican officials, took a hard run at the government and tried to knock it down. It did not fall, and today the sun rose. Let’s see what we’ve learned.
(1) The president is still a coward. Donald Trump’s attempt on Saturday to hector Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into committing election fraud, released by The Washington Post, revealed that he believed every conspiracy theory about the election and—like some kind of idiot savant—had mastered even small details without developing any higher mental function. He really believes that dark forces have stolen his victory, and when he incites his followers to behave accordingly, he asks them to supply courage where his own is lacking. This limitation was always going to stop him from waging a civil war. A man who has spent his life avoiding situations that would demand physical courage, and despising those who have it, will be at his most cowardly in a moment like this.
Contrast his cowardice with the courage of some of the people he sent into battle on his behalf. Ashli Babbitt, 35, became the first martyr for the cretinous religion of QAnon. A 14-year veteran of the Air Force, she was shot point-blank by a plainclothes security officer while in the act of lunging over a barricade of furniture in an interior section of the Capitol. (She was at the front of an armed insurrectionist mob. That officer could reasonably expect that she was not lunging to shake his hand.) Lunging at a man who is pointing a gun at you is suicidally brave, and I suspect that Babbitt—like Trump, apparently—believed all the stupid tales she promoted. The difference is that she died for them, and around the same time, Trump spent nearly half an hour hiding from former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
(2) The republic stands undefended against internal enemies. If you do not regularly enter the Capitol, you might think it is guarded like a prison for supervillains, with many layers of security and hidden barracks of perimeter-defense teams who can mobilize and fend off a mob. In fact, it is only slightly more heavily guarded than an international airport. (I like it that way. The building belongs to me and to you, and I want it to be as open as possible.) Whoever was in charge of anticipating threats to yesterday’s proceedings failed to understand that large numbers of citizens feel that they can disrupt the basic functions of our democracy with impunity. The photographs of a QAnon supporter, shirtless and wearing a pelt, posing at the rostrum of the president of the Senate suggest that these people think they will be Instagram-famous. They should be in prison.
(3) The coup attempt did not begin when the crowds started smashing the windows of the Capitol. It started an hour earlier, when Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, complained—without even the pretense of a legitimate case—that his state’s Electoral College votes had been stolen. To lodge a complaint, even without merit, is Gosar’s right, as it is Senator Ted Cruz’s, or Senator Josh Hawley’s. It was also Hawley’s right to encourage the crowd that would later breach the Capitol, as he did, pumping a fist at them as he went in to take his stand against American democracy. I do not believe that any of these men thought their chambers would be overrun, or that a woman would be shot. But they started yesterday’s whole sick show, and Congress should censure or expel them for their role. For more than four years, we have wondered when the ever-elusive “Have you no shame?” moment would come. Senator Mitt Romney has begun summoning that dudgeon, and if he continues to dish it, other Republican senators will join faster than some might expect. (Senator Mitch McConnell’s speech, resuming the Senate’s business after the sack of the Capitol, was the senator at his dry and humorless best, without an ounce of patience for the “thugs, mobs, [and] threats” from the “insurrection” and “unhinged crowd” that had obstructed Congress.)
(4) The coup attempt went nowhere, and no one who knows anything about coups would mistake it for one that got within a thousand yards of success. Did I detect a note of excitement when CNN started using terms such as insurrection? What happened yesterday at the Capitol was a coup attempt, but with more characteristics of a riot with impunity. It matters that this particular riot disturbed the orderly transition of power of the highest office in the country. For that reason, the rioters should be hunted down and imprisoned. But serious attempts to sever the heads of government and replace them with new ones will scare the hell out of you, not just because CNN chooses different nomenclature but because the disorder and uncertainty are palpable even far from the violence itself. You start to look in your shed for gardening implements you can use to brain an intruder. You call family members and make sure they are doing the same. Maybe in the current era you think about your politically incriminating browser history. Successful coups also entail swift mobilization of other centers of power. Statehouse capitols were swarmed—and that was cause for unease. But was the governor of your state confined to his or her home? Were generals relieved of duty? The spectacle at the Capitol should fill you with disgust, even dread, but I did not smell the kind of fear that accompanies a serious coup. (That moment could come, and when it does, you will smell it yourself.)
(5) The biggest loser was Trump. In October I predicted that he would never concede, but that he would pack his bags and leave the White House on schedule. Muzzled by Twitter, Trump issued a statement through Dan Scavino, a White House flack, promising to do just that. Even yesterday afternoon, Trump’s statements suggested that he would leave gracelessly. He looked scared. He should be: His street brawlers started to do things that he could not disavow or take back, and that left his erstwhile Republican supporters repulsed. Every decent person knew that Trumpism would lead somewhere like this, with red-capped mobs befouling the halls of government and terrorizing the very Republicans who had indulged their leader for the past four years. Trump himself, it now seems, did not know that he would eventually own the outcome. He still says the election was stolen, but he wants to take back the consequences of that claim—in particular, by avoiding any nasty scenarios that would involve any physical discomfort, let alone courage, on his own part.
Impeach and convict. The sun is up, and it is not too late to start.