The emotional high point of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial probably came in its first hours.
Closing out the opening presentation from the Democratic House managers, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland offered a powerful speech in which he choked back tears as he recalled the attempted coup of January 6. The speech was poignant for personal reasons—as members of Congress know, and as my colleague John Hendrickson wrote last month, Raskin’s son, Tommy, had died by suicide just days before the insurrection—and because, no matter how heartfelt it was, it is unlikely to have much effect on Trump’s expected acquittal. (Indeed, later in the afternoon, the Senate voted 56-44 to proceed with the trial—only one Republican having been swayed by the day’s argument to reverse his vote from an earlier procedural motion.)
But Raskin’s speech framed the attack on the Capitol fomented by Trump not just as a technical matter or a violation of law, but as a violation of something the nation holds sacred.
Raskin recalled the horror of January 6. “All around me people were calling their wives and their husbands, their loved ones, to say goodbye,” he said. But his focus was not on the fear he and others felt but on what was left after the riot. Raskin described two low points from that day. One was his daughter’s reaction. She had come to the Capitol and taken shelter under a table, fearing for her life. After the rioters were expelled, Raskin apologized and told her it wouldn’t be like this the next time she visited the Capitol.
“She said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol,’” he said. “Of all the terrible, brutal things I saw and heard on the day and since then, that one hit me the hardest.”
The other moment, he said, was “watching someone use an American-flag pole, with the flag still on it, to spear and pummel one of our police officers—ruthlessly, mercilessly tortured by a pole with a flag on it that he was defending with his very life.”
These two vignettes struck a tone that has been rarely heard in recent American political life. One essential theme of the Trump presidency was that practically nothing is sacred—not norms, not alliances, not the rule of law, not common decency. (President Joe Biden’s inaugural address traded in religion-inflected rhetoric that would have felt banal in the past, but that was bracing after four years of Trump.) Raskin’s expression of reverence for the flag is also unusual among today’s Democratic politicians, who tend to treat such overt paeans as jingoistic.
Yet the idea that an American citizen would be afraid of or repulsed by the idea of visiting the Capitol does strike against something sacred, as does the image of an officer defending that space while being attacked with the country’s flag. Raskin is not alone in this sense. In a video shot by the New Yorker writer Luke Mogelson, a Capitol Police officer, outnumbered, pleaded with rioters to leave the floor of the Senate: “I just want to let you guys know, this is, like, the sacredest place.” And in National Review, the former Trump-administration staffer Mario Loyola wrote, “That hallowed ground was violated today by an unspeakable sacrilege that will redound to President Trump’s shame for all time.”
The Capitol is not necessarily a pleasant place—angry exchanges and corrupt agreements happen there all the time. But it is intended to be a place that belongs to Americans, and one where battles are fought with words and not weapons. (There is a reason the historical exceptions to this are notorious.) The sanctity of the space matters because it is a physical representation of constitutional government.
In seeking to overturn the election and then inciting an insurrection, Trump attacked the physical forms and structures of American government. But the crowd that stormed the Capitol also struck at its intangible heart. If Raskin’s speech resonated with many who listened, it was because they shared his sense that what happened on January 6 wasn’t just a crime—it was an act of sacrilege.