For that reason, shocking though it was to see an insurrectionist mob storm the U.S. Capitol this week, it also seemed as if the Trump train had reached its final destination. Previewing the rally that took place before the assault, Trump tweeted that it would be “wild.”
So much for his campaign theme celebrating “law and order.” A rally can be “wild” or it can be lawful and orderly, but it’s tough to see how it can be both. (On Friday night, Twitter took the extraordinary step of permanently suspending his account.)
Read: It was supposed to be so much worse
Speaking to his supporters at the rally Wednesday morning, Trump said: “We’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and -women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
What did he believe might happen once they reached the seat of government? Congress was inside counting the final votes formalizing Joe Biden’s victory—votes that would uphold what Trump has baselessly told them was a fraudulent election. A more combustible situation would be hard to fathom. He could have instead told them to disperse, because what many of them want is something the U.S. political system can’t possibly deliver. They’re not tethered to democratic norms that call for compromise and conciliation. What they’re asking for can’t be accommodated in a lawful government serving one nation.
Outside the Capitol on Wednesday, I watched as a line of police in riot gear marched single file toward the melee. “Traitors get the rope!” one man shouted at them. Another stood near the west front and screamed: “They stole your election, and now they’re going to kill you! So you better stand up! I’m going to get my reinforcements!” A man shouted epithets at a television cameraperson, who patiently tried to explain that he was a reporter covering a story. “We’re the news!” another shouted at him. A 34-year-old who’d come up from Florida told me he had gotten inside the Capitol and spent an hour there before police escorted him out. “Why did you come?” I asked. I figured he’d say he wanted to somehow block Biden from becoming president and usher in a second term for Trump. The demands went well beyond even that antidemocratic outcome. He wanted to see a “peaceful separation of the country.” (Someone else who might want to see the United States splinter: Vladimir Putin.)
I’d been hearing similar fantasies long before the MAGA army overran Capitol Police and flooded inside. In September, two months before the election, I spoke with Trump supporters at a rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. One man parroted a claim that Trump has been making: that he could lose the election to Biden only if it were rigged.