Politics

The Capitol Riots Were the Physical Manifestation of Four Years of Trump’s Norms-Shredding

A chaotic scene on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with police officers in tactical gear facing off against a large group of rioters.
Police make their way through protesters at the U.S. Capitol Building on Wednesday. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed Wednesday’s appalling events at the Capitol. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: There’s a tweet from writer Damon Linker that captures some of what I feel about Wednesday. Linker wrote, “The danger of Trump’s incapacity to accept his loss has never been that he would succeed in staying in power after losing the election, it was that he would tear the country apart trying to turn the fantasy into reality.” And that is, of course what happened. On Wednesday, everybody was saying, “Oh, I never thought I would see this happen.” But of course we should have known, because all the steps we’ve taken down this terrible path with this impossibly horrible person as our president have led to where we ended up yesterday.

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Emily Bazelon: It was shocking, whether or not it was surprising. There were a lot of warnings on right-wing social media, so in that sense, it shouldn’t have been a big surprise. But seeing the Capitol breached felt like a desecration. I’m not a big symbols person, but my grandparents lived in Washington from the ‘40s until their deaths, and I realized I had a pretty deep attachment to the notion that there was a sacred-for-our-democracy place, the Capitol, where we were going to see the machinery of democracy operate. I was really looking forward to the Electoral College count, given how much uncertainty there has been. And to have it so violently, disgustingly disrupted, I was really sad.

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John Dickerson: One of the reasons we have these traditions, all this pomp and circumstance is that it affirms the traditions and norms we’ve been talking about having been shredded for the last four years. To physically see it desecrated is the physical manifestation of what we’ve seen over the last four years.

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We’ve been talking about this since election night: It’s the coming home to roost, not just of what the president was saying with respect to this specific day, lying to his supporters, then telling them to come to Washington. It’s the ugly flower of four years of changing the very nature of truth, of enablers rewriting the obvious meaning of what the president says to be something more benign, and essentially profiting from playing footsie with the forces that broke the windows in the Capitol on Wednesday.

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I sometimes use this weird expression about “burning democratic furniture.” What I meant is the furniture of democracy, which is still a weird thing to say, but when you allow this kind of behavior to go forward, you end up burning the stuff that is at the very heart of the democratic process. That’s what happened.

Bazelon: It was so frustrating because there’ve been so many warnings along the way. The enablers in the Republican Party who went down this road with President Trump–including in the past week, Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn–they are supposed to be leaders. They were saying, “My constituents believe the election was a fraud.” Well, they believe that because you are not standing up to them and telling them otherwise!

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Right-wing media is absolutely to blame for this as well. For me, one of the most moving moments late Wednesday night was Mitt Romney saying this from the Senate floor:

What happened here today was an insurrection incited by the president of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. Fairly or not, there’ll be remembered for their role in the shameful episode in American history. No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters, particularly when the president will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth.

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But then we just returned to Republicans objecting to the election results from Pennsylvania and Arizona, when there’s just no evidence that would make that a viable, responsible thing to do. It is so deeply irresponsible.

Plotz: The best way you can show respect to these voters is to tell them the truth. The president who cannot tell the truth under any circumstances didn’t do it. Enablers is a very weak word. These aren’t enablers. They’re co-conspirators, they’re collaborators. These are collaborators with a seditious enterprise designed to destroy the very structure of how America is governed. I’m sure Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz will remain senators, I’m sure they will be re-elected, I’m sure they will both run for president. It is entirely possible one of them will be president. But it’s a national shame, and they should be expelled from the Senate.

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Dickerson: One of the things that has irritated me so much about the supporters of the president who have created the permission structure to gloss over the things that he’s done is that whenever you try to hold the president to a verifiable standard—and remember, this is the party that was most obsessed with maintaining standards in public life—they would say: “You’re so out of touch. You don’t understand that his supporters see him fighting for them.” As if that was the only important fact you needed to know! This essentially meant that nothing Donald Trump did could be wrong, because his supporters validated it. That would have made the founders spin in their graves with enough power to keep the lights on in a Northeastern city. And yet that standard, “I can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and my supporters will still support me,” overtook the Republican Party.

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Plotz: He has been a terrible advocate for his supporters’ causes. He’s opposed things that would help them. He fights for himself. The inability of his supporters to separate his self-interest from their self-interest isn’t unique. People always do that. But he doesn’t fight for them. He never has fought for them. That’s what’s so sick about it. It’s a populism that serves not the populace, but serves the one.

Bazelon: We saw that Wednesday when he said, “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I’ll be there with you.” And then he was nowhere to be found. And the people who listened to him are in big trouble, or they should be.

For the full episode of the Political Gabfest, in which Dickerson, Plotz, and Bazelon also discuss the historic Georgia Senate results, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or listen below.

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