Last Wednesday, the U.S. Capitol was overrun by a mob of Donald Trump supporters. Some of them were armed; some carried flex cuffs, as if planning to restrain hostages; some reportedly attacked a police officer, who later died, with a fire extinguisher.
A number of far-right Republican representatives have, in the past, celebrated the extremist groups (the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and so forth) whose members were among those who occupied the building. Two members, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks and North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House that directly preceded the attack. It is, incredibly, not completely out of the question at the moment to wonder whether there are members of the House who might want to participate in violent action against Democrats, should it occur again. It is in this context that Capitol police are now asking representatives to walk through metal detectors before entering the House floor.
At the same time, the Republican Party is experiencing internal tensions that have few precedents in the modern era of American politics. Current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly considering a vote to convict Donald Trump in the impeachment trial that now looks inevitable, and if McConnell makes that choice, more than a dozen “establishment” Republican senators might be expected to follow. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, says she will be voting to impeach. If Trump is removed with GOP votes, it will be because the party’s previous tolerance of violent extremism has made it toxic to independent voters and corporate donors. There is a divide opening up inside the GOP between the legitimately crazy and the strategically ruthless.
The House metal detectors provide an excessively symbolic means of sorting out who’s on which side. Less than a week after Capitol Police officers were swarmed and bludgeoned, one of them fatally, as they tried to hold back a mob from the chamber, Republican members of Congress were barking at them or shouldering past them at the security checkpoints. Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis told officers that the metal detectors were “bullshit”; Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack shouted something about being “physically restrained”; Idaho Rep. Russ Fulcher was reportedly so “assertive” with a female officer who tried to stop him that she was left on the verge of tears.
As of this point, police and congressional leaders aren’t sanctioning or removing anyone who walks around the detectors or ignores the alert that sounds when they’re set off. Those who cooperate with the security measures anyway might as well be walking into McConnell’s camp. The representatives who evade them, or denounce them as an “atrocity” like Florida Rep. Greg Steube did, are signaling that they’re with the militias.*
As of Wednesday, hard-line right-wingers in the House are already moving to strip Cheney of her position, while multiple outlets are reporting that Republican members who are undecided about impeachment say they are afraid they or their families will be attacked if they vote against Donald Trump. The battle for the party is extremely, unsettlingly close to being literal.
Correction, Jan. 13, 2021: This post originally misspelled Greg Steube’s last name.