On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave a speech near the White House in which he denounced the impending congressional tabulation of Electoral College votes and told his supporters to march to the Capitol to demonstrate against the purported theft of his presidency. Then the crowd took over: first by doing what he had asked, then by pushing past police into the building, breaking windows, climbing walls, and forcing lawmakers to suspend proceedings so that they could take protective shelter. The vice president was escorted out of sight by the Secret Service as the president attacked him on Twitter for failing to demand that the election be reheld. Amid circumstances that are still unclear, an unarmed woman believed to be a Trump supporter was shot and killed by a police officer near the House of Representatives chamber.
More than two hours after this violent disruption of the democratic process had begun, the president finally released a short video in which he halfheartedly instructed the mob occupying the Capitol in his name to leave—but also reiterated his conspiratorial claims about election theft and said that he loved and understood the behavior of his supporters. According to the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, the National Guard was mobilized over Trump’s objections after the “intervention” of “White House officials”; CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reports the president was “borderline enthusiastic” about the attack on Congress to a degree that disturbed even his own staff.*
What should be done about this kind of behavior? Twitter and Facebook responded with the extraordinary step of freezing the president’s accounts and taking down the video he posted. Some peripheral administration figures—the first lady’s spokeswoman, the White House social secretary, a deputy press secretary—announced that they are resigning. More consequentially, the national security adviser and deputy national security adviser are reportedly considering doing so as well. There are vague reports that some Republicans are discussing the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, under which an unfit president can be removed from power, or supporting a second impeachment vote.
The assumption underneath all of this, seemingly confirmed by a leaked Wednesday email in which Jared Kushner’s father told a friend that Trump’s actions are “beyond our control,” is that the president has gotten untethered; there is no longer anyone at all to mediate, even in a craven or enabling way, between his impulses and those of his most delusional, violent supporters. And with his social media accounts shut down, we lack even the usual level of awful access to the pattern of his thoughts. The man who is nothing but performance has been cut off from the audience that gives him shape and meaning.
What is the president doing? Is there a president right now, really? The safety line has gone slack in the cave, and we are all waiting to see what kind of thing will come back out.
Correction, Jan. 7, 2020: This post originally misspelled Kaitlan Collins’ first name.