The most important power in the world and the oldest democracy lost control of its own capital on Wednesday. The storming of the US legislature by a right-wing mob suspended its activities, forced elected politicians into hiding and, although details remain sparse, it cost lives. US institutions have been attacked before. But never at the instigation of his own president.
As the chaos spread, Donald Trump did not categorically lament the violence he helped unleash from his own supporters. Some of his lawmakers then challenged Joe Biden’s certification as his successor, on the same misleading grounds that led to the riot.
An event can be shocking and completely predictable all at once. To suggest that it has been coming since November, when Mr Trump contested his election defeat, the case is too feeble. Even before election day, he suggested any loss would be due to electoral fraud. And before that, he’d spent years encouraging the wildest elements of the right through gestures and innuendo. It’s tempting to view Wednesday as the culmination of his inflammatory political career. Despite Mr Trump’s belated promise early on Thursday of an “ orderly transition, ” there may be two weeks to go before his presidency.
It’s up to Congress, other members of its administration, and especially the Republican Party, to avert that fate. Options that were exotic at the start of the week are now commonplace in Washington discourse. One is the exercise of the 25th amendment to the constitution, which allows for the removal of an “incapable” president. Mike Pence, the vice president, would then see the rest of the Trump term.
Another course is to wrap up the unfinished business from a year ago. Trump was impeached in the 2016 election for offenses related to foreign interference, but was subsequently acquitted in the Senate. Many Democratic lawmakers are now proposing a new effort because of its part in Wednesday’s unrest. The hope is that enough Republican senators will find their conscience to form a super majority for condemnation. Impeachment has the advantage of barring Mr. Trump from another run on the presidency.
Neither approach guarantees order. Each would increase the unwarranted sense of expropriation from the far right. Trump doesn’t even need a formal office to set them on fire. Ideally, public outrage over the Capitol Hill attack would cause agitators to calm down or even reconsider. This would allow the country to continue until Mr Biden’s inauguration on January 20th.
However, it is no longer wise to count on that luck. First of all, unfit for office, Trump becomes more dangerous, not less, with time. And there is too much left to just wait for it. Of the limited options available, initiating an impeachment procedure is the least bad. Even if it fails, it would at least send a moral signal.
The attack on the seat of American democracy confirmed what should have been evident years ago. America has a national security problem in the form of the far right. This closed world of disinformation, paranoia and grievances is backed by mainstream conservatives: public office holders, cable news anchors. The costs are becoming increasingly apparent.
The domestic threat is overlapped by the geopolitical shame. China will never find it easier to mock democracy as a charter for chaos. Even Turkey tweeted its concern about America’s civil peace. Strengthening its democracy, and thus its reputation in the world, will take the US years of work. It could start with formal action against a rogue president. A man despaired of “American massacre” turned on a different kind. He shouldn’t cause anymore.